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Why Happily Ever After is Not so Happy

March 11, 2021

There are lessons that recur for me. I see them in others as well as myself. My particular scenario is the tension between doing and not doing. The question I catch myself asking is do I really have to work this hard? Am I working too hard, or not enough? Why can’t I be allowed to enjoy the spoils of my toil?

There have been many times through my life when in the middle of a stretch of hard work I wonder “why?”. Why is this so hard. Why am I doing this? Am I on the track to achieve my goal? And here I am again, in the middle of working.

I just finished a grueling contract. I was putting in 50+ hours for the last eight weeks on top of seeing my coaching clients and doing a modest effort for marketing that business. There wasn’t a lot of room mentally or physically for other efforts. When I wasn’t working, I was recovering and preparing to return to work.

I am writing this during the second day after the contract ended enjoying the slower pace, the reduced demands, the less complicated life. It felt good yesterday and I know if I were to repeat yesterday every day this week, which I could, I would experience an increasing restlessness and my enjoyment would be decreasing. So why does this happen? Why does doing “nothing” become unsatisfying? In my case it is the choice to work is not about the money as I have retirement savings. Why then do we seek out work?

Some would claim doing anything is better than doing nothing. Even better, they will say having a purpose is the key. Feeling they have a contribution. If these were all that it is, then why don’t I go be a greeter at a big box store, volunteer at a golf course to get a free round of golf, or drive for meals on wheels? Those are low stress roles and provide some value. If it is about being happy, then doing anything is not the satisfying answer.

How do I find happiness?

To begin, we each have our own tolerance levels for doing nothing and working hard. The tolerance or capacity varies through our lives and to a certain degree is influenced by our environment. I subscribe to the idea that there are three components within every task we do which will impact our achieving sustained happiness. I treat it as an algebraic-like formula in which each component is a variable and we are having to determine the combination to create balance in the equation and in our happiness.

The formula offered by Martin Seligman is [(Finding something that gives me pleasure) + (Level of effort of the work) + (Purpose) = (Sustained Happiness)]. Let’s apply this formula to my first day after the contract ends and the pressure to meet deadlines is lifted.

This Monday, I slept through my alarm, had a client meeting, two networking meetings, worked on my taxes and ended early watching a cooking show then attended an evening meeting. It was far from doing nothing. However, I did what had been scheduled and did nothing to schedule future activities. From my perspective I was not operating at a level that would be needed to be productive in my business but was on task for recharging.

I found pleasure in the slower pace low expectation activities and taking the freedom to knock off work early. The level of effort or work during the day was to my liking and met my purpose to recharge. On the whole, this was a day that balanced the equation contributing to my happiness. Repeating Monday’s activities on Tuesday and the rest of the week will alter parts of the equation. My sense of pleasure will diminish, and the importance of the purpose will also loose value. Its like ice cream. There is a point when the pleasure is gone, and you are left eating something cold because of the idea that its good. Without sufficient purpose or pleasure the work will not be enough to retain or grow our happiness.

Today, Tuesday, I am modifying the equation. Coaching and building my coaching business give me pleasure. Pursuit of building a successful coaching business requires work on my part because my professional career was as an employee. There is much for me to learn and perfect to succeed in building a business. My purpose is to do something that helps others and improves our world. My goal, in line with this purpose, is to earn a living helping others while having time and flexibility to travel the world and be in my children’s lives.

The elements of my formula for sustained happiness 1. incorporates my passions and pleasures, 2. will require I put in effort to expand my skills as a coach and business owner, and 3. do all of this in the context of being a contribution to my clients, my communities, and to the world. This can scale to the level of effort and time I have and to the rhythms of my life.

When you find yourself frustrated or questioning your life, consider the elements above and see if there is room to improve, modify or redefine them. This will likely result in restoring your drive and enthusiasm for the challenges in front of you regardless of where you are in your life or the objective you are setting.