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Thursday, May 19, 2016

Three Timeless Behaviors to Achieving Happiness

Although each generation is shaped by the events of the world during their formative years, people have not changed much at least since the origins of written history. The words of ancient philosophers still ring true today.

I often read that Millennials have different values and require different treatment in the workplace in order to be engaged. I believe these issues, such as putting work life balance before making lots of money, are peripheral since at the core every generation is seeking the same things. Perhaps the best one word to describe this life’s goal is “happiness.”

If we were fortunate to have earned a college education, or have a special skill, there is a good chance we are doing something in which we have a passion and interest. Since work makes up most of our waking hours this is obviously important. Although what we do for a living is a big factor in achieving happiness, how we live is perhaps even more important and that often boils down to our human interactions.

Speaking for myself, moments of both high and low happiness have been directly related to how I am getting along with people that are important to me. Although I receive satisfaction after accomplishing a project, the closeness I feel with the team members that made it happen is more real. When a project is completed despite team dysfunction, the feeling of accomplishment is not as great. One feels more of a sense of relief that it is over.

My humble advice to people of any generation seeking happiness is to focus on maximizing the quality of your interactions with others. The other side of this equation is to minimize your personal conflicts. The key question is how.

Two decades ago, I attended a seminar conducted by psychologist Rob Hicks. Rob said something that I will never forget.

 “If you want to live a long and happy life do these three things:
1.      Assume innocence in dealing with others,
2.      Learn to take things seriously but not personally, and
3.      Before acting, think about if you’d rather be right or effective.”

No matter what our age we are all somewhat hard wired to do the opposite of these three things. We assume ill intent, take things personally and tend to be self-righteous.  Of course, we all exhibit these behaviors to different degrees. However, think about the increased level of happiness you will achieve if you could consistently behave in accordance with Rob’s three recommendations.

First, how many times have we assumed someone had bad intent when there wasn’t any. For example, a simple question my wife asks me that I take as criticism (sometimes it is criticism – typically well deserved!). The work place is full of politics with people pushing their agendas. We are doing it ourselves. Having different agendas and points of view is natural and even healthy. When you find yourself reading other people’s minds and seeing ill intent, I suggest you buy them a cup of coffee and have a conversation.  What you might learn is that the person has a different perspective or a different interpretation of events.   Once these items are on the table, the negative response you might have had will be dampened.

Second, we all seem to think the world revolves around us so when someone does something that we don’t believe is in our best interests, we might take it personally. Perhaps a decision does not go our way. It is hard to imagine, let alone admit, that our position is not ideal so we conclude it is a personal attack or politically motivated. If you feel strongly that a mistake is being made it is appropriate to take it seriously and state your objection based on fact and opinion. However, it will be counterproductive to make emotionally charged accusations that the decision was wrong and the people making the decision are morons.   

Lastly, it feels so good to be right. However, the cost of being “right” may be significant if you are trying to improve a relationship or to achieve results through other people over time. Of course, life is not so simple that there is always one right answer. Even when there is a right answer and you have it; it can be counterproductive to “win” the argument. For example, there may be an emotional element to the issue. The other person is not interested in a rational argument but needs to overcome his or her related feelings. You must deal with the other person’s feelings to be effective. This will sometimes cause a delay in taking an action or even making a compromise. However, by doing so the relationship will stay healthy and movement toward the goal will take place.   

The critical advice wrapped around all three of these recommendations is that personal conflict must be addressed directly and the sooner the better. When we (or those close to us) assume ill intent, take things personally, and are certain that we are right, conflict is sure to follow and our happiness decreased. Unfortunately, our standard operating procedure for dealing with personal conflict is to “triangulate.” In other words, we seek comfort and counsel in a third person or persons. These well-intentioned people tend to take our “side” and sympathize with us especially if that third party is a friend.

Triangulation it is one of the most destructive behaviors in organizations of any kind. It breaks down trust and pits groups against one another. It is a topic for another blog.

In summary, although each generation has different values based on their unique experiences they all share the timeless goal of happiness. The differences in what each generation values in the workplace such as work life balance versus compensation is minor compared to the relationships we have with one another. Individuals of all ages seeking happiness would be well advised to consider Rob Hick’s three recommendations: (1) assume innocence, (2) take things seriously but not personally, and (3) be effective versus being right. Organizations and leaders that are serious about engaging employees of all ages should consider the extent to which these behaviors are part of their cultural fabric.

We at C-Level Partners are interested in your related opinions and experiences. Please feel free to comment on this blog, forward it to a friend or colleague, or write Dennis Drent at

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