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Take Charge, Be Happier

It is not in the pursuit of happiness that we find fulfillment, it is in the happiness of pursuit.

– Denis Waitley

In coaching, the easy part for most of my clients is to figure out what they want to pursue to bring better performance, more happiness, or fulfillment to their lives. It is the implementation, i.e., the how, that frequently presents the struggle.

In fact, most of us can list a number of things we would like to take up, improve on, or change. We might know our actual dream occupation, or we are clear about the fact that we want to spend more time with our family. We may want to improve our health through regular exercise, go on that 4-week dream vacation, take a long walk after lunch every day, or have work free evenings and weekends. We all have these things that we know we want, we might have even tried, and yet we regularly fail at making them happen and beat ourselves up about it.

Assuming we are intelligent and ambitious people: why do we fail? Self-help publications on how to change and make it stick are plentiful. What most of them omit are the two biggest obstacles: inertia and fear. Inertia and fear are the two phenomena we tend to overlook, underestimate, or shy away from exploring. Yet they are critical to overcome in order to take charge and make changes in our lives.

Inertia – Our bias towards inaction

Behavioral economists found that there are a number of biases that make us choose inaction over action. One is omission bias: we feel worse if we take action that leads to a bad outcome than if we are inactive and our inaction leads to the same bad outcome. As an example, consider two roulette players. Player A bets $100 on number 12 and Player B bets $100 on number 27. Right before the croupier announces “rien ne va plus”, player A moves his $100 from number 12 to number 27. The table stops turning and the ball lands on number 12. In experiments unrelated to Roulette, Kahnemann and Tversky (1982) showed that a type A player feels worse about the loss of his $100 than a type B player, because his loss resulted from action rather than inaction. Player B obviously had the opportunity to move his money to number 12 at any point in time, but he did not. However, he regrets his inaction less than player A regrets his action. When we take charge of our life and make significant changes, we feel responsible for the outcome. We are afraid of having to blame ourselves if the outcome is not good, independent of the fact that we do not know if inaction would not have put us in a similarly bad spot.

In fact, maintaining the status quo is deeply ingrained in us. Status quo bias is present when people prefer things to stay the same by not taking action or by sticking with a previously made decision (Samuelson, & Zeckhauser, 1988). The most famous real-life example of status quo bias is prevalent in organ donations. Countries with an opt-in system like Germany and the US (people have to check a box to become an organ donor) typically have 15% or less of the population registered as organ donors. Opt-out countries like Austria and the Netherlands (you have to check a box to not be considered an organ donor) have an organ donor share of 90% and greater. The vast difference is only explained by status quo bias – people tend to stick to the default option given to them, even in important decisions (Johnson & Goldstein, 2003).

In addition, inertia is nurtured by our hormonal system. Neuroscientists have demonstrated that short-term accomplishments and successes give us immediate gratification through little dopamine boosts. However, by envisioning the positive feelings we might have in 4 months if we went to the gym regularly, we do not experience such gratification. Many of the changes that we would like to make require discipline in the absence of natural instant gratification, and even though the sum of future gratification can be significant, it is often more subtle, even when experienced.

Fear – The ultimate driver of mindsets and behaviors

The second aforementioned phenomenon is fear, which needs to be examined on a much more personal level. Our existential fears are underlying drivers of our observable behaviors (Freud 1915). We all have existential fears, they are a part of being human, yet just surfacing and acknowledging them is uncomfortable. When exploring these fears with clients, the ones that surface most frequently are fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, or fear of being alone.

Take Gina, who is uncomfortable in her new role of managing a team of five. She knows she needs to be more upfront about task delegation as well as with giving her team members honest performance feedback. Asked about why she hesitates making this change, Gina says that she does not want to hurt other’s feelings or seem impolite. This answer, however, is just scratching the surface. In dialogue she reveals she worries that this perception of rudeness may lead people to be less willing to work with her. She thinks they might start talking behind her back within the company about what a rude leader she is. Soon, nobody would want to work with her, bringing her career to an abrupt halt. People would look at her funny at lunch and she would be excluded.

George, who regularly puts in 70-80 hour weeks, knows he needs to be home more to save his marriage. He actually desires to spend more time with his wife and his 2-year old twin boys. He vowed 6 months ago to stop working weekends, but failed to keep up with his promise after the first month. Asked why, he explains that frequently issues emerge at work that demand his attention. Exploring the issue further, it turns out that George is deeply afraid to not deliver on any single work output. It is not even a matter of prioritization for him, he feels responsible to deliver all he is tasked. George grew up in a family that valued achievement above all and non-performance was not an option. Even having a conversation around workload with his boss feels like failure to him and he cannot face failing on delivery. In the heat of the moment, this immediate fear of failure trumps all troubles that his actions may cause at home, for which he feels deeply sorry.

The common thread to these and other stories is an existential fear of social non-belonging [1]. As humans, research indicates that our biggest success as a species stems from the fact that we can organize to live and work together. Our brains are wired to be social and desire social belonging (Lieberman, 2014). The prospect of losing social bonds or our sense of belonging creates fear.

Harvard Professor Robert Kegan and his colleague Lisa Lahey (2009) developed a model of adult development that distinguishes 3 stages: the socialized mind, the self-authoring mind and the self-transforming mind. According to their research, 75% of the adult population live in the socialized mind state. In this mind state, we have developed a good sense of who we are in relation to our social environment. We measure ourselves against the people surrounding us and we adhere to identities in society that we formed earlier and that led to success (i.e., acceptance). When we are faced with choices for change that could threaten our belonging to and acceptance by a group, we flinch and choose strategies that have worked for us in the past.

Anderson and Adams (2015) describe these strategies as reactive, i.e., they let us automatically fall back into a behavioral pattern that we have learned in the past. Gina’s strategy might be compliance. Instead of giving honest feedback, Gina will say things to others that she believes will lead them to like her. George will continue to over-deliver because he believes that this is what he is valued for by his boss and society. Through forcing us into our reactive strategies, our fears have a strong grip on our actions and contribute to our reluctance to change.

5 steps to taking charge

So what can we do to overcome inertia and fear, take charge, and live happier and more fulfilled lives? If you want to make significant changes, I propose the following 5 steps:

  1. Clarify your true priorities. What are the things that deeply matter to you? How well are they represented in your life today? Separate the “wants” from the “shoulds.” Often, we have carried a number of those “shoulds”, such as taking up language classes or yoga, around with us for a long time. We may not be truly connected to these activities, but, given perceived external expectations, we feel like they “should” be part of our life. Our inability to tackle them, however, weighs us down. Dropping them off our list is hugely liberating and makes room for truly focusing on the “wants.”

  2. Become aware of your most existential fears through examining your inner narrative. A simple start could be to pick one important change you have been struggling to implement. Ask yourself 5-7 times in sequence: “What is the worst thing that could happen?” Note every response down before you go a level deeper. This step is helpful in two distinct ways: a) By building awareness of your deepest fear, you put yourself in a position to manage it rather than being managed by it. b) Writing down your narrative lets you analyze the assumptions you are making for each “worst case” to become true. Once faced with these assumptions you can start disputing those assumptions as either clearly false, unrealistic, or at least deserving of testing before accepted as true. Gina, for example, could counter her current narrative with the argument that her reports might value being given developmental feedback, see her as authentic and supportive, and increase their level of trust in her.

  3. Develop a detailed plan for change instead of rushing in head-first. While change involves stepping out of your comfort zone, you still get to decide how big your steps are. Almost anything can be approached with baby steps. So set yourself up for success by building in positive feedback loops, e.g., little rewards you give yourself for trying something a new way. By doing so, you leverage your dopamine driven instant gratification mechanism.

  4. Reserve time for reflection. Take just two minutes in the morning to set your intentions for the day. What will you concretely do differently today? Reflect regularly on how it felt after you have implemented part of your change. Ask yourself if any of the assumptions in your fear narrative can be confirmed or rejected?

  5. Embark! Your perfect life will not just come to you, not tomorrow, not in 10 years, not in retirement. This is the part where you must overcome inertia with action, because you can only experience the happiness and fulfillment that comes with pursuit when you pursue. Knowing that you are biased towards inertia is the first nudge towards embarking. Build more nudges by leveraging your work and social support networks as enforcers of your change. Enlist your network's support, commit to individuals, and have them hold you accountable.

The ultimate choice to take action is yours. Your freedom to choose your actions cannot be taken from you (Frankl, 1984), no matter what the circumstances. This also leaves you with the ultimate responsibility for action and pursuit, no matter what the circumstances. They will never be perfect, so you might as well start today.

[1] Given experience in third world countries with no immediate threats to safety and basic needs like food and shelter

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