We spend a lot of time working hard on difficult problems, confronting our shortcomings, and hanging out at airports. We suggest that people do the same, because it’ll make them happier.
Our whole schtick is that doing the right work on your own terms is the key to happiness – even if it involves a lot of failure and taking-off-your-damn-belt-to-go-through-security along the way. We bang on about it a lot, so I figured I should look for evidence that backs up our position.
And hey – turns out we’ve got science on our side!
Can you really “get happy”?
First though, what’s the evidence that you can actually do anything to make yourself happier?
Behavioural genetic studies suggest that everyone has their own “default” level of happiness – but that’s not to say that you can’t do anything to change your default.
One popular model suggests that your happiness level is made up of 50% your genetic default, 10% life events, and 40% by your attitudes.
That means that if you’re a miserable git, we half forgive you – blame your moody parents. But cheer up, sourpuss – half of your happiness level is still up for grabs!
So what can you do about it? Well, let’s first eliminate some things that aren’t worth bothering with.
These things won’t make you happy
Everyone knows from experience that the buzz of a new purchase wears off almost instantly, yet we’re encouraged to define ourselves by our patterns of consumption. Most people seem to accept this without thinking, and accumulate garages and cupboards full of “stuff” that ties them down – yet I don’t notice everyone walking around being wildly ecstatic.
Under “more stuff”, you can also file “a big fancy house”. Because of habituation (of which more in a moment), you’ll very quickly take its bigness and fanciness for granted and be no happier than you were before.
Luxury all the time
“Habituation” means getting used to events – good or bad – so they don’t affect you for long.
You might have heard of the study that found that paralysed accident victims and lottery winners were about equally happy a few months after their respective events – which sounds crazy, but habituation is an in-built mechanism to make humans more resilient.
The implication? If you fly business class every time, you’ll soon get used to it and lose all the pleasure from the extra legroom and the non-plastic cutlery.
(So perhaps, to save money, Mish and I should alternate between spending time in awful places and just-OK places. We’d get used to the awful places quickly, and the just-OK places would then seem like a luxury in comparison.)
Making a ton of money
When you first get a raise or come into more money (like our lottery winners earlier), life is great. Soon though, your new level of wealth is just normal.
Again, this is because of habituation. At first, you’re super-aware of the extra money – you’re constantly contrasting it to the amount of money you had before. Before long though, the contrast is less novel and other events (challenges, hassles and achievements) take precedence in determining your happiness level.
Of course, you need a certain amount of money to meet your basic needs. Different studies have thrown up different numbers, but a study of 450,000 Americans found that once you hit a salary of $75,000, anything extra doesn’t do much for your happiness.
Better living through Anywhereism
Once I started reading the research about happiness, I was amazed, not to mention massively relieved, by how cleanly our concept of Anywhereism (doing the work you love on your own terms) maps onto what studies suggest will make you happier.
Here are some of the main factors that have been found to make you happier, and how Anywhereism ticks those boxes:
Feeling in control of your life
This is what psychologists call an “internal locus of control” – basically, believing that life is something you shape, rather than something that happens to you.
Of course, it’s much easier to believe you’re in control of your life when it’s actually true. We don’t shut up about taking control of your time, income and location – when you’re making all those decisions for yourself, it’s hard to believe that the world’s conspiring to bring you down.
This is where one of the main tenets of Anywhereism – “doing it in public” – comes in.
It’s pretty obvious that good relationships make us happy – and nothing helps to form meaningful relationships like writing (or podcasting, or videoing) honestly about what you’re working on.
Whether it’s work or travel or both, publicly sharing your thoughts and experiences will draw people to you. Even if you rarely or never see these people in person, you’ll develop surprisingly deep relationships because it’s based around the core of what you believe in – not sports or TV.
Doing good makes us feel good, and if you’re doing the work you love there’s a good chance that people are benefiting from the effort you put in.
This can be a service that helps people make more money and have better businesses (like we do), or a product that helps people expand their opportunities by learning a new language (like our buddy Shayna).
Or, it can be a side-effect rather than the work itself: Joe and Justin from Adsense Flippers help people make advertising revenue from niche sites…and in doing so, they now support at least 30 extended families in the Philippines through their employees.
We talked earlier about habituation, which is incredibly powerful for overcoming negative events but makes it hard to continue enjoying positive ones.
According to one model, the secret to avoiding habituating to good things is variety.
For example, performing a random act of kindness every week has been shown to cause longer-lasting happiness than doing the same kind thing (like making breakfast for your spouse) every week.
Full-on Anywhereism, where you’re running your own business and travelling at the same time, is pretty damn varied. Even without the travel component, no two days are the same – there are always new challenges, achievements and experiences.
Striving to reach important goals
Once you’ve ticked off the basic human needs, according to Maslow’s hierarchy the next requirements for happiness are esteem and self-actualisation.
One way to get respect from yourself and others – and to exercise your creativity – is to strive to reach important goals. And while you can set and achieve goals while working for someone else, people are happier when they’re striving for goals that are intrinsic and self-determined.
Running your own business is about as goaltastic as it gets – and as it’s something you’ve chosen to do over every other option, those goals will naturally be intrinsic and self-determined.
Business goals can be to make more money, reach more people, or just achieve mastery and do better work.
We tend to go on a lot about the importance of not following anyone else’s “life script”, not making any assumptions about what’s right for you, and endlessly experimenting to find out what works.
This is different from setting goals, because you’re not trying to reach a specific outcome in order to get praise or self-esteem. Instead, it’s just a continuous process of getting closer to the ideal life you want to live.
Again, because this is a process that throws up endless experiences, opportunities and possibilities, it’s varied – meaning you’ll never habituate to it. You’re always building new skills, trying new things and cultivating new relationships – and that’s very different from a one-time hit like “getting a promotion” or “buying a new house”.
What do you reckon?
What’s the most important factor in determining your own level of happiness? Do you think you can do anything about it? And is it worth trying anyway, or is “pursuing happiness” just a recipe for permanent dissatisfaction?
Let us know in the comments!