There are plenty of objective reasons to be unhappy—you’re failing at work, heartbroken, struggling to make ends meet, or suffering from a physical or mental illness, for example. But if you made a big list of all the unhappy people in the United States and you removed everyone whose malaise came was down to one of these easily explainable causes, you’d still have a pretty huge number of unhappy people.
Being financially secure, professionally successful, and loved should be a great basis for happiness, but as we all know from personal experience, it’s perfectly possible to have all these things and still be pretty miserable.
Why is that? University of Texas at Austin business professor Raj Raghunathan wrote a whole book to try to answer this tricky question. It’s entitled If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? and Raghunathan recently spoke with The Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker about the lessons he learned putting it together.
How Do You Measure Mastery?
The wide-ranging conversation is fascinating throughout, but one section in particular seems relevant to ambitious entrepreneurs and other professionals. To be truly happy, we all need to feel like we’re good at something—a feeling of mastery. High achievers generally have plenty of skills and accomplishments. They’re objectively good at stuff. But they often don’t enjoy the full happiness boost that should come from doing good work.
Why? Because they go about measuring mastery all wrong, Raghunathan says. Many people use social comparisons to determine their level of accomplishment, which is a terrible approach. “One big problem with that is that it’s very difficult to assess. What are the yardsticks for judging somebody on a particular dimension?” he asks.
“What happens in general is that people tend to gravitate toward less ambiguous—even if they’re not so relevant—yardsticks. People judge the best professors by the number of awards they get, or the salary that they get, or the kind of school that they are in, which might on the face of it seem like it’s a good yardstick for judging how good somebody is, but at the same time it’s not really relevant to the particular field,” Raghunathan continues. In short, because they’re easier to measure, we start to chase money and recognition rather than mastery and impact, which is a sure recipe for dissatisfaction.
“Those yardsticks are ones that we adapt to really quickly. So if you get a huge raise this month, you might be happy for a month, two months, maybe six months. But after that, you’re going to get used to it and you’re going to want another big bump. And you’ll want to keep getting those in order to sustain your happiness levels,” Raghunathan explains. (There’s a ton of research on this phenomenon—it is called the “hedonic treadmill.”)
Chase Mastery, Not Success
How do you avoid this fate? Stop chasing external signs of success and turn your attention back to what you fundamentally need. That’s not a flash car or fancy job title; it’s mastery. Do that, and not only will you be happier, but you’ll also probably be more successful, Raghunathan contends.
“When you don’t need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate towards things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you’re good at, and if you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you’re going to progress towards mastery anyway, and the fame and the power and the money and everything will come as a byproduct, rather than something that you chase directly in trying to be superior to other people,” he writes.