Overwhelm and the Seduction of the Pursuit of Happiness - Clear and Open

The False Seduction of Happiness (Part 2/2)

In last week’s article, I asked you to complete the sentence “I will be happy when…” as many times as you could and I promised you a breakthrough. Here’s a hint: it’s about overwhelm.

This is where you have that breakthrough, but it won’t work if you haven’t yet done the assignment. Don’t read on without taking just five minutes to do it.

And now, a confession. I played a coaching trick on you. Maybe you thought the point of the exercise was to get clear about what you want. That wasn’t the point at all. It’s a trap! But I had to do it so you could have this breakthrough. Keep reading!

The point of the sentence completions was to wring out any and all ideas about what outside factors you think you need. Happiness is different than fulfillment. Happiness is a momentary state, usually dependent on the situational content of your life. You make a sale, you get a promotion, you discover the perfect cheesecake recipe, etc. Good things happen, and it makes you feel good.

But the problem is one you already know all too well. To keep it going, you need another sale, another promotion, another recipe, etc. It’s outside-to-in. You need something outside of you to happen in order to feel good on the inside. This leads to overwhelm because you inevitably need a constant pipeline of good-feeling-things coming in order to manage your internal state.

And when something happens outside of you that doesn’t feel good, you’re unhappy. You can’t have it both ways, you see? If you need good things to make you feel good, then bad things must make you feel bad. And then you must immediately fix the situation by pursuing more happiness outside of you, leading to more overwhelm. Most people live their entire lives navigating the polarity between unhappiness and happiness, an overwhelm seesaw that needs constant attention. This is, after all, totally normal. But that doesn’t mean it has to be this way.

The focus on outside-based happiness does a number of things. It puts the locus of control outside of you, so it makes you a victim of circumstance. This is a key condition for overwhelm: you have to feel like things are beyond your control in order for overwhelm to take root. It also puts your satisfaction in the future (forever) rather than right now. Therefore, whatever’s true right now is somehow not enough, which is another key ingredient for overwhelm–the inability to recognize and accept that whatever you have is okay, and your creation to some degree.

Lastly, it puts you on a gerbil wheel of “doing” to go after that happiness that is somehow “out there.” And because there is actually no happiness “out there” it’s like dying of malnutrition and eating junk food. You can never get enough of what doesn’t nourish you. Mostly in our world, this shows up as a pursuit of money–more money than one needs for real fulfillment.

This is the basis of the consumerist society we live in. Virtually all marketing preys on this mindset as products promise, “Buy this content and it will make you happy.” Because you, of course, are powerless to manage your own fulfillment. You need something outside of you is the message. I’ll never forget the odd encounter I had with a drug dealer who approached me as I left a liquor store on a late night in Chicago.

“Hey man, are you straight?”

“Um, yeah…?” I had no idea what he was asking me, honestly. I was a college kid from the suburbs.

“Naw, man, you need something,” he urged.

And there it was, the essence of every sales pitch for things we don’t need and aren’t good for us. Look around, it’s everywhere. Of course, the liquor store was a clever location for him, marketing to prospects already on an outside-in happiness project for the evening. He was probably very successful. Anyway…

How the Seduction of Success Creates Overwhelm

Most of our world is made up of two kinds of people:

  1. People who have “succeeded” in their happiness pursuit and have the resources to arrange a constant stream of content-based happiness stimulation so they never have to feel and address their lack of fulfillment, or
  2. People who have not yet “succeeded” and are trying to become like the above.

The reason we have the expression “Money doesn’t buy you happiness” is because somewhere in all of us, we already know that content-based happiness doesn’t work. But often, we need to learn this through our own experience.

What’s the alternative? It’s finding fulfillment in context rather than happiness in content. I’ll explain.

It’s common for people to want a life without problems, and identify that as the goal. “I will be happy when I have a life without problems.” You may have noticed that theme in your list. But what if wanting a life without problems is like wanting water that isn’t wet? What if instead, you wanted the strength and skill to manage your problems? Can you see how that gives you the control versus putting it outside you?

If you have the ability to deal with problems, and no unrealistic expectation of their absence, your happiness is no longer tied a virtual reality future that’s beyond your control and has you overwhelmed scrambling to achieve it.

The Happiness Paradox and Overwhelm

Paradoxically, orienting toward satisfaction as a future pursuit dependent on outside factors actually ensures you’ll never attain it. The “pursuit of happiness,” in the United States, is, of course, your unalienable right according to the Declaration of Independence. But just because it’s your right, doesn’t mean it’s helpful. You have the right to eat all the cream cheese and Cheetos you want, too.

So instead of pursuing happiness someday, discover fulfillment right now! A bird in the hand, right? How do you do this? A lot of it is actually about undoing, which makes sense because happiness is usually about doing.

First, understand that “I will be happy when…” is a lie. Notice how often you tell yourself how great your life will be when X happens. Notice the ups and downs. See the gerbil wheel you’re on in real-time. Eventually, your future-happiness-orientation dissolves, and so will your overwhelm. Because you’ll inevitably see that you’re doing things that you think you need to do in order to be happy that actually don’t serve real fulfillment. Cheetos and cream cheese.

There’s a whole section in Clear Workspace, Open Mind about how less is more, and how to use the 80/20 rule to eliminate unnecessary projects and activities from your life that you don’t need. One of the most powerful ways to eliminate overwhelm and increase fulfillment is to embrace doing a lot less. Make a list of everything you’re doing and hierarchically rank the fulfillment you get from each activity. Eliminate the stuff at the bottom. Boom. Simple, but not necessarily easy, just like giving up junk food.  You won’t be able to tolerate doing less unless you unhook from the “I will be happy when…” lie which has you so busy and overwhelmed.

You may be thinking, “But if I’m not pursuing happiness I’ll become lazy and unmotivated.” This can be a tough one. The question comes from the same place as “I will be happy when…” If you’re not lazy and unmotivated now, you won’t be when you make the shift. Trust that. The source of your ambition shifts. As said in last week’s article, fulfillment is about self-expression. A self-expressed person wants to do and accomplish things, but rather than as a means of attaining happiness for a happy moment someday, they do it as a means of experiencing themselves, life, learning and growing. Here’s an example:

Bill is working on a sale. He needs it this month to make his quota. When he makes his quota, his boss is happy, and so he’s happy. He also needs the commission to pay for that new BMW he bought last month before he could really afford it. He thought this sale would close a month ago, and it’s hurt his self-esteem. He doesn’t feel successful, and he knows when he makes this sale he’ll feel a lot better. Every day that goes by without the sale closing, he’s worrying more and feeling worse about himself. But he knows he’ll feel much better when it finally does. This is typical at the end of the month and he tells himself that selling is just a high-stress job.

That’s the pursuit of happiness. Here’s the same story in the paradigm of fulfillment.

Bill uses his job to grow as a person. He enjoys getting to know himself through interacting with others and discovering their needs. When a sale isn’t closing, he asks himself what he could be doing better and what need hasn’t been met. He loves the learning that comes from that. Because he’s living within his means and drives an older car, making money isn’t so urgent, but his hunger and desire to grow as a person gets him excited every day to pursue excellence. Becoming more skilled, aware, and knowledgeable gives him a deep satisfaction. He wants to learn more about how he impacts people, where he’s too hard on himself, and how to work more efficiently so he can enjoy his work more. He prefers when sales close, of course, but when they don’t he doesn’t let it touch his self-esteem. That’s a roller coaster he doesn’t want to ride on. It’s not always easy, but he’s been there and done that and it only ever led to stress and burnout.

Life brings with it problems and stress, for sure, and much of it we cannot change. We can, however, change the way we relate to problems. The most fundamental way we can do this is seeing that problems are not obstacles to our future happiness, nor causes of overwhelm, but challenges for our self-expression to rise and meet the moment with a fulfillment already in progress.

Want to learn more about how to eliminate overwhelm and shift to a fulfillment-oriented life? There’s more to it, this is just a beginning. Why not try a month of Clear and Open Membership and see if it’s for you? If it’s not, I’ll give you your money back after thirty days, no questions asked. I care about your fulfillment, and I hope you’ll let me serve it.

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