7/1/21: What factors do...and do not...contribute to happiness

Sent 7/1/21

Lots of updates (it's been a crazy week)!

This week's Think Better Newsletter is about understanding what does...and does not...lead to feeling happy. 

The Idea

My wife and I are facing a lot of tough decisions. About work. About where to live. About our daughters' sports. About what projects to invest our time and energy into. About what matters to us.

One of the questions we come back to is, "What will make us happiest?"

This is an important question but it's filled with traps. Because what makes us happy and what makes us unhappy are not the same things. Expecting something to make us happy when it never will is a common way we create bad expectations and make ourselves more unhappy!

Researcher Frederick Herzberg identified two sets of factors that affect how we feel about our careers. He named them hygiene factors and motivating factors. (I believe this insight is transferrable to any domain.) 

Two-factor theory: hygiene factors make you unhappy, motivating factors make you happy

Hygiene factors are factors that make us unhappy when they are bad, but importantly, they simply make us content when they are good. (I'm using "content" to mean something like the feeling captured by the phrase, "It's fine.") Herzberg identified these as being our status, salary, work environment, rules and policies/procedures.

When you work or train or study in an unsafe, unclean environment being micromanaged and following stupid rules, it makes you absolutely miserable. But when you are in a safe, clean environment with fair rules and supervision, that alone doesn't make you love what you're doing. It just makes it feel "the way it should be."

Motivating factors are factors that make us truly happy and fulfilled. When they are absent the worst we feel is a little discontent. Herzberg identified these as being personal growth, challenging work, passion for your work, responsibility and recognition. I would include friends and community in here.

When you have these factors in abundance you love what you are doing and you feel happy with your life. But when you don't have them, you don't feel miserable. You simply feel discontent, like "something is missing." 

One of the challenges with predicting what will make you happy is being able to predict which factors are likely to fall outside the range of "Meh, it's fine," and make you very happy or very unhappy. And to recognize that they will not be the same things.

(Note: Last year I wrote about and did a podcast on this topic here.)

The System

The system I am trying to implement with my wife as we work through these difficult decisions looks something like this:

1st Priority: Eliminate obvious or extreme bad hygiene factors. In our case, bad hygiene factors make us miserable. If we know that a hygiene factor is going to be extreme, we have to reject the option. Or if not reject, consider it only as a last resort. Step 1 to being happy is eliminating things that make you unhappy.

2nd Priority: Identify as many of the 4 P's as we can. Passion, purpose, personal growth, and/or people (4 P's!). Happiness, motivation, and fulfillment are based on strong motivating factors, so whatever we decide, we need to have a couple of these. 

3rd Priority: Embrace neutrality. If most aspects of our lives are "meh" that's ok! It's normal. If hygiene factors are "meh" then that means they are good enough. If some motivating factors are "meh" we'll be ok because we can focus on the other ones that provide value.

Of course, once we make the decision, it will be about getting into a good groove and finding small ways to continually improve all of the factors in our lives.

The Question

Are you expecting hygiene factors to make you happy, motivated, or fulfilled?


Go Be More,

Bryan Green
Author of Make the Leap: Think Better, Train Better, Run Faster and the companion Think Better Workbook
Co-host of the Go Be More Podcast
Co-host of the Fueling the Pursuit Podcast

"Idleness, indifference, and irresponsibility are healthy responses to absurd work."
— Frederick Herzberg



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