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Happiness is the wrong North Star

Popular culture would have us believe that the goal of life is to be happy. We look longingly at other people's instagram posts who are laughing, in great shape, chilling out somewhere awesome without a care in the world with their friends, and looking so frikkin happy. We might look at these sorts of posts and think, "why aren't I as happy as they are? There must be something wrong with my life."

Personally, with a young baby at home, a business that is doing a major pivot and largely reinventing itself, a home move that is in process, trying (not very successfully) to stay fit, a sick family member, and attempting to be a half decent brother/son/friend etc, life is pretty intense at the moment. There aren't many instagram worthy moments right now, and yet, something strange is happening - I feel deeply satisfied.

I've been trying to work out what the heck is going on here, because on paper this shouldn't be the case, especially when I contrast it to my life two years ago:

After we sold GetSmarter in 2017, I finished up my tenure at GetSmarter in April 2018. At first, I really enjoyed the space and time to recuperate, connect with friends and family, focus on my health, reconnect with my meditation practice etc. I also put myself in weekly therapy to go deep and really explore the dark recesses of my psyche. This was great for about 3 months, and then something rather unexpected started to happen:

I started to feel agitated and anxious for no good reason. There was a hollowness that I was carrying around that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I really tried to lean into these feelings in therapy and more, to see what was driving them. I tried very hard to get to the root cause so I could “sort them out” and carry on with my carefree life. Eventually, my therapist suggested that it might be a lack of engagement with challenges that I care about in my life which was causing this sense of dissatisfaction.

Wait… what? I should purposefully put challenges back into my life in order to find a sense of fulfillment? I thought I was living the dream here? It made no sense, at least not in terms of the life that we are sold in main-stream media, but I trusted my therapist so heeded her advice.

Off the back of that, I threw myself into endurance sports. I got a coach who put me on a serious training regime for Ironman triathlon events. I did a bunch of them, and relished the discipline, struggle and challenge of the training and the events. It put a lot of structure back into my life, while continuing the other personal development activities I was engaged with. This was awesome for about 6 months, and then I started to feel that sense of hollowness again. I had structure and regular struggle, so why on earth was I feeling like this again?

As I explored this further, I eventually realized that it was because absolutely no one else was benefitting from all my hard training and struggle, except me. My only purpose in this challenge was to get the best personal time I could in these races, and that left me feeling very unfulfilled over time.

What became clear to me then is that, as social creatures, we’re positively wired to engage with challenges, and for our contribution to the tribe. In the same way as a muscle grows as a result of being challenged at the gym, so too does our psyche respond well to the right amount of struggle in our lives, especially when it impacts more than just us as individuals.

The message I want to share with you this morning is this:

We’ve been sold a lie. You won’t find happiness at some fictitious place in the future when you’ve made enough money and shed all the stress in your life. I have been there and can tell you first hand that it’s a myth. Some of you might even know some trust fund babies who have never had to work for a thing in their lives. There might be some exceptions, but the vast majority are some of the unhappiest people I know.

Personally, I think happiness is the wrong North Star to pursue - the privilege of grappling with challenges that you care about is a far better aspiration. Right now, as challenging as it is, I care deeply about the problems we're trying to solve in education, I care deeply about raising my little boy, and I care deeply about trying to balance the competing priorities in my life to make sure I'm still a good husband, friend and family member. The result here is that although I might not be instagramably happy right now, I'm deeply fulfilled, and that's a North Star worth pursuing.

The invitation here is to lean into the challenges in your life, and not to run away from them or hope they will disappear. It’s exactly these challenges, particularly when they’re aligned to something you care about, which give you purpose and growth, and that’s an incredible gift to yourself and the world around you.


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