By Dr. Ron Cruickshank, Golf Mind Coach & GGA Director, Canada

Recently, I wrote a piece on the link between happiness and the importance of comparing your self to your self as opposed to comparing yourself to others.  This stimulated some readers to ask me about the nature of happiness and whether true happiness was a result of achievement.  Well, prepare for a shock, because my answer will probably surprise you and will certainly run contrary to popular belief.  Simply put – happiness IS NOT achievement.

First, Question the Myth

As a society we are told, lectured, advertised, rewarded and scolded on a regular basis, all to insure that we conform to a societal norm of a good citizen. This is functional, because it helps the society as a system to survive. From an early age, as individuals, we are instilled with guilt-reinforced directives that form the basis of our personal motivation, drive and performance behaviors. In order to meet these directives, we develop what behavioral scientists call coping behaviors, that is, we refine a skill set to conform to the external demand placed on us by parents, family, peers, institutions and society.

These core demands are quite basic and familiar to most of us: be smart, be clever, be strong, be right, be correct, be liked and be adaptive and cooperative. But, most important – we are trained to cultivate the motivation to achieve, get ahead and accomplish something of significance. Most modern cultures have this need instilled and reinforced from childhood.

The need to achieve is both biologically and socially rooted. It would be hard to imagine a society in which people did not feel the need to achieve or a society surviving with an ethic of complacency. I will leave the political implications to you, as my focus for this writing is about the nature of what happiness is NOT and what it IS.

A key insight into achievement is to recognize that it is a self-satisfied need. This means only you can decide when the need is satisfied and that determination is subjective, not objective. Martin P. Seligman, Ph.D., the father of positive psychology calls this phenomenon the ‘hedonic treadmill’.  Essentially, this describes the universal tendency people have to “rapidly and inevitably adapt to good things by taking them for granted”.  Your achievements (deeds and things) no longer make you happy; you need to get something more, bigger or better to boost your level of happiness. However, once you get to the next level the “hedonic treadmill” kicks in and you are back on the achievement treadmill. The treadmill results will never be ultimately satisfying until you determine it is.

Further proof that happiness is not achievement lies in an often-unnoticed piece of evidence that I refer to as the glaring glimpse of the obvious. That is, that if happiness was truly tied to performance (achievement), the 2 handicapper would be happier than the 30 handicap. The guy making $100,000 and year would be happier than the guy making $50,000; the person that ran the fastest 10K speed would be happier than second place.  Perhaps the best proofing of the above statement would be to look at Tiger Woods. Clearly, while at the top of the achievement ladder in lots of categories, he was apparently not happy or satisfied.

I personally suspect that Tiger was caught up on the ‘hedonic treadmill’.  He didn’t have an answer to the question of ‘how much is enough’.  Rather, he seemed more driven by constantly wanting more of everything because that was how (his coping behavior) he attained the external feedback that he was worthwhile.  Tiger’s toughly earned lesson has got to be that the external circumstances of his life are ultimately not linked to the internal state of true happiness. That is a harsh and glaring lesson for us all when we’ve been trained from birth that achievement is what makes you OK and worthwhile.  Ponder that for a while.

Solid social science research tells us that contrary to popular myth, that people who get more good things in life are generally not any happier than those less privileged. High achievement, high accomplishment and good things in life have been shown to have minor power to raise happiness more than temporarily.

Seligman, in his book Authentic Happiness makes some well-articulated points about happiness.

  • In less than three months, major events such as being fired or promoted lose their impact on happiness levels.
  • Rich people are, on average, only slightly happier than poor people.
  • The level of satisfaction in America and most other wealthy nations has been flat over the last century, even as real income has increased dramatically.
  • Physical attractiveness does not have much effect at all on happiness.

So, What Is Happiness?

As I’ve already postulated, real happiness is an internal emotional state determined by you. I like to say that true happiness is AN INSIDE JOB. This means that each one of us must find the formula for authentic happiness within ourselves. For some this will be spirituality, for some it is family, love or parenting.  What I believe is that we each must find what gives our lives a sense of meaning and purpose – we must also find out what we are really good at and then, do as much of that as possible in as many settings as viable.  Good luck in your travels.

About the Author: Dr. Ron Cruickshank is the Director of GGA – Moe Norman Golf Experience, headquartered at the Royal Ashburn Golf Club in Whitby Ontario, a top 50 Canadian Course. They offer a series of single plane inspired clinics, schools and personal golf coaching, so if you are serious about owning your golf swing call him at 647-892-4653.