Mind Games

Who are we kidding here?

Turns out it might be ourselves. 

Raj Raghunathan, marketing professor at The University of Texas, Austin, explores the gap between success and happiness in his book If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? Successful people, for all their accomplishment, still experience a sense of lack that is counterintuitive to the belief society holds of them as the fortunate ones. This is not to say that the opposite is true; not achieving career or economic success does not confer a deep sense of satisfaction with life. No, what seems to be happening has less to do with actual success levels and more to due with one’s relationship to external markers of success. In essence, do you measure success in your terms or someone else’s?

Many of us are skilled at following well-worn paths, to the point where we place great value on our ability to “check off the boxes” or “pay our dues” before expected rewards come in. Often those rewards are pre-ordained in the same way the path we followed was pre-ordained, and by pre-ordained I mean socially accepted, clearly marked and external.

Raghunathan talks about the concept of Mind Addiction in his work and how it prevents us individually from marrying intellect and instinct in terms of our choices. He connects it to a study published in 1999 by University of Chicago researcher Christopher Hsee. Across a few experiments, Hsee discovered that although people might prefer a particular option they don’t always choose it, deciding instead to pick the option they believe has more “value” in terms of rational, external measures. They override their gut instinct to appear smarter. Yet the rational choice does not satiate, leaving them less happy in their decision.

Why on earth would they play these mind games?

Because trusting your gut over your head is risky, and smart people try to mitigate risk as much as possible. Yet it’s one thing to mitigate the risk of jumping into a new job with a company that is nothing more than a founder’s hunch vs. jumping into a job with a growing company you believe in, knowing that although nothing is guaranteed you sure as hell want to grab the chance to bring a sense of play to your work. And this is the heart of Raghunathan’s premise: real happiness is not found in the realm of the rationale, the world of well-worn paths and clear external markers of success. It’s found when we move away from seeing achievement through the lens of social (external) comparison and move toward seeing achievement as internal mastery and growth. Although you can understand this premise rationally, it is not something that is lived rationally. It’s lived through gut instinct, feeling and the marriage of calm intellect with let’s-go-for-it élan.

I’m not saying this is easy stuff. Even for an optimist like me its unnerving to say “I want option B because I believe it will make me happy” vs. “I want option B but I’m not really sure since I can’t pin down enough readily measurable data and experience to prove it’s worth the risk.” The first phrase feels comfortable in the gut, the second in the brain. Mind games are hard to unlearn but worth the effort – after all, it’s your long-term happiness on the line here.

 

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