In a thought-provoking article, Forbes contributor Joshua Becker reviews ten studies in positive psychology that pertain to happiness and fulfillment.
His conclusion is that more is not necessarily better.
Many of the greatest sources of well-being come from experiences, not possessions; from giving to others; and from being grateful for what we have.
We're more likely to be happy if we are surrounded by happy people, not necessarily if we're surrounded by the smartest or most successful individuals.
Becker refers to this as "rational minimalism": focusing on what is important by ridding ourselves of clutter, especially the things we own that somehow end up owning us.
If there is one conclusion that stands out in the positive psychology research, it is that we experience greatest happiness and fulfillment when we exercise our strengths and act upon our deepest values.
In his excellent book, Larry Ackerman refers to this as "identity." We blossom in life when we are who we truly are.
One of the important observations Ackerman makes is that, if we trace the high points of our lives, distinctive themes emerge.
We learn who we are by reverse engineering our most meaningful, successful, fulfilling experiences.
And yet, Ackerman recently noted in a talk, people typically spend far less than half of their time immersed in the activities that express their identities. We do what we need to do to check the next items on to-do lists and meet the next deadlines, but somehow don't do the things that truly make us tick.
As a result, we can be successful, but not necessarily happy and fulfilled.
To expand on Becker's observations, the problem is not just the accumulation of our possessions, but the clutter inside our heads. It is difficult to be full-filled if our minds are already brimming over with frantic plans, electronic distractions, and frustrated self-talk.
Josh Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, in their website The Minimalists, capture this blending of simplifying our lives internally and externally.
One of their "minimal maxims" is that "You will become what you focus on."
The corollary of this view is that a lack of focus diminishes our identity. Minimizing clutter places us on the edge of our comfort zones, Josh and Ryan point out, which places us where we need to be to expand and develop.
Tapping Into The Fullness Of The Empty Mind
I recently conducted an interesting experiment in trading financial markets.
I turned off all but one screen that contained the most important information and shut down all chat and email platforms. While tracking the market, I conducted a meditation routine that fixed my field of vision and simply observed what was happening in a detached fashion.
The goal was to be one with the market; not to place trades, not to make money.
After a time, I began to perceive market behavior in a wholly different fashion. Instead of seeing directional price movement, I felt, in an experiential way, the shifting volatility of the price action: expansions and contractions. With odd clarity, I called out one profitable trade after another simply by noting when markets expanded in a particular direction.It was a powerful experience, yet not an entirely unique one.
As a psychologist, I go into high-focus mode when meeting with a troubled client. I become unusually sensitive to what is said and how it is said, picking up on nuances that would otherwise go unnoticed.
The focus is an instant decluttering of the mind.
There is little self-talk or distraction. Interestingly, those are some of my most memorable meetings with people. Those are also occasions when I have done my best work.
Meditation is but one gateway to minimalism of the mind.
Solitude is another.
Deep immersion in one's work--the kind that Maslow and Csikzhentmihalyi noted leads to peak experiences of "flow"--is still another. For many, prayer is a setting aside of the mundane and communing with the Eternal. There are many ways to empty the mind and experience the resulting fullness.
Consider an important implication: When we clear our heads and simplify our lives, what remains is the essence of who we are: our values, our competencies, our passions, our strengths.
We are most likely to be successful and happy if we remove the clutter and access the person we're meant to be.
Small Self, Big Self
Operating from a Zen perspective, Mark Eckhardt points to the small self as being the sum of our identifications. I am a father, a spouse, a teacher, a psychologist, a trader, and so forth. From Ackerman's perspective, each of these are identities, but not our Identity. We occupy many roles and identify with different ones at different times. The "I" that we refer to is not limited to any of these small selves. It is a Big Self, a unifying element among our identities.
Most of our efforts at success consist of actualizing our small selves: being the best father, spouse, teacher, etc. that we can be. The more roles we take on, the more we typically bounce from one to another, attempting to do the best at each. The problem is that it is precisely this bouncing from self to self that clutters our experience of self. Actualizing our selves helps with daily life, but it is the transcendence of those selves that places us in contact with self.
My experience with trading the market is a good example of these dynamics. In my usual mindset, I am juggling an internal dialogue that reflects many small selves. I am thinking about making and losing money; I am thinking about sharing my ideas online with colleagues; I am thinking about writing about my market experience; I am thinking about what happened in the last trade and what I've learned from it; I am thinking about the things I need to get done at home; and on and on. Each self is calling out, and the result is that I am not truly present in the moment; not fully focused on the market. Imagine such mental clutter occurring when I meet with a troubled client. It is difficult to imagine that I would be empathetic and perceptive.
When I reduced the screens and uncluttered my mind, I experienced and perceived the market differently, and that freed me up for fresh courses of action. The Self underlying the many selves is who I actually am: One Who Connects. Sometimes with spouse, sometimes with children, sometimes with clients, sometimes with rescue cats, sometimes with writing. Intriguingly, it is only possible to access that Self--that Identity--by transcending the selves, the many identities. That is the ultimate connection.
As I pointed out in a recent article, many of the challenges we experience--in financial markets and in life--come from Self alienation. We can be successful, but not truly happy or fulfilled if what we do to satisfy our identities comes at the expense of our Identity. How many minutes of your day are uncluttered and unfettered?
How many hours in the day find you immersed in what is most meaningful to you, what you truly do best? I
n uncluttering, uncovering, and fulfilling the Self, we may find the greatest actualization of our selves--and our greatest happiness.