Many thanks to the Huffington Post for publishing my thoughts on happiness, work, and family in connection with this week’s Third Metric Conference.
Pretty much everything you’ve ever been told about what will make you happy and secure is wrong.
You shouldn’t be surprised to hear that. In your heart, you know that you’ve been listening to the two least trustworthy sources in the world. The first is the people who want to sell you the idea that doing what they want you to do, whether it is buying some product or accomplishing some goal, will make you feel better about yourself.
The second is even more insidious. It’s that little voice inside you that has internalized all the people who made you feel embarrassed or inadequate — your judgmental aunt, your crabby teacher, the mean girls, your awful boss, your frenemies. They are the people who keep you thinking that you do not deserve to be loved, even by yourself — especially by yourself.
Those are the voices of the first and second metrics — money, power, being thin, looking young and somehow achieving the kind of professional success that gets you on magazine covers while giving exquisitely-prepared dinner parties and raising children who ace their SATs. It is time to talk about the third metric — cherishing intimacy, finding meaning and doing work that matters, what Jewish tradition calls tikkun olam: healing the world.
It is true that some people achieve true happiness primarily through professional achievements. Those are the people who know from the moment they’re born that they were put on this earth to break world records and create great works of art and run big organizations. Good for them. We need them. But that does not mean we want to try to be them when that’s not who we are.
We speak of a “third metric” because we are trying to braid three different strands: work, family, ourselves. That begins by getting rid of the notion of work-life balance. There is no such thing. It’s just like a board game: you have to choose between hearts, stars and dollars. You don’t balance them. You establish your priorities.
For most people, men and women, that will mean that what comes first is your adult intimate relationship. I am not saying this out of some retro ’50s women’s magazine notion of being responsible for your partner’s domestic happiness. My advice applies equally to men and women. Whether or not you believe that a loving, intimate partnership is the key to happiness, I think you will agree with this: We make our biggest mistakes in our professional lives when we try to make them fill the space we are missing in our personal lives. If you know who you are at home, if you get what you need emotionally and spiritually at home, you will be a better, more professional, more capable person at the office. It is just as important for single people to make their adult outside-of-work connections their priority.
It may sound heretical to say that the kids come second. My husband and I had the lifeboat conversation like every other parent and agreed that while we loved each other deeply, we would of course save the kids over each other. That is the choice you make when you become a parent. We love our children selflessly. Anchoring yourself in your primary adult relationship is a great perspective restorer that will make you a better parent. It will keep you from boundary issues with your kids that happen when we ask them to be better us-es than better thems.
And here is a thought that is even more heretical: Your first duty to your family is your own happiness. It takes enormous courage to be happy. It takes a bracing honesty with yourself. It takes a constant sense of gratitude and a lot of thank you’s to everyone, from those closest to you to those you will see only once. It takes a clear notion of happiness that is separate from pleasure. Pleasure is important, too, but it is not happiness.
And there’s an added bonus: you will be more successful, by any standard, at work as well. You will project an air of confident authority and you will make wiser decisions. People will want to work with you and for you.
Being happy does not require everything in your life to be perfect and contentment does not mean that you have lost sight of what needs to be fixed. The Talmud says, “It is not upon you to finish the work, but you are not free to ignore it.”
You can start very simply, by resisting the temptation to go to a place of snark, smugness and sarcasm. Of course you should share real problems with real friends. But those eye-rolling “joke” insults are not funny; they are toxic. It means not spending time worrying about things you can’t control, especially how anyone else feels about you. Stop expecting that your work, your partner, or your family will make you happy. It’s the other way around. You are happy first.
You deserve to be happy. And the adults and children in your family deserve a happy you. In a recent TED talk, Bruce Feiler described a study that asked 1,000 children what they would most want to change about their lives. They said they wished their parents were less stressed. Children deserve to have parents who do not seem overwhelmed. We all say we want our children to be happy. The best way to make that happen is to be a model of someone who knows how to be happy.