What is Happiness?
Sitting in a training room, I opened my workbook to complete the next exercise. The seven-word prompt glared at me. My heart started to beat faster, a familiar lump formed in my throat, and I scanned my surroundings for an escape route. I had mastered my Houdini disappearing act over the years each time this topic came up in discussion, and my instincts to flee were kicking in.
But this time I was not at a dinner party or participating in an ice-breaker, I was in a coach training program. Fleeing at the first moment of vulnerability felt like the quickest way to ‘funk out’ before I had even begun. How could I possibly become a Professional Coach if I ran at the first sign of discomfort? So I remained in my seat and I stared back down at the page… at the seven words…
“List three things that make you happy.”
“What makes you happy?” “What do you do for fun?” “What are your interests?”
What was wrong with me? How come I didn’t have answers to these questions? And what did ‘happy’ mean anyway? Have I ever felt it?
A few years ago I asked my mother, who was 83 years old at the time if she recalled us ever talking or thinking about happiness. She tilted her head to the side for a moment, eyes looking upward and glancing back toward a time long ago. When she turned back to look at me, she said, “We just never thought about it.” Both of my parents were born in the 1930s, during and at the tail end of the Great Depression and my father was an immigrant who arrived in this country early in the 1960s with no college degree, no money, and not speaking English. Our lives were rooted in creating security and stability and our family business was the center of our lives. Not only wasn’t happiness the primary goal, it wasn’t even on the list.
Responsibility, Strong work ethic. Financial success. Achievement. Honor.… These were our guideposts and they served our family well in many ways. But ‘happiness’ and ‘fun’ felt as foreign as countries on the map that I recognized in name only. I knew they existed and that others lived there, but I didn’t feel connected; I had no personal experience with them.
But I was training to become a coach, and as the founder of our program reminded us during our last training session, the most critical attribute of an effective coach is fearlessness. How could I ever be a coach if I continued to run? I was also really tired of feeling both humiliated and incomplete. I wanted happiness and fun to be part of my life. I wanted to feel the kind of wholeness, confidence, and freedom that I anticipated would come upon breaking through this barrier of shame.
Gratefully, I was sitting in a training program that was able to provide me with some tools. Questions, I came to understand, were incredibly powerful. A courageous well-positioned question had the power to shift thoughts, feelings, and actions. I strategized that if I adopted a single powerful question related to this topic and stuck with asking it again and again – over and over – eventually, it would help me develop an understanding of what happiness and fun might mean for me. So this is what I did. I crafted a question and committed to asking it every day, sometimes multiple times per day. I didn’t get discouraged when I didn’t have a clear answer (and that happened a lot). But over time, a lot like beginning to lift weights at the gym, the more I asked the question, the more the answers began to arise. Over time the answers became stronger and clearer.
It was through this experience that I realized just how transformative a courageous question can be. I had never thought about happiness before so my mind never bothered to explore it. However, once I directed my mind and my spirit that this was important and provided a powerful tool to support the inquiry, my mind produced a treasure trove of responses.
Since that time, I have never looked back. I have engaged with questions as the most powerful tool in my toolbox for shaping a life that feels real and authentic and that I love. I have also expanded my use of questions to shape who I am as a leader and how I help leaders to grow, as well as how to live well in relationships with others.
Asking questions is the most natural and instinctive way we learn. This is why young children ask an average of 100 questions per day (sometimes many many more!). But how many productive and courageously curious questions do we ask as adults? How many do you ask? What if ‘happiness’ or ‘success’ or ‘love’ was only one question away?
And if you are interested in hearing the one question I asked myself and how to construct one of your own, listen in on the podcast.