Part 1: Talents and Authentic Happiness

This is going to be an article in three parts, building up to the question of how management can be a vehicle for achieving career satisfaction. There are many paths to career satisfaction and management is not for everyone. In this article I am concerned with the idea of identifying and deploying your talents as an expression of authentic happiness. In Part Two I want to look at motivation and human behaviour, and so I want to explore Drive Theory and the implications for career satisfaction. And then in Part Three I want to talk about management as a career choice.

In my view a major factor contributing to having a meaningful, purposeful life is career satisfaction. But first we need to consider the larger proposition – how do we achieve a satisfactory life, experience authentic happiness.

So lets begin with authentic happiness. As we shall see later when we discuss Drive Theory, many people describe a ‘successful’ career by extrinsic measures: title, salary and the attendant life-style, fame. But very often these measures reveal a certain hollowness. External measures of success may be important to ego gratification but are not sufficient for career and life satisfaction. We need to feel intrinsically worthwhile to gauge ourselves successful – in a word, happiness. Martin Seligman captured this idea in his book ‘Authentic Happiness’ (2002). Authentic happiness is to feel a genuine sense of well-being, that positive sustained psychic state in which we feel at peace, contented, accomplished. This is to be distinguished from short-term transient, superficial and possibly materialistic happiness. (We should note here that you cannot be fully happy all the time – life brings moments and even longer episodes of anguish, discord and upset . But we can create conditions for more long-lasting substantive happiness.)

According to Seligman there are 6 broad contributing conditions to feelings of well-being, possibly a seventh. All of these factors concern people’s attitudes to time and time events: past, future and present. The first two elements are concerned with our attitudes to the past. We live in the present but if our present is heavily conditioned by our past experiences we end up not enjoying our present. If we have experienced negative events in our past, do these contribute to chronic negative feelings to the point of adversely affecting our lives? The remedy is to address those elements, put them into proper context and dismiss them from our minds. The proper tool for doing this is cognitive therapy. The second aspect of the past as an agent on the present has to do with positive events and these can have two consequences: when we had positive experiences in the past that echo into our present and have positive implications for us in our present, that’s a positive thing, that’s a good thing. But the extent to which people live in the past, that they feel that the best times of their lives have already happened, that the good times were ‘the good old days’, these positive events high-jack our present, they detract from or remove us from being happy today.

Seligman then addresses how our attitudes to the future can affect us in a similar way as our attitudes to the past. If we regard future events as fearful, as negative, as something to be dreaded or avoided then we will not feel positive about the present. The solution for future dread is, again, to put it into proper context through cognitive therapy. The other aspect of how the future or the prospect of the future affects our present is the notion that the future will be better than today and consequently we postpone present happiness for the prospect of future happiness. When we do not value or appreciate the present moment and instead expect or yearn for better days ahead, to be living in the future and not in the present, is not constructive. Seligman would argue that while we need to have a positive attitude towards the future, feel hopeful – feel that the future will bring positive events rather than negative – we can not live in the future. We must live in the present.

And so with those essential four concepts in place, when we have put our past and our future in perspective, we come to what causes us to feel authentic happiness. The answer is we need to be conscious of and aware of the present. To borrow Eckart Tolle’s expression, to experience the power of now. There are two ways that we experience positive feelings of well-being in the present. One is through sentient experience. When we consciously pay attention to the moment and experience the pleasures of life as they happen this focuses the mind on positive emotional responses and gives rise to feelings of well-being. Appreciating pleasurable events is a contributing factor to authentic happiness, but is not sufficient. It is itself only a momentary thing and can be a distraction. So for example we may truly enjoy that first luscious taste of a well made cabernet sauvignon and the first glass is exquisite and the second is a warm reminder of the first; but by the third glass our senses become dulled and if we try for the same pleasure in the second bottle, and the third, we are then approaching what the psychologists would call habituation, even addiction. And there is no happiness in addiction.

So if enhancing present sensory experience is a legitimate but only temporary method for experiencing happiness, how do we achieve lasting authentic happiness? Seligman offers a second way: to recognize that we are granted certain talents and abilities, certain capacities (Seligman calls them signature strengths, values in action) and to apply them to life’s situations. When we are in a situation wherein we are able to manifest our talents, use our capabilities and experience constructive outcomes from the application and use of our talents then we will experience happiness. This is more than being in the moment of sensory experience; it is the feeling that comes of being immersed in the process of deploying and realizing our talents. Seligman credits Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s notion of ‘flow’, that the human psyche is transcended when in the process of exploiting one’s own talents and capabilities; time seems to stand still and all of our other worries, cares and sensory expectations are suspended. To be authentically happy, we need to optimize, even maximize those conditions of flow. To know our talents, to use and exploit those talents and feel the satisfaction of them being used and to realize constructive or positive results, is to create conditions for happiness.

In summation Seligman would argue that to achieve authentic happiness we need to manage, to contain, control or otherwise influence our lives to optimize our sense of well-being. How do we do that? We put our past in perspective, we do not allow the negative of the past to overwhelm our present; neither do we allow the good times in the past to high-jack our present. We don’t allow the future and the risks and the fears and potential ‘awfuls’ that may happen in the future to distort our present and neither do we displace our present by hoping for better days to come. We live in the now and we must live each moment savouring each life experience. Possibly most importantly we must come to recognize our own talents and create as many opportunities as we can to exploit these talents and experience the timelessness of being in ‘flow’.

I mentioned that Seligman said there is one other aspect of achieving authentic happiness. This relates very much to the deploying of our talents but the argument here is that happiness increases when we put our talents to use for some worthy cause, for something outside of ourselves, something altruistic, in itself an overarching factor. In other words we can use our talents and immerse ourselves and experience timeless satisfaction, flow; but when we know that what we’re doing is also contributing to the well-being of others that flow is enhanced; in addition we can savour that feeling of well-being later when we reflect upon what we have accomplished, or done or contributed.

So this is Seligman’s notion of authentic happiness: to have a pleasant life – the successful pursuit of positive feelings; to have a good life – using your signature strengths to obtain abundant and authentic gratification; to have a meaningful life – using you signature strengths in service of something larger than you are. To have a full life is to live all three.

It should be evident at this point that in deploying our talents for career satisfaction we enhance our prospects for authentic happiness.

Are you aware of your best talents? Are you using your talents to their fullest extent in your career?

In Part 2 I want to discuss motivation and happiness and how this too contributes to a satisfying career.