“How to Build a Life” is a column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Starting today, the column will be published weekly on Thursday mornings.
I am an inveterate scorekeeper. I can go back decades and find lists of goals I set for myself to gauge “success” by certain milestone birthdays. For example, in my 20s, I had a to-do list for the decade, the items on which more or less told the story of a penniless musician who had made some dubious choices. It included quitting smoking, going to the dentist, mastering my pentatonic scales, and finishing college. (I hit them all, although the last one mere days before my 30th birthday.)
There is nothing unusual about this tendency to keep score. Google “30 things to do before you turn 30” and you will get more than 15,000 results. Researchers writing in the journal Psychological Science a few years ago observed that people are naturally motivated toward performance goals related to round numbers, and birthdays in particular can often act as landmarks to motivate self-improvement. We naturally seek outside sources of quantitative evidence of our progress and effectiveness—and, thus, our happiness.
Building a “30 by 30” list, however, is a misbegotten approach to happiness. Not that anyone in our material- and achievement-oriented society could be faulted for thinking this way, of course. Every cultural message we get is that happiness can be read off a scorecard of money, education, experiences, relationships, and prestige. Want the happiest life? Check the boxes of success and adventure, and do it as early as possible! Then move on to the next set of boxes. She who dies with the most checked boxes wins, right?
Wrong. I don’t mean that accomplishment and ambition are bad, but that they are simply not the drivers of our happiness. By the time many people figure this out on their own, they have spent a lifetime checking things off lists, yet are unhappy and don’t know why.
The economist Joseph Schumpeter once wrote that entrepreneurs love to earn fortunes “as an index of success and as a symptom of victory.” That is, every million or billion is another box checked to provide an entrepreneur with a feeling of self-worth and success. Given our finances, most of us don’t have this exact problem. However, we do the same thing all the time in our own way, whether it’s taking a certain job for what it says about us to others, or selecting friends for the social prestige they’ll bring us.
We have every evolutionary reason to want to keep score in life—passing on genes is a competitive business, after all. But there is no evidence that Mother Nature gives two hoots whether we are happy or not. And, in fact, this kind of scorekeeping is a happiness error for two reasons: It makes us dependent on external rewards, and it sets us up for dissatisfaction.
You can be motivated to do something intrinsically (it gives you satisfaction and enjoyment) or extrinsically (you are given a reward, such as money or recognition). Most people know that intrinsic rewards are the sweeter of the two. That’s basically what graduation speakers mean when they employ hoary nostrums such as “Find a job you love, and you will never work a day in your life.”
But there’s a twist: Psychologists have found that extrinsic rewards can actually extinguish intrinsic rewards, leading us to enjoy our activities less. In a classic 1973 study, researchers at Stanford and the University of Michigan showed this in an experiment with preschoolers. The researchers allowed a group of kids to choose their preferred play activities—for example, drawing with markers—which they happily did. The kids were later rewarded for that activity with a certificate featuring a gold seal and a ribbon. The researchers found that after they had been given the certificate, the children became only about half as likely to want to draw when they weren’t offered one. Over the following decades, many studies have shown the same pattern for a wide variety of activities, across many demographic groups.
Relying on external rewards lowers satisfaction. You will like your job less if your primary motivation is prestige or money. You will appreciate your relationships less if you choose your friends and partners based on their social standing. You will relish your vacation less if you choose the destination for how it will look on social media.
The scorecard approach to life also feeds right into a known human tendency that drives us away from happiness: People often have trouble finding lasting satisfaction from worldly rewards, because as soon as we acquire something, our desire resets and we are looking to the next reward. Check one box, and another one immediately appears. And, of course, it’s always a bigger box. No one envisions life’s boxes in terms of downward mobility: “By 40, I aim to make less money and no longer own my home!” It’s always aspirational: We will have more, perform better, get richer.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with aspiration. But if your happiness depends on an escalating list of worldly accomplishments, you might soon find that your fear of failure supplants your ambition.
To increase our happiness, we need better questions than “What accomplishments should be on my scorecard?” Let me suggest a few that will lead to answers that can deliver authentic well-being.
1. Who has intrinsic characteristics that I admire and want to emulate?
Money, possessions, and power are all characteristics extrinsic to a person. Therefore, emulating them in others will lead you to extrinsic motivations for your own activities, which, as we have seen, will likely lower happiness. Instead, look for admirable intrinsic characteristics in others—virtues such as compassion, faith, fortitude, and honesty. Imitating these characteristics cultivates intrinsic motivations. Thus, they are the best criteria for finding the right role models and mentors to imitate and learn from.
2. What do people most need from me, and how can I provide it?
The box-checking exercise tends to be about my wants. Shifting it to others’ needs brings greater well-being. This is straightforward: Decades of research—and millennia of common sense—have shown that self-centeredness leads to fluctuating emotions at best, while a focus on the needs of others can bring stable happiness. And lest you think this makes a person passive or unambitious, note that there is a significant body of evidence showing that a focus on the good of one’s institution (as opposed to oneself) enhances career success as well.
3. What is my life’s purpose?
Heavy question, I know. But we all know that sooner or later, it has to be addressed, and the box-checking approach to success manifestly does not do that. It is little more than an exercise in answering the “what” questions of life: what you do for work, what you own, what people think of you. As my friend the management expert Simon Sinek likes to point out, understanding our purpose comes from answers to life’s “why” questions. These answers deliver both success and happiness, but they require serious thought and reflection.
Scorecards of self-focused, worldly rewards are easy to create by looking at any “30 by 30” bucket list. But they won’t lead any of us to happiness. For that, we need better metaphors for growth and progress than a list. I would suggest a light.
Instead of checking items off a list, the Buddha suggests shining a light on yourself and others. “Dwell as a lamp unto yourself,” he advised his disciple Ananda. He meant that happiness comes from the illumination of your greatest virtues, thus showing the way for other people, and making visible to yourself your true purpose. This ancient wisdom is a near-perfect summary of what the research says will bring us true well-being as we make our way through life.