Janice is a lucky woman.
She has a family who loves her (and she loves them, too).
She works a nice job that pays a nice salary, so she can live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood and take relatively frequent, relatively nice vacations.
Last year Janice and her family gathered for a fall harvest celebration.
Someone asked everyone at the table to share something they’re grateful for.
When it was Janice’s turn, she felt compelled to list the many things in her life.
As she did so, she began feeling less grateful for each item.
Internally, every “nice” thing had an equally un-nice sibling.
“I’m so grateful for my family” (that I don’t spend enough time with).
“I’m so grateful for my nice house” (that I hardly get to enjoy).
“I’m so grateful for my nice job” (that might be slowly eating the life out of me).
It felt like she was describing someone else’s nice life, not hers.
Underneath it all, something was missing.
Janice’s story is surprisingly common in white, upper-middle-class America.
How many good, hard-working people with seemingly endless things to be grateful for still feel unfulfilled?
There’s a name for this phenomenon, and it’s well-documented in psychology research.
It’s called “hedonic adaptation” or “the hedonic treadmill.”
Hedonic adaptation occurs when, despite increased amenities or so-called life improvements, there’s no real increase in your sense of happiness and fulfillment.
When people feel this sneaking sense of dissatisfaction, they believe it’s a personal problem. It’s easy to believe there’s something wrong with me. After all, how can I have all this goodness and have it not feel good?
In personal development, there’s a lot of talk about “how to escape the hedonic treadmill.”
Because people think it’s a problem with them, they pursue individualized solutions.
People go to talk therapy; they follow obscure health trends like Kundalini yoga, or they try dieting, exercising, or buying their way out of their discomfort. These efforts are not bad or wrong.
None of it seems to soothe the restless impulse beneath this anxiety, though.
Many of these personal fads exacerbate the underlying sense of dissatisfaction.
So what’s really going on here?
We work in a system that capitalizes on our perpetual dissatisfaction.
To unpack this story a bit more, we need to zoom out to look at some of the fundamental agreements we make as participants in North-American society.
For starters, our society is capitalistic. Each of us requires an income or other means of acquiring money to buy the basic things we require in life, like shelter, food, and water.
In other words, work is a fundamental requirement for most of us. We have to work.
This system has many benefits. It means huge numbers of people are devoted to creating value across society. Doing things like inventing novel solutions to problems, creating ways to build those things, and building ways of spreading those wonderful things to as many people as possible. All of this creative output is good for society.
And there are benefits on a personal level, too. Work can provide a deep sense of meaning in people’s lives. It can be something to devote your creative energy to and provide a clear direction for development and meaningful contributions.
Our capitalistic society makes it easy to believe that our worth is made of our work.
After each of my children was born, I remember feeling anxiety and ennui during my maternity leave. I felt insecure that I wasn’t doing anything.
Without my work, I questioned my own contribution and felt a lack of confidence and surety.
All of this despite the immeasurable value I created in my role as a mother.
When I doubted my economic value, I could reassure myself by remembering how valuable and meaningful my job as a mom was.
When I returned to work, this coping strategy flipped on its head.
Suddenly I had to watch from my office as my children grew up, sharing special moments with people other than me.
Looking back, I’d bought into two competing identities.
“I am the best mom.”
“I am the best businesswoman.”
The two, in my mind, couldn’t co-exist.
Like knowing the solution to a maze after you’ve found the exit, I now know what was going on. At the time, though, it was heart-wrenching to have these competing values.
What we create when we don’t know our values
Mary Oliver famously asked, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
It’s a good question. One we’re all asked to answer from a young age.
Our entire education system, for better or worse, is designed around answering this question.
We train young children in a wide smattering of skills in hopes they find some they like to do enough for their career. Then we expect high-functioning young adults to pursue those interests through a college education or advanced degrees before unleashing them into society to create value.
We introduce ourselves by naming our roles.
We spend more time working than we do anything else. We think about work to the detriment of our love relationships, pleasure, and well-being.
Until recently, the only real way we measured the success of our society was in how much we do (using Gross Domestic Product).
This has created ecological mayhem and society of unhealthy, unhappy, yet long-lived workers.
All because the thing we valued most was our output.
We’ve gotten so good at doing we forget we are human beings.
Early in 2020, just as COVID-19 was changing the world as we knew it, my third child was entering adulthood.
An uncertain yet hopeful future lay ahead, with college the first step of emancipation.
Or so I thought.
They didn’t want to go to college, and I couldn’t understand why.
Finally, they laid it out for me in simple language.
“What I want, in this order, are loving relationships, to be healthy, and to find work that pays the bills.”
At that moment, I realized my job as a Mom was done, college or not.
They had things in the right order:
- Loving relationships
- Good health
- Work that pays the bills
But oh, how often we get it wrong.
To immense delight, my kid has been able to stay true to those values they expressed at 17 years old.
In the time since, they’ve built a strong network of supportive, loving friends and prioritized their mental and emotional health.
I’m so proud of their maturity, and I’m humbled by the seeming clarity with which they’ve lived their life. And they are now re-engaged in learning that works for them.
If I had to amend Mary Oliver’s question, I’d say this: there are only so many things you can do with your own wild, precious life. What do you really care about, and how can you live in pursuit of that thing?
Know what you (really) want
All too often, we’re pulled in too many directions
What I find so inspiring about my kid’s young adulthood decision is their ability to pursue a few central motivations continually.
As we’re all well aware, time is a scarce resource. It always has been.
Yet, increasingly, we feel there’s less and less time.
Part of this has to do with the system of capitalism. As I see it, capitalism benefits when we feel panicked about how much time we have left because it causes us to put our heads down and work harder.
Working harder, we pull our gazes even further from what matters.
This means, as individuals, we need to be relentless in clarifying and re-invigorating our deepest values.
You will get demoralized. You have to be ready to know why you’re doing something.
I remember one heartbreaking moment when my middle son told me he could tell when I wasn’t listening because of the look on my face.
He learned to wait to engage with me until he had my full attention. I bristled with defensiveness. I was a present parent; I prioritized my family and flexed my hours. Yes, all true—none of which erased the impacts of my actions.
Rather than deflate and feel I’m a failure, at this moment, I remembered one of my deepest values: to provide a nurturing home full of opportunity for my children.
The reality of pursuing this value was that, sometimes, creating opportunities (working to support my beloveds) meant hard trade-offs.
And, when I remembered, that was a sacrifice I was willing to make.
At the same time, that hard feedback helped me commit to showing up fully present when I AM with my family.
The common factor is clarity.
One theme resounds in all that I’ve been talking about: you have to be clear about what you value.
That clarity can guide you when times are tough; it can provide solace when you feel lost.
Here are some ways your values can clarify potentially uncomfortable situations.
Four things you should get clear about
Get clear about your attention.
You’ll know where to direct your attention when you are clear about what you value. Do you need your devices on in the evening, or can you unplug to be with your loved ones? Neither choice is inherently better. It all depends on what you want to create in the world; what you value.
Get clear about your work.
Are you clear on what your employer expects and when? These can be firm without being rigid. For example, at Moementum, two of my team work 4-day workweeks.
Generally, these days are sacred for them as “off.” But sometimes, the work requires that they flex and complete a task or project on a Friday. Similarly, we flex if they usually work Wednesdays, but something like a medical appointment comes up.
We’re very clear that while we value our time off, we’re also trying to create a strong business—and those values sometimes compete. We aim for balance in the long term, not necessarily every day.
Center yourself on why you do your work beyond just the money it makes. Money is a key motivator for all of us in a capitalist society, but it is not the only reason we work. Ask yourself, what about what I do matters to someone? Remind yourself and your team about that often. Having a purpose for our work helps us get through the hard days and celebrates the role our work plays in our identity on this planet.
Get clear with your loved ones about what you want to create.
In lockdown, my husband and I switched to mostly working at home. One of our frequent arguments is that he often takes work calls on his headphones in the living room, kitchen, and garden. For me, this is like nails on a chalkboard. His loud booming voice and having to hear half of his work conversations just feel like it eroded my sense of the sanctity of our home, the place we come together to love and gather and connect.
For my part, when I look at my phone when we are sharing morning coffee in the garden, it pops the couple bubble for him and hurts.
We can both do better, which starts when we can both get clear about the life we want to build.
Get clear about what you love—by exploring.
Find and cherish hobbies. This is what you do for fun and pleasure. It matters less what it is than the fact that you have some. I am surprised how many of my clients have no answer when I ask what they do for fun. I sometimes then ask, what did you use to do for fun?
Most can remember when they played or pursued interests outside of work. Pick something you love to do and make time for it. Often, our hobbies include our families and friends, so design ways to do what gives you pleasure together. A few of my hobbies include walking with my husband, cooking meals together, riding my horse Callahan, running with friends, tending to the garden and the bees, traveling, and more.
What meaning or purpose drives you in your work? How do you keep your relationships front and center?
How we use values to guide leadership identity
Our flagship course, The Leading People Program™️, provides participants with well-rounded assessments of their leadership styles and patterns.
Participants are often surprised to find differences between how they see themselves and how others see them.
But as leaders, it’s extremely important to know when we’re acting in alignment with our values and when we aren’t.