You're walking on a sunny beach in California.

The sun is baking you to a crisp, and that's what makes it so  fun. You look back and see your footprints in the sand, which reminds you of a cheesy postcard at Hallmark. A loved one is with you. It's an amazing experience, and you're happy.

You know what would ruin that moment? According to a new study released this month, thinking about whether you're happy or setting a lofty goal for your own happiness is a major buzzkill. Analyzing a group of people, asking them questions about their happiness goals (which honestly sounds like it could also ruin the experience), the researchers found that the self-analysis about happiness and goal-setting tends to make people less happy.

We all know how this works.

Back to that beach setting, if you simply end up on a beach and walk in the sand, perhaps because you're flight home was delayed or you found out you have a lot of free time on a business trip, you just enjoy the moment. You soak it in. The sense of happiness is almost overwhelming, yet you don't bother analyzing it. Maybe when you return home, you realize you enjoyed friends and family, you weren't that stressed. Happy just happened.

Interestingly, what the study revealed is that the pursuit of happiness actually takes too much time. You're putting all of the pieces into place--the flight, the hotel room, what to wear on the beach, who to spend the time with--and suddenly that effort and goal-setting is what consumes you, not actually feeling happy. Because we're all so inclined to manage our time effectively, thanks to years of indoctrination in the workplace, we think it is also the answer when it comes to arranging all of our free time.

The opposite is true. The building blocks for obtaining happiness take away from the experiences we have; what works instead is a heavy dose of spontaneity.

This happened to me recently, and it was at work. I was scheduled to meet with a few students, but many of them were running late. I ended up joking around with a smaller group, and it was totally unplanned. That evolved into a lunch...and more joking around. It was not in Outlook, it was not on Google Calendar. It was loosely structured. It was last-minute. And, it was awesome.

I heard a quote recently about phone addiction. I can't recall the author, but the basic paraphrase is this: You should do something so amazing that you forget to check your phone. That's good advice for anyone who wants to be happy, especially at work. The pursuit of happiness is not the answer. A better plan? To let life happen, to let plans unfold.

On a business trip, that might mean setting down the phone and closing the lid on your laptop. It might mean checking out of the hotel early and wandering around San Francisco. It might mean you call a friend (you know, instead of texting) and just have a free-form conversation about the weather. What that study revealed to me is that happiness is a byproduct of good decisions and circumstances that are beyond our control, that when we give up control over our happiness we gain it all back.

What's your secret? I'd love to hear about how you have found happiness in the circumstantial, the spontaneous, the unplanned moments of life. But a word to the wise. Stop trying to arrange everything so that you're happy.

Don't schedule it. Don't plan it. Live it.

Published on: Mar 19, 2018