There’s a huge amount of self-help literature out there that can help you be happier. But what about being happy in a year like 2020?

A year like no other, especially for me. Not just because of COVID-19. In 2020, I lost my sister – my best friend – to her six-year battle with cancer. I also found out I had early-stage bowel cancer and needed immediate surgery.

Indeed, a year like no other. But it got me thinking: where does our happiness come from? And is it possible to find happiness in such challenging times? The thing about suffering is it can provide unexpected clarity. I don’t know if I’d call it a silver lining, per se, but everything happening at once really influenced my understanding of the source of happiness. Here’s what I discovered, and I think you can benefit from it, too.

Work is not the key to happiness, yet we’re working more

In Bronnie Ware’s book, “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying,” the second biggest regret is “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time in the office.”

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But you don’t need me to tell you that. You know what’s important on your deathbed. The love of friends and family, leaving a legacy, and knowing that you’ve done things that made you happy. Yet, few of us can honestly say this is how we’re living our lives today.

Take work, for example. Work today stems from the industrial revolution – 300 years ago. That’s when we were the machines, the robots. We worked on the production line and were measured by speed and efficiency. We were there to make our bosses richer.

Three hundred years later, however, those measures of success, economic growth, and productivity are no longer working. Productivity growth has stagnated. In Australia, one of the worst performing countries in terms of longer working hours, fewer than one in ten people feel free to innovate or experiment in their work. And a measly 20 percent report being highly engaged.

So, we’re not very happy at work, and we can’t even point to productivity gains and say, “Well, at least I’ve got something to show for all this effort.”

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And oddly, in the time of the pandemic when we’re supposedly targeting mental health and wellness, studies show we’ve actually extended the average working day by 40 minutes since March of 2020 – all in the pursuit of productivity.

More time at home, but less time for life

Work is what we spend about a third of our time doing, by the way. But in a study commissioned last year, 5,000 people across Australia, the United States, Japan, France, and Germany felt pretty mediocre about work despite no longer having to commute to offices. A huge time savings, yet nearly half said they had less time for personal pursuits. In other words, all the things that really make us happy.

Overall, the number one complaint was work-life balance.

I got to thinking, Has my relentless pursuit of productivity caused me to lose sight of what’s really important? Have I allowed myself to wallow in all the things that aren’t going well, no matter how serious, and convinced myself that I have no control?

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Since last March, I’ve put on five kilos. I’m drinking more and sleeping less. That’s COVID’s fault, right? Or is it simply that I’m just not happy?

I realized that instead of identifying all the places where I was unhappy, where I felt overwhelmed and powerless, I had to flip the tables and think about what I could do.

I had to be in action.

The 4 levels of the Personal Moral Inventory™

Imagine a world where our measure of success is not productivity. Imagine that instead of thinking about busyness and titles and bank balances, we thought about our impact on the world. Imagine a world where status isn’t the reason for our existence.

This is where the Personal Moral Inventory™ comes in. The Personal Moral Inventory is about taking the time to reflect on yourself and your life and scoring yourself on four levels. It’s inspired by something called the “quadruple bottom line” which businesses use to report in a more rounded fashion, and an exercise elite military personnel go through to self-assess themselves and their teammates before going into battle.

I believe these four things – productivity and profit, people, planet, and purpose – are the secret to our happiness. And what’s important right now – especially in very difficult times – is not to get distracted by the things we can’t do but to find the things that we can.

That’s to say, it’s on us to take ownership and control of our own happiness.

Here’s how the Personal Moral Inventory works: rate each area minus-one, zero, or one. One means you’re nailing it. High-fives all around. Zero means you’re getting by. Not awesome, not awful. And minus-one means you’re struggling.

Personal Moral Inventory chart of four categories

Note: Don’t try to add this up or net this off. That’s not how it works. Also, you can’t score more than a one in any category. You can’t pack all your happiness into one box. Although it’s often like we’re all trying to get a “2” on productivity, right?

Here’s what I came up with:

  • Productivity and profit: 1
    • I have a good job, a good salary. I have a roof over my head. I can pay the bills.
  • People: 0
    • People is about how you think about your personal, mental, and physical health. Start with yourself. Like they say, you have to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. People is also about how you impact family, friends, and society. It’s about being human and having a positive impact on humanity.
  • Planet: -1
    • Let’s just say I took over one hundred flights in 2019, so I’m gonna score myself a minus-one. Yep. Not great.
  • Purpose: 0
    • Purpose is about the impact you want to have and the legacy you want to leave behind. It’s the why you do what you do. But also, it’s not about being a superhero.

Remember, positive impacts in one category don’t mitigate the negative impacts in another category. For me, the fact that I’m financially well off doesn’t make up for the fact that I’m killing the planet with so much international travel.

But it wasn’t this realization that really got me thinking something had to change in my life and my approach to it.

Shortly after my sister died, I decided to do the PMI exercise on her life. In her final few years, she couldn’t work and she struggled financially. So, for productivity and profit, I had to score her a zero. But for people? She was a definite one. Planet? One. Purpose? Another strong one.

I saw, through doing the exercise for her, that happiness is contextual. The fact that my sister had struggled financially didn’t preclude her happiness. But I saw something else that hit me a lot harder.

Despite everything, my sister had been a lot happier than me.

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Here’s where we get to take our happiness into our own hands. Take the PMI and score yourself on the four measures of the inventory. Think hard about the areas where you score zero or minus-one. Can you commit to doing something to improve those scores?

If I live to the average age of an Australian, I have 46 summers left. But the most important summer is the next one. So, whatever I commit to do, I’ve got to give it a red-hot go in the next summer. And I want you to do the same. Because the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second-best time is today. The simple truth is, we need to do this now.

My worst score was planet. Therefore, I’ve decided to go on a meat-free diet three days a week. After I do this for a while, I’ll reassess. This step is key. I wholeheartedly encourage you to try something – just do it – and then reevaluate and adjust.

Other things I’m doing: I’ve changed my energy provider to one that’s carbon-neutral, and I’ve invested in a company that’s trying to save our oceans. Small steps, but steps.

On people, I’m going to be more present with those I care about. For the last four years, I’ve essentially been single. And if I’m really being honest, I’ve been emotionally unavailable. But I’ve met someone amazing and I plan to invest in that relationship with openness, authenticity, and vulnerability. (And a little bit of cheekiness.)

And purpose? Well, a year ago, I was actually a one. It was influenced by the impact I was having on people through my public speaking, and the precious time I got to spend with my sister. But in a few short weeks at the start of 2020, both disappeared. And in the months since, I’ve really been trying to rediscover my purpose. In truth, I’ve struggled to find it. But then I realized: I have today. I have this moment. As do you.

What will you do? What action can you take? Whatever it is, incorporate it into a holistic approach toward taking full control of your happiness. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking your happiness hinges on one category of the Personal Moral Inventory. The future is not predetermined. I’m building mine, and I believe you’re building yours. How happy we are in our future is determined by our action – or inaction –across all facets of life. And not just in the working week.

I am the key to unleashing my own happiness. And you are the key to unleashing yours.

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