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Be Careful What You Wish For

Posted in Tenure and Promotion

If coaching is all about helping you discover and achieve a better life at work and home, then trusting your dreams would seem to be terribly important. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert has some eye-popping news for people who believe they know what will make them happy. In his new book Stumbling on Happiness, Gilbert uses experimental studies to support a radical idea: if we really want to know what will make us happy, we are better off looking at what makes others happy instead of relying on introspection.

Gilbert claims that people are very bad at predicting their future happiness because they don’t account for how well they will adapt to new situations. Thus, they expect that both positive and negative events will have a much greater impact on their happiness than they will. For example, people who are eager to marry someone they love experience a blip of extra happiness (usually), but within two years their self-assessment of overall happiness is about where it was before marriage. Also, women who believe their life will be joyful if only they have a child eventually rate childcare on the same level of fulfillment as doing laundry.

When I went through formal training at a coaching school, a lot of emphasis was placed on helping clients discover their dreams. We were trained in helping clients through visualization exercises. This kind of thing seems to be fairly common in coaching training and practice. Gilbert’s work throws water on this notion.

So what consistently helps people to achieve greater happiness? A warm family and close friends is unrivalled. The satisfaction of making progress towards a worthy goal. Raises and increases in responsibility and status should be less valuable — at least after a certain level is achieved — than having more harmonious relationships with co-workers, mentoring, and leading teams towards a goal that they can collectively feel good about.

One lesson for coaches and their clients: if the stakes are always lower than the client imagines, reminding the client of this fact should help to reduce stress, leading to better performance.