Can being disciplined make you happy?

Can being disciplined make you happy? This is an interesting question that most people don’t think about. At least, they don’t think about it in the way that I’m going to talk about it here.

Most people think that if they are disciplined with their exercise they will get in or stay in good physical shape. Most people trust that if they spend time studying for a test they will likely pass. Most people believe that if they are disciplined in practicing a musical instrument every day, like piano or violin, that they will improve. And, these things are true. So, why don’t we take this same effort at getting better to being happy?

This is because most people don’t think about disciplining themselves to be happy. They don’t think it will take any effort. Many people believe that happiness is a product of something from the outside.

This is the Great Western Disease of “I’ll be happy when…” when I get the car, the house, the mate. It is inculcated in us by the most popular storyline in contemporary life. “There is a person. The person spends money on a product or service. The person is eternally happy…”

This is called a TV commercial. The average American spends 140,000 hours watching TV commercials. Some brainwashing is inevitable. Is it any wonder that we believe that in achieving the goal of said marketing campaign that we will be changed forever, happy at last? Unfortunately, this just isn’t true.

What is true is that happiness comes from the inside and it takes discipline to be happy.

Until a few years ago, I had never coached an executive who was also a medical doctor. I’ve now had the privilege of coaching three: Dr. Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank; Dr. John Noseworthy, the president of the Mayo Clinic; and Dr. Raj Shah, the former administrator of the United States Agency for International Development. Along with being brilliant, they are three of the most dedicated, high-integrity people I have ever met.

Early in my coaching process with each doctor I went over the six daily questions process. The questions are very simple and my clients are to ask themselves these questions every day for two weeks. The questions are things like, “Did I do my best to set clear goals?” They loved this one. Another is “Did I do my best to make progress toward my goals?” They ate this one up too. When it came to the question, “Did I do my best to be happy?” all three doctors looked confused as they considered it.

“Do you have a problem with being happy?” I asked.

In three separate interactions, each man responded with almost the same words: “It never occurred to me to try to be happy.”

All three had the intellectual bandwidth to graduate from medical school and ascend to chief executive roles, and yet they had to be reminded to be happy. That’s how difficult it is to truly be happy. Even the sharpshooters among us can miss a really big target.

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