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Why Smart People Are Unhappy, And How To Change That



If we told you that stress is subjective, you’d probably start calling us names. But come to think of it, stress and time aren’t as closely related as we think. Most resident doctors today work over eighty hours a week, and some entrepreneurs manage to top that number as well. And yet, there are people who do it for years, decades even, and seem not to crack under the pressure. What, then, drives some people to be more unhappy with work than the others?

In a WaitButWhy comic from 2013 , the author talks about what makes millennials such an unhappy bunch. And the #UnpopularOpinion is not very far off the mark.


The equation here is simple enough to understand. Happiness is what remains when expectations are subtracted from reality. In other words, if one’s expectations far outmatch the reality of their circumstances, they are unhappy. Now, if we extend the same theory to smart people, we can start to see the problem.


Smart people have always been more successful than their peers. Whenever they do something, an internal voice reminds them that they can do one better. In other words, they have never had a chance to experience true contentment. Hence, they’re always aiming faster, higher, better. And they’re unhappy because reality is different.


The reality of it all is that there will be days when they’re forced to take a sick leave, or days when things just go wrong, or even days when they are unable to finish what they started. Rarely, if ever, is leadership a series of steady steps in the upward direction. There are days of self-doubt, disappointment and fear. There are days when the money in the bank looks likely to dry up sooner than one would like. There are just those days when the world prefers to spin on a different axis.


Now, the people who have been given credit for being smart believe that it is their job to fix these problems. In many ways, it is- what would we do without the idealism that built spaceships? In many ways, a good leader is expected to reverse the spin, to work miracles, to be the maker of the metaphorical rain.


What’s the problem, then?


The problem, of course, is always in what we expect of ourselves. If we do expect to work miracles but fail to do so, what does this do to our self-esteem? Because stress is almost always an internal trigger, it can also be fixed from the inside-out.


Here are a few ways to lower the bar of expectations and find more joy in the everyday.


​1. Challenge Your Perfectionism:

Do you take pride in being a perfectionist? It may be time to reevaluate that stance. If you are in the habit of saying ‘yes’ to progressively growing workload, stop! Take the next six months into account and commit only to that which you, and your team, are capable of. Not only is taking on more than you can a clear sign that you need to change, but it also marks a particularly bad boss who breaks the team very quickly.


2. Do One Thing Everyday That Makes You Happy:

If that sounds like the title of a book, know that it is. Spare time each day to indulge in small, meaningful tasks that make you happy. It might mean watching your kid play football, cooking meals on weekends, just taking five minutes out to meditate. Don’t let your time be dictated by anyone other than yourself.


3. Consider What Will Happen If You Slow Down:

For many of us, not wanting to slow down is born from the fear of being dispensable. The hard truth is that all of us are, in different ways, dispensable. Once we begin to accept this truth in ways big and small, we can extract ourselves from tasks that we aren’t really expected to do anyway.


4. Understand That You Are Human:

Did you know that when loaded to full capacity, the brain’s frontal lobe simply decides to offer you distractions? If you feel the chronic need to switch between apps, do something other than the task at hand after five minutes, your brain is basically shutting down. When the work is meaningful, we can retain more snippets of information as we work. When it isn’t, memory begins to leak out of us. It has been found that for many people who are considered smart, work quickly loses meaning, their memories begin to leak, and they stop doing well. As a human being, challenge yourself to new and diverse tasks and keep yourself engaged, both at work and outside of it.

On the happiness scale of 1-10, with 10 being completely happy, where would you rate yourself? What is the most significant drain on your happiness right now? Can you make a start to fix it?

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