Saturday, January 10, 2015

Accomplishment and Satisfaction Over Happiness

“Great things are done when men and mountains meet.” 
― William Blake

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
― Maya Angelou

The Challenge Accepted

Wow! No one had asked me about that tool in over a year. I was sure that no one was using it anymore, I thought to myself as I read the request to review a set of changes and update requests. A bit excited that something I had created was still interesting to others; I decided to take on the work of reviewing changes and updating the tool.

I was satisfied with the tool after I created it. Over time, my skills and the available tools have improved and the code looked very inadequate. That is me trying to be easy on myself. Of course, the inadequate area of the code happened to be the area I needed to update due to a deprecated API.

Continuing despite how I felt

It took me a day to recreate my desire to update the code after looking at it and feeling frustrated about it's state. I was definitely not happy!

Once I started working on the code, I was sure things would get better quickly and I would have it back to a state that made me smile. Nope! After an hour of working, I had completely obfuscated the code. So, I reverted it back to the original state to get the test working again. At this point I was feeling angry with myself and I definitely was not feeling happy!

This unhappy state was not due to an oppressive working environment. It was not due to anyone around me not doing their job and dumping all the hard stuff on me. It wasn't even due to terrible, buggy code, this code only had one defect reported by users and that was for a test case that did not exist when I released it. It was simply the emotions I felt as I went through relearning and dealing with the state of something that was not easy to deal with, mostly due to time.

Accomplishment and Satisfaction

The next day, I set all of those feelings aside and worked on updating the code. The first I noticed was there were things I did not need. The code that needed updating came from someone who required features I did not need so I deleted those parts. That made it much easier to deal with and understand.

The person who asked for the update sent me a link to a document that described updating from the old style to the new style and this turned out to be simple with the unused parts removed. After a couple of hours I was done and all the old tests still passed. I accomplished what I set out to accomplish and it was satisfying. I was happy for a while, as well.

Wes, why do you write this simple story?

It was been relatively popular of late to recommend people measure happiness to see how well teams and people are performing, especially in the agile community.  It generally works by asking question like the following:

  • How happy are you? (on a scale from 1 “very unhappy” to 5 “very happy”)
  • What makes you feel best right now?
  • What makes you feel worst right now?
  • What would increase your happiness?

NOTE: The implementation of the happiness index at Crisp had very specific intentions and a better wording than the generic one about. e.g. How happy are you with Crisp? vs. How happy are you? Though still using the idea of happiness, they also state in the blog post that "The important thing is not really the content of the A3 sheets. The important thing is how they were created, how they are used, and the fact that we now have an explicitly defined identity & strategy, which makes it easier to criticize and iteratively improve over time."

I have strived for happiness, and still do at times and seeking happiness in and of itself is never satisfying. If happiness was what I really wanted, I would not take on many challenges. The example I gave is quite a simple one that involved a few hours over 2 days. In other words, it does not compare to most of the bigger challenges in life I take on.

The intention people seem to have with the happiness index or metric is not my concern. The intent is usually related to creating an environment where people can achieve mastery, autonomy and purpose.

I have the same concern for an environment that allows people to achieve mastery, autonomy and purpose. In my experience happiness does not represent those achievements. This could be a simple definition problem for many using the term. e.g. languages other that english tend to have a broader selection of words that are incorrectly translated to happiness. The first meaning of happiness, from Merriam-Webster is:


 adjective \ˈha-pē\
: feeling pleasure and enjoyment because of your life, situation, etc.
: showing or causing feelings of pleasure and enjoyment
: pleased or glad about a particular situation, event, etc.

Maybe others are different than me, but my feelings, i.e. emotional states or reactions, change throughout the day and usually minute by minute. These feeling are always with me and often affect my actions, yet they do not tend to cause actions that lead to outcomes that move me towards mastery, autonomy, purpose, accomplishment or satisfaction.

In my experience, my feelings often lead me in quite the opposite direction of my intentions. They lead me to stop taking on challenges. They lead me to not do things I thoroughly enjoy. I get to the end of the day and I question why I wasted so much time, feeling sorry for myself, watching TV or reading social media, instead of playing the ukulele, writing down what I have learned today or creating something that solves a problem I saw.

I am not trying to call happiness, and my other feelings, good or bad, that is a bit irrelevant as they are always with me and I must deal with them. I am saying these are not the things to measure.

In order to keep happiness high or more likely return it to some 'acceptable' level, I will need to constantly input some type of stimulus.

I propose we replace the happiness goal with goals for:

Accomplishment: to achieve what we set out to achieve.


Satisfaction: fulfillment of our intentions

As with those experimenting with the happiness index, I am aware that these in and of themselves are not complete. I can easily see someone with destructive intentions using these incorrectly. The very definition leaves room for people to 'fail' because they do not define what we are out to achieve nor what our intentions are.

In my experience, the possibility of failure is required for me to achieve those deeper intentions beyond my own happiness.

I have shared some of my experiences and I do not ask you to apply this to yourself. What would be much more interesting would be for you to look at your own experiences, which will differ from mine, and answer the questions:

Is happiness what helps you verify that you are heading towards your intentions or purpose?

Do accomplishment and/or satisfaction come closer to allowing you to adjust your path towards your intention and purpose?

Maybe there is something else?