My second week participating in MEC’s Happiness Program started off great, or so I thought. I arrived on Monday morning with a smile on my face, excited to hear what Helen would be teaching us this week. I was completely engaged, rarely checking my Blackberry during the two-hour session. After class, I found myself settling in at my desk, ready for the positive week ahead. Only 30 minutes passed before I received upsetting news that threatened to turn my positivity upside down. A key member on my team came to inform me that he would be resigning from his position. Although I had obtained new-found tools to manage stress, it wasn’t long until I found myself reverting back to my old ways.
The second class still fresh in my mind, I reminded myself what we had learned about Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar and his major contribution to the study of Happiness: the Hamburger Model. This simplicity of this model makes it quite easy to apply to your everyday experiences — visualize a 2x2 chart where each of the four quadrants represents the stages of how we feel (good or bad) both now and in the future.
Starting with the bottom right box you will find Hedonism, which describes activities that feel good now, but don’t feel good later. If you move to the left, there is Nihilism, which represents the things you do that feel bad both now and later. Moving up to the third box, there’s Rat Racing, where you feel bad now, but think what you’re doing will make you feel good in the future. Finally, the top right box is where Happiness lives and this is where the activities that make you feel good now and also in the future belong. When you think about it, everything we do can be boiled down to fit on the square.
So why is it called the Hamburger model? Simply put, various types of hamburgers fall into each of the boxes. Veggie burgers for example are representative of Rat Racing, where you don’t actually enjoy the taste, but you know you should eat them for health benefits down the road. Meanwhile a greasy, cheesy, bacon cheeseburger would represent Hedonism. It tastes great when you’re eating it, but you know you’ll be sorry later.
Each one of us has experiences that fall into each of the quadrants, which leads us to determine where we are spending the majority of our time. I challenged myself to look at my own individual activities to help me understand how to move myself into the happy square, thus minimizing my time spent in the other three boxes.
I found this exercise quite transformational. At first I believed that much of my time would be spent in the Rat Racing quadrant. I’ve always been a Type A overachiever. Thinking back to the first few years of my career, I was constantly looking to get as much done as I could so I’d be first in line for that next promotion. However, when I focused on my present situation, I actually found that my typical workday is a mix of Rat Racing and Hedonism. And when my stress elevates, I quickly revert into the Nihilism box on the bottom left. For example, when I got the news of the resignation of a key player on my team, I immediately reacted poorly. I focused on the negatives — how much work needed to be done, how over-burdened the team would feel in the coming days, how the clients would react to the news.
In sitting down to write this column and reflect on my experience, I realized that my reaction was something that I had control over. Rather than looking at the situation as a negative, I needed to realize that people move on to new experiences as they advance in their careers, and this was an opportunity for me to turn this news into something positive for our team. While we all were sad to lose our colleague, the reality is I now had an opportunity to make some positive changes to our team structure, reshuffle responsibilities to better align with leadership at the agency, and in turn, set the stage for a stronger team to handle future needs. This optimistic outlook allowed me to hone in on a potential solution that would inspire my team while creating an environment that ensures they thrive now and in the future. This was a breakthrough.
While we may not be able to move every activity from the three quadrants into one of happiness, we do have the power to better manage our ability to see things more positively, ensuring we better handle the stress we are confronted. We have a choice on where we spend our time and how we manage the activities that fall outside of the happiness quadrant. Reflecting on my learnings, I’ve compiled some advice on how to solidify your own happiness:
1. Remove Negativity. There are behaviors that we need to be aware of that only provide a short-term benefit (hedonism) or even hold the promise of long-term happiness (rat racing), but we can train ourselves to stop doing them. For example, focusing on the negatives when you are faced with disappointment is not going to get you anywhere good now or later.
2. Accept Those Things You Cannot Change. There will always be activities that we don’t like, don’t want to do but have to do, or have no control over. We can try to reduce these as much as possible, finding delight in all circumstances. For example, recognizing that while we may not be happy with how things are going or certain changes that occur, change actually brings an opportunity for something better.
3. Shift Your Focus. There are activities we participate in on a daily basis that, if modified, can increase our time spent doing happy things. For example, remember that as a leader, you have an opportunity to lead by example and set a positive tone in times of uncertainty.
It’s been quite a week to exercise my newfound happiness muscles. Taking the time to reflect on what I’ve learned so far forced me to take the step back and regain perspective. Hopefully I won’t deal with any negative news this week, but if I do, at least now I know how to try to find the happiness in the situation.
Karen Kwarta heads the Digital practice at MEC. She has been with the agency for over three years, and was previously a Group Director. Prior to her roles at MEC she was an Account Director at Razorfish. She has her BBA in Marketing from University of Michigan.