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Happy New Year

This familiar greeting as we transition to a new calendar year may seem like a mere social ritual. Yet a deep wish and longing lie beneath it – namely, that we yearn to have a happy life and wish the same for others. This time of year, you will be reading lots of sidebar articles in print and online publications about New Year’s resolutions. I have written in previous newsletters (Jan. 2002) about why making resolutions doesn’t work but this year I want to give some reflections on what you might do to take a different approach to the New Year – what constitutes a “happy new year” and what you can do to have one. Research from the new subfield of positive psychology has provided scientific evidence that people can do something about raising their happiness level. I have organized some of the main research findings into three areas or strategies for happiness: the three M’s: Meaning, Mastery, and Mindfulness.


Positive psychology researchers led by Martin Seligman at the University of Penn describe three paths to happiness: the pleasurable life, the good life and the meaningful life. They are all important to living a rich and full life with the most important being the meaningful life. The Pleasurable Life involves pleasures such as a nice house, good food, and recreational activities. We all know people for whom this is their only path. They can’t wait until 5 o’clock for real life to begin – whether it is stopping for a few beers at the neighborhood pub or riding their motorcycle – they seek one pleasurable experience after the other without much substance in between.

The Good Life relates to achievements whether from the deep satisfaction of a job well done or time spent in intimate communication with friends and family. When one is between achievements or things are not going so well, people who use this path as their main route to life satisfaction feel a bit empty like something is missing.

The Meaningful Life pulls everything in your life together like a connect-a-dot puzzle providing a foundation for all you do. It answers the question: “Why do I do what I do?” It might include your philosophy of life. It might include your values and how they inform your life decisions. It might include beliefs in something outside of yourself whether a Higher Power or a sense of community. It guides your moral compass and it answers, when all is said at the end-of-life question: “Was it all worth it?”

When I coach people to develop the Meaningful Life as part of a happy new year and a happy life, I ask them to construct their personal Pyramid of Power with four horizontal strips placed on top of each other from the bottom up: purpose, mission, vision, and goals.

  1. A statement of purpose. It answers the question, “Why am I here?” It is usually short, abstract, and, once articulated, changes very little across your lifetime. Some examples that my clients have come up with:

    • “I am a bridge connecting ideas and people for the greater good.”

    • “I manifest God’s love for his people.”

    • “I bring order and beauty to an ugly and chaotic world.”

    Writing such a statement sounds deceptively simple. It often takes awhile and sometimes follows writing the other pieces that form your Pyramid of Power even though it is the bottom strip of the Pyramid.

  2. A mission statement. This statement answers the question: “How shall I live out my life?” It also answers the question, “If I were to live my purpose, what would I be doing?” Longer and more concrete than a purpose statement, it is meant to serve as a guideline for about 3-5 years or 6 months whichever seems most viable. It will get rewritten when it is achieved or when it gets out of date given new opportunities and interests. I like to use a formula developed by Laura Beth Jones in “The Path” including: *3 verbs of what you are good at:

    • 3-8 values that you hold dear;
    • 2-3 groups of people that you serve.

    Here is what one client, a medical researcher, came up with for her mission statement:“I research, promulgate, and teach about coronary artery disease to students, colleagues, and patients who value clarity, integration of ideas, and hope.”

  3. A vision statement. A vision statement answers the question: “If I work on my mission, “What will result?” It represents outcomes hoped for, dreams conceptualized. It will be the longest of these pieces, actually composed of substatements based on categories you create out of dreaming big about your mission and its results for you, your immediate world, and the wider world of your business, family or the globe. Sometimes my clients start with categories such as home, work, family, friendships, or hobbies and then generate how their mission would be articulated into an outcome in each area. Sometimes people start with the specific dreams and categorize later into 6-8 categories that act as umbrellas for catching and holding new dreams and goals. The substatements are stated in the present tense even if they are not currently true. This grammatical form creates immediacy and propels one’s brain forward.

    One client wrote one of her statements about caring for herself: “I am a good steward of my health in body, mind, and spirit.”

  4. Goals. In order to achieve the vision of doing your mission, you will need goals. Most professionals already have lots of goals – more than we can complete in a lifetime. Some of the traditional New Year’s resolutions are goals. What is different here is that the goals are anchored to the rest of the Pyramid of Power instead of floating around by themselves. They relate to a Big Picture of why you are here, what you are doing while you are here, and what you hope results from your actions. Your goals are ways to carry out those hopes.

    Once these elements are created, I help people create a Life Management System to organize, track, and evaluate the elements. It could be in a 3 ring folder so that pages can be moved around, or on a planning wall, or in a computer project management file. These devises should be reviewed and revised periodically such as weekly, monthly, or quarterly. Many of my readers have already developed their Pyramid of Power in the workshop where we first met. Perhaps now is the right time to consider spending a few minutes at the start of this New Year reviewing and revising your Pyramid. If you have not yet taken me up on my offer of a complementary coaching session to get these elements in place, this might be a good time to gift yourself with a session.


Most of my readers are busy professionals with active work lives. A Happy New Year often means some element of success, prosperity, or productivity. The high performance literature is rich with theories about success depending on effort, education, talent, or dedication. While these things are all important, the data don’t support the claim that these factors account for success. There is one variable that shows up in the peak performance literature that accounts for more predictability of success than any other. It shows up in the sports data, business sales data, and even predicts the accuracy of certain medical procedures such as colonoscopies. That variable is mastery, the level of achievement that comes from doing things well consistently. It is attained by one strategy, that of repeated practice with feedback.

Even if you ignore professional sports stories as I usually do, you probably know basketball’s Michael Jordan’s story. Cut from his high school team for lack of talent, he dedicated himself to practice. Sure he was somewhat coordinated. Sure he was motivated but what really made him a star was practicing shooting, dribbling, and rebounding over and over again way beyond the hours when most people would have gotten tired and given up. In his field the natural outcome measure was baskets made. The ball either drops through the hoop or doesn’t – being close doesn’t count. Even when he finally was drafted by the Chicago Bulls, what made him a star on a great team was that he consistently practiced 2-3 hours past the work day of his teammates. He got good because he practiced with feedback, number of baskets made, until he got a groove that he could count on, until his whole body learned how to shoot successfully from every angle.

If you are a gastroenterologist doing colonoscopies, your outcome measure will be polyps removed. Removing polyps translates into lower risks for colon cancer for your patients. According to research published in 2006 in the New England Journal of Medicine, gastroenterologists working on mastery take just a little more time to get from the endoscopic camera. Their effort pays off in their own sense of mastery and in lower long term risks for their patients.

If you want to be successful in sales, ask your satisfied customers what made the sale. Ask your non-buyers what would have made the sale. In addition seek feedback from a sales coach who can watch a video tape of your approach with live prospects.

If you want to be a successful teacher, ask your students for specific feedback. Not, “Did you like the class?” but, “What did you like about the class? What did you learn? What do you wish we had done differently?” Get a master teacher to visit class or view a video tape to give you feedback. Practice new techniques until they are second nature, until you can facilitate discussions easily or give instructions for a lab exercise that your students can actually understand and follow.

If you want to have a Happy New Year in your work life, aim for mastery in one small part of your professional life or other area of your life. Mastery does not mean a relentless pursuit of perfection, though, but merely the targeting of one small area of improvement through a bit of extra practice. It might involve target something in your work life that could be improved. Or this might be the year where you attain mastery in an aspect of a hobby like one year when I did a ballroom dance showcase with my teacher. Unlike the stars on Dancing with the Stars, I didn’t take off from work and family to devote 8 hours a day. Instead I spent 3-6 months mastering the techniques and choreography of a cha-cha routine by taking one lesson a week with my teacher during which he gave me feedback and practicing at home in front of mirror where I got immediate visual feedback. Closer to show time, my teacher and I also practiced with a coach who gave us feedback. While the process was hard work, it was enormously satisfying. I was happy that I mastered a difficult routine and danced it in front of an audience. Is there an area of your work or hobby life where mastery can increase your happiness this year?


Meaning and mastery sounds like such serious business, you might wonder what happened to the Pleasurable or the Good Life. Can’t we have any fun in the New Year? Where is the balance?

The key to successful balance is not in carving out equal portions of your waking time to each aspect of your life. It is in emphasizing what you want to emphasize in each portion. This may change from moment to moment, day to day. That is why you need to be mindful of where you are in the process. I offer to you that most busy professionals need to be mindful of the three kinds of time segments in a typical day or week:

  • Thinking Time
  • Doing Time
  • Buffer Time

Thinking Time is when you plan, track your goals, and assess your successes. It is when you reflect on your Pyramid of Power or goals for mastery and decide what is needed next. It might be when you write a sales presentation or a professional paper.

Doing time is when you do what you do. Taking care of kids is doing time. So is meeting with your employees or faculty to discuss trends in the field. Doing is busy; it is productive - as long as it is guided by your Pyramid of Power.

Buffer Time is the in-between time. Commuting, picking up the dry cleaning, going to doctor’s appointments, getting hair cuts represent things we do in Buffer Time. We need this time. Without it our lives get chaotic and fall apart. We also fill Buffer Time with activities that do not add to our happiness level such as watching TV in Buffer Time, gossiping at the water fountain or faculty lounge, sleeping in, or eating or drinking too much. That is why Mindfulness is so important. Asking, “Is this activity adding to or subtracting from my quality of life?” will bring you up short to see if you are using your time to live a fun, successful, meaningful life. Asking, “Am I having enough fun for my effort,” is another good question. Sometimes doing nothing and just hanging out is important Buffer Time; sometimes it is wasting time. Only you can evaluate which is which.

Mindfulness requires periodically hitting the magic restart button on your brain with time for reflection, relaxation, or meditation. Realigning your neurons with these activities allows you to have more focus in a scattered world. Add in the one activity found by the positive psychology researchers to be especially helpful in deepening your happiness by asking at the end of the day, “What am I grateful for?” It will bring you full circle to connecting all the dots of your Happy New Year: the meaning, mastery and mindfulness of your life.


Have a Happy New Year. A really happy one!

© Copyright 2008 Susan Robison. All rights reserved. The above material is copyrighted but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information.

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