If you have to try to be cool, you will never be cool. If you have to try to be happy, then you will never be happy. Maybe the problem these days is people are just trying too hard.                                                                                                                         Mark Manson

My athletic career (“career” is probably overdoing it) peaked when I was sixteen years old. That summer I led the league in hitting, setting the stage for a brilliant high school career that included exactly one year of junior varsity mediocrity. Not until I began running half marathons as an adult (every spring my kids optimistically predicted, “Dad this year you’re going to win,”despite the other 20,000 runners) did I achieve any success in sports. And by success, I mean surviving, not winning.

My meteoric athletic career was boosted by a decent dose of natural ability and shortened by a a severe allergy to practice. In fact my success in the batter’s box was due largely to my dad’s seemingly endless interest in taking me out to hit balls, so he probably should have gotten my trophy. Actually there was no trophy. Hey, where’s my trophy???

Along the way I got a lot of advice (baseball is a surprisingly superstitious sport), with the most important piece being to simply, “Watch the ball,” which is surprisingly easy to forget in the heat of battle. Other parts of the equation require some measure of balance and self-control, which don’t always come easily to teenagers. You should swing hard, but not too hard, usually stated, “don’t try to kill the ball.” If you pitch, as I did for three glorious innings one warm summer evening, you should throw the ball fast but not too fast, since your accuracy will suffer, all of which points us to the idea that hard work is important, but that it is actually possible to try too hard. Also not all of us are cut out to be pitchers.

In 1908, back before most people got serious about studying work or sports performance, two researchers named Yerkes and Dodson demonstrated a principle that is still taught in first year Psych classes: people perform most tasks best when they are trying hard, but not trying too hard. The lovely graph below sums it up, with ‘arousal’ referring to how intense and focused you are, and performance meaning how well you do what you are trying to do. The summary is that you need to be engaged, but there comes a time to just chill out a bit.


Numerous studies since 1908 have extended this finding to a variety of settings and reached the same conclusion: we are most creative and most productive when we are at some middle level of arousal and engagement. In other words, sometimes the solution to performance problems may be to try less hard. Slackers everywhere, rejoice!

Here’s how over-engagement can go, as described by a recent scientific study:

  1. Woman gives her boyfriend a sleep tracking device.
  2. Boyfriend concludes that when he gets a full 8 hours of sleep he has fewer fights with his girlfriend.
  3. Boyfriend sets a goal to get 8 hours every night.
  4. Boyfriend becomes so obsessed with achieving the goal that….he can’t sleep.
  5. Woman finds new boyfriend.

I added that last one, but you know it happened. Also if you can’t sleep tonight you can read the whole study in the journal Sleep Medicine.  Just having this journal in your home should put you out like a light.

Along this same line, Mark Manson (a self-described ‘life enthusiast’) writes that most people who are ‘working’ to find happiness are not actually going for happiness at all, but for the evil third cousin (and frequent imposter) of happiness, pleasure. Why do we focus so doggedly on pleasure? For the same reason I preferred to sit around listening to my 8-track tapes when I needed to practice my swing: it’s easier. Pleasure is superficial and cheap (and can be marketed) but like most easy things it’s short-lived and ultimately not satisfying, and its promise is built on a lie. We need pleasure, but people who pursue it (at the expense of more meaningful things) wind up less happy, more anxious and less emotionally stable.

What was the last thing you bought to make yourself happy? Odds are 99:1 that you actually bought pleasure, not happiness or meaning, and if you do this enough times you may conclude that all those fine folks selling you the stuff are crooks, or that happiness is unattainable, or that life is meaningless, and you may wind up jaded and cynical. If you have ever lain in bed trying to will yourself to go to sleep, or focused so intensely on an incoming curve ball that you missed it entirely, you know what this feels like. Sometimes the best outcomes in life are byproducts, not goals, and most of the research says happiness is one of these outcomes: pursue it too hard and it will slide right by you.

So what’s a happiness seeker to do? How do you slide sideways into this thing we all want? In short, you don’t find happiness by trying to build a happy life; you find happiness by building a meaningful life, one that focuses on things bigger than you, one that prioritizes people over possessions, and one that includes something that is worth getting up for every morning. Amazingly, most of these things can be had for free, and not one of them will try to sell you an extended warranty. Charles Spurgeon addressed this in the Christian context: I looked at Christ and the dove of peace flew into my heart. I looked at the dove and it flew away. Translation: peace is a by-product of following Christ, not the end goal. Other faiths and science (a faith in most senses of the word) agree: happiness is slippery, and if you try to grab it you are likely to wind up empty handed.

Ultimately, you choose where you invest your time and energy. Focus on building a meaningful life, and happiness will come along for the ride. But focus on getting happiness and you are likely to wind up with neither one.

Keep your eye on the ball.


Read Mark Manson’s full work here.

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