Leadership: The Difference Between Happiness and Misery

“The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another. . . Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others: but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquillity of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice.” 
— Adam Smith (The Theory of Moral Sentiments)

Our circumstances have far less impact on our happiness than we think. Happiness is not a derivation of the choice you make; it comes from how you feel about the choice you make.  In fact, the assumption of happiness may even determine the choice you make – an ultimate a priori choice. Further, effective leadership is determined a priori to the choice you make about your circumstance, how you feel about it, and how it affects others.  

“Human beings have this marvelous adaptation that they can actually have experiences in their heads before they try them out in real life. ~Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness.

Your every circumstance has the potential either to produce hope, leave you longing for hope, or doom you to misery because you have no hope.  But this potential does not lie in the circumstance. The potential lies within you and your capacity for hope, regardless of circumstance.  A leader’s hope can be contagious. A leader’s hope precedes circumstance.

A common question of a leader in any circumstance will be, “What else is possible?

Hope is the outcome of conceived possibilities that transcend circumstance – the expectation of positive outcomes regardless of current hardship.  When we are able to see our circumstances in a new way, this creates new possibilities for action and outcome, and this creates hope.

Leaders have hope.  Leaders exude hope.  Leaders instill hope.  Leaders have the responsibility to interpret circumstance and shape circumstance, creating a context of hope. Leaders conceive a better future in any circumstance. When a leader is able to help people see circumstances in a new way, possibilities emerge, hope is born, as is collective genius and innovation.

Greater possibilities emerge from a leader with hope.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” ~Oscar Wilde

But if we hope for what is still unseen by us, we wait for it with patience and composure.” ~Romans 8: 25 (Amplified Bible)

“Since everything here today might well be gone tomorrow, do you see how essential it is to live a holy life?” ~2 Peter 3:11 (The Message)


This reminds me of the parable about “All the Wisdom in the World”:

There was a young king wanted to be absolutely sure that he managed the affairs of his kingdom properly.  So he drew together all the sages, soothsayers and wise men of his kingdom together, and he said, “Go forth and find all the wisdom of the world. Collect this wisdom, summarize it for me, and bring to me the wisdom of the world. I want to see it; I want to read it; I want to know it.”

And the wise sages worked for many months, and they brought back to him scrolls and scrolls of what they called the Wisdom of the World, the pithy sayings of the world. The volume of scrolls was so heavy, it took a dozen of the wise men to carry them to the young king.

And they said, “This is it; this is the wisdom of the world.”

And the king looked at it, and he said, “This is good. Thank you. This is wonderful, but it is too much information to know.  Can you reduce this, like a fine French sauce? Reduce it to maybe a single volume.”

And so they went back, and they worked, and they worked, and they worked for several months, and they brought back a single volume of the best of the wisdom of the world. And they said, “This is it.”

And the young king took the single scroll, and he held it gingerly in his hands, and he thumbed through it, and he read it for a little while, and after a couple of weeks he brought his wise men back together, and he said, “This again is good. But what I really would like for you to do is to reduce the wisdom of the world even further. Leave out anything that is not necessary. Can you put all the wisdom in the world in a sentence?”

And they said, “We don’t know. We don’t know if we can do this.”

And so finally after many more months of work, all the sages, soothsayers and wise men came back to him, and they had come to a unanimous conclusion that the wisdom of the world could be put into a four-word sentence.

The sentence of their wisdom was: “This too shall pass.”

The young king was elated. “This sentence expresses much! It is chastening in the hour of pride and consoling in the depths of afflictions,” he said.  “This is the wisdom by which I will rule my kingdom.”


In the TEDTalks video below, author Dan Gilbert gives us a “test” about happiness. One choice is winning a $314 million lottery; the other is becoming a paraplegic. Which would you choose? (I have a strong hunch.) In fact, data demonstrates lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy one year after winning the lottery or losing the use of their legs. Watch the video in its entirety, as Dan Gilbert describes “impact bias”, the concepts of natural and synthetic happiness, and how circumstances “have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have.

About pdncoach

A Go-Giver business coach working with leaders whose success depends on the performance and productivity of others. I coach individual leaders and their teams... in small to mid-size businesses, ministries and non-profits... to accelerate their results and achieve dreams by getting past the difficult, strategic challenges of their current realities.
This entry was posted in assumptions, choice, circumstances, expectations, happiness, hope, leadership. Bookmark the permalink.

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