The last time the issue came up, I went running to my bookshelf and discovered that Phillip C. McGraw, Ph.D., the O magazine columnist, had dealt with the happiness thing in his book Life Strategies. "Most people do not know how to describe what they want, because they don't have a clue what it really is," Dr. Phil writes. "How often, for example, have you heard someone else say, 'All I really want in this life is to be happy'? It sounds like a commonsense answer, but as a life goal, it is destined for failure."
I called Dr. Phil to learn more. "How do you figure out specifically what you want in life?" I asked.
"You must ask yourself a series of four questions," he told me. They are: What do I want? What must I do to have it? How would I feel when I have it? So, what I really want is to feel ___ (fill in the blank)?
Once you've answered these questions, you circle back for round two (and maybe three and four) of the same questions. And—this is important—you can't give the same answer twice. The idea, Dr. Phil said, is to keep digging deeper, for root answers. "Most people start out with something pretty superficial," he said, "like wanting a new job, a new car, or a new husband—something external to themselves. But what they really want is pride in themselves, for example."
If you play this game alone, writing down your answers is helpful; if you do it with a friend, choose someone you trust. And remember: This is a "What do you want?" exercise that should be followed by the drawing up of a "How do you get it?" real-life action plan.
To demonstrate how the exercise works, Dr. Phil sat down with a volunteer in his Dallas office and talked her through it. Jackie (not her real name) is 31. Notice how her happiness goal shifts as they talk.
Phil McGraw: Jackie, when you think about creating a plan for your life, I want you to first answer a simple question: What do you want?
Jackie: I want to be financially successful.
PM: And what do you have to do to become financially successful?
J: I have no clue where to start.
PM: That's okay—start with the things you can do to move toward that goal.
J: I'd have to start by having a great job.
PM: So if you had a great job and became financially successful, how would you feel?
J: As if I'd accomplished something.
"So what you really want is to be free"