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"
J: Well, it'd have to be difficult—I mean, nothing that you want in life is really easy.
PM: So you'd have to face some challenges?
PM: And if you had faced those challenges and had accomplished a few goals, how would you feel then?
J: I couldn't just stop there. I'd think, There's got to be something beyond this. There's always more.
PM: So what you really want is to feel as if you're on the move in your life. What will you have to do to feel that?
J: I'd have to stop denying that I'm stuck.
PM: How are you going to feel when there's no more denial in your life?
J: Fulfilled. And proud of myself.
PM: And how will you feel when you can honestly say, "I am really proud of myself because I've got a step-by-step plan—no more denial"?
J: On top of the world.
PM: And what exactly does that mean?
PM: So what you really want is to be free—free of a sense of being bogged down, free of a sense of living in denial.
PM: Jackie, you've said, "I want to be proud. I want to be fulfilled. I want to be free." And you know yourself better than anybody else does. What will you have to do so that you can feel that way?
J: I'll have to be disciplined. And I must be open to the challenge of change.
PM: Very good. If you started living your life in a disciplined way, instead of in a "if it feels good, do it" sort of way, and if you opened yourself up to challenge instead of running from it, how would you feel?
J: I'd feel like I have a place in the world—and I won't always be wishing that I were somebody else.
PM: So what you really want is to accept yourself for who you are and feel like you belong somewhere in this world?
PM: What a great goal that is!
What really makes people happy