Smart, successful people are unhappy because they have the wrong mindset


leonardo dicaprio the great gatsby

Warner Bros.

Jay Gatsby: Cautionary tale.

For the first five million years or so, human life was all about scarcity. You never really knew where your next meal was coming from.


But if you're alive today - and fortunate enough to not be poor - then scarcity is more in your head than anything else.

That's according to Raj Raghunathan, the University of Texas marketing professor and author of "If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Happy?" Raghunathan believes having the wrong mindset prevents the prosperous among us from achieving well-being.

He calls it the "scarcity" mindset versus the "abundance" mindset.

In the "scarcity" mindset, you're doing a lot of social comparisons.


"People judge the best professors by the number of awards they get, or the salary that they get, or the kind of school that they are in, which might on the face of it seem like it's a good yardstick for judging how good somebody is, but at the same time it's not really relevant to the particular field," Raghunathan tells the Atlantic's Joe Pinsker.

But people get used to those things quickly. Getting a raise will feel great for a few weeks, but eventually it's normalized. Landing a job at a prestigious firm will flatter your ego, but eventually it's just Monday again. Psychologists call it "hedonic adaptation."

As Harvard happiness scholar Dan Gilbert once lyrically observed, "After devoting days to selecting the perfect hardwood floor to install in a new condo, homebuyers find their once beloved Brazilian cherry floors quickly become nothing more than the unnoticed ground beneath their feet."

The alternative, Raghunathan maintains, is abundance, in which you care less about competing with your peers (which requires being at the top of your peer group to feel good) and more about self cultivation.

"When you don't need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate towards things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you're good at," he says.


"If you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you're going to progress towards mastery anyway, and the fame and the power and the money and everything will come as a byproduct, rather than something that you chase directly in trying to be superior to other people," he adds.

In a way, Raghunathan's distinction between scarcity and abundance sounds pretty spiritual, in at least the way that it's non-materialist.

Last year, Shambhala Buddhist senior teacher Ethan Nichtern told us about his theory on the "commuting" mindset. We're constantly trying to get from peak experience to peak experience, like weddings and new jobs and vacations, he believes, with all the intervening days involving chores that we're just trying to get through.

"The other option is to develop tools to actually appreciate and be at home with the physical environments, our body, the identity that we have," he said.

So rather than trying to capture the job or salary or human that "will make you happy," you train your mind to enjoy the things you're actually experiencing. How abundant.


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