Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
I’ve often heard that on our death beds, none of us is likely to look back on our life and lament, “I should have spent more time at the office.” To be frank, I’ve known several people who should have spent more time at the office, but this doesn’t negate the point that one day, we’ll look back on our lives and assess what we did.
Research on the topic of happiness reveals that most of us have no idea about what actually causes it. In Stumbling on Happiness, author Daniel Gilbert suggests that most of us are pretty bad at predicting what will make us happy and what won’t. For instance, when you ask people which will make them happier—a bigger salary or taking a daily walk with a loved one—people generally pick the money. However, when you measure people in both conditions, more time with a loved one typically yields more happiness.
When it comes to my own happiness, I do know a couple of things. First, happiness is not a constant state that one hunts down, tackles to the ground, and possesses. You never achieve happiness; you just experience happy moments. Second, we often assume receiving recognition for our labors will bring happiness. Not to say that it doesn’t, but sometimes, it’s surprising what kind of recognition truly matters.
Last week, as I drove my nine-year-old granddaughter, Kelsee, to our house for a short visit, she asked me what kind of job I had. For a couple of minutes I talked about training and consulting while Kelsee sat quietly and listened. Eventually, I mentioned that my partners and I also wrote books. Now this got her attention. Books she understood.
“You’re an author?” she asked.
“Yes,” I explained, “that would make me an author.”
“Can I see your books?”
As soon as we arrived home, Kelsee rushed to my office to examine the books. She touched each as if it had been retrieved from a sunken treasure chest.
“Can I have some to take to school?” Kelsee asked.
“Why would you want to do that?”
“So I can put them in the school library.”
This library Kelsee spoke of, of course, would be a grade-school library. I smiled as I imagined children dressed in three-piece suits, carrying miniature briefcases, and checking out books that explain how to wield influence over challenges such as world-wide calamities and corporate failure.
“I doubt that kids your age would enjoy the books,” I explained.
It took me a while to talk Kelsee out of the idea of placing our books in her grade-school library, but eventually she accepted my advice with quiet resolve. However, she wasn’t done. A week later, when I once again drove Kelsee to our home, she struck up the following conversation.
“Grandpa, during show-and-tell last week I told my teacher that my grandfather writes books.”
“Really? And what did she say?”
“She asked who you are.”
“And what did you tell her?”
“Your name. I said that my grandfather is Kerry Patterson.”
“And then what did she say?”
“Well,” Kelsee continued, “before she could answer, Hannah—another girl in my class—shouted real loud: ‘NOT THE KERRY PATTERSON!'”
To be honest, I was a little surprised that a nine-year-old girl had ever heard of me. Surely she had me confused with somebody else.
Kelsee enthusiastically continued her story. She was obviously enjoying the moment.
“So I asked Hannah how she had heard of you and she explained: ‘My mom reads everything he writes.'”
“And what did you say to that?” I asked.
Kelsee paused for a moment, smiled wide and then said: “So—you’re familiar with his work.”
Now, that short interaction with Kelsee will never make it onto my resume. There you’ll find a chronological list of accomplishments in which I will have taken satisfaction, but you won’t find the secret of happiness. The secret of happiness lies not in the act of creating joy. The secret of happiness lies in recognizing joy when it comes.
With this in mind, here’s what I desire to have stated in my eulogy—better yet, I want it carved in bold letters at the top of my tombstone:
“So—you’re familiar with his work.”
This one moment of recognition from my granddaughter brought me happiness.