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What Military Police Can Tell Us About Happiness

As I wrote in a previous post, “Eyes Open(ed),” differentiating between what is truly important and what is not can help us lead happier and more fulfilling lives.

In his book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell brought into focus the reality of “relative deprivation,” which involves comparing ourselves to others, leading to unhappiness and feelings of inadequacy and envy.

He pointed out that the happiest people in the military are the military police. Why? It is because they are all paid and treated equally.

He also noted that students at the nation’s most highly ranked universities are often unhappy. They feel like they are average students, even though their grades and standardized test scores place them in the upper 1 percent of all college students. This is a perfect example of comparison leading to “relative deprivation.”

Relative deprivation may be the root of many leaders’ inabilities to surround themselves with strong peers – unlike Lincoln’s Team of Rivals, about which I previously wrote – who challenge them to make the team better. Many externally successful people find titles, pay, and possessions less fulfilling than anticipated and, therefore, suffer from unhappiness.

How do we avoid the trap of “relative deprivation?”

We learn that the radiance of others’ success doesn’t diminish our light, but illuminates the way for everyone. And the more we celebrate the successes (and light) of each person in our organization, the better the culture – a culture of abundance and creativity.

Jim Collins wrote, in his book Good to Great, that great leaders look out the window when things are going well and look in the mirror when things fail. These level 5 leaders put the success of the organization first and seem to intuitively avoid “relative deprivation.”

It is also interesting that merely believing in others can have a dramatic impact on their performance. Although praising great capability and performance is important, this needs to be balanced with the recognition that children praised only for their excellent performance seem to do worse long term than children praised for their effort – a critical finding in child prodigies versus adult prodigies.

Child prodigies learn their performances are celebrated and tend to have problems stretching themselves throughout their lives. They may hesitate to try new things at which they are not initially talented.

In contrast, adult prodigies often fail many times before succeeding. Steve Jobs had some insight on this:

“I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.”