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E-journal November 24, 2009

Happiness and the 80/20 Rule

by Ellyn Davis

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This is last of a series of articles on happiness. You can read Part 1 HERE, read Part 2 HERE and read Part 3 HERE.

In the last issue, we examined three universally agreed-upon components of happiness and I shared briefly about the 80/20 Rule.

Happiness and the 80/20 Rule

The 80/20 Rule is the scientifically proven principle that there is always an imbalance between causes and results, inputs and outputs, and effort and reward, and that imbalance generally assumes the proportions of 20% to 80%.

Because of the 80/20 Rule, 80% of your success in any endeavor comes from 20% of your efforts. The 80/20 Rule is a double edged sword, because 80% of your activity will only produce 20% of the results you want. So it’s better to zero in on the 20% in every area—your personal life, your relationships, your business—that produces the most results and figure out ways to either eliminate the un-productive 80% or make it part of the productive 20%.

OK, so what does this have to do with increasing the amount of happiness in our lives?

Twenty percent of what we do leads to 80 percent of the results; but 80 percent of what we do leads to only 20 percent. We are wasting 80 percent of our effort on low-value outcomes. Twenty percent of our time is spent on 80 percent of what we value; 80 percent of our time is wasted on things or people who have little value to us. Eighty percent of the value of our relationships comes from 20 percent of our relationships, yet we tend to devote much less than 80 percent of our attention to the 20 percent of relationships that create 80 percent of the value for us.

As Richard Koch, author of the book The 80/20 Principle comments, “We consistently undercultivate what is important.”

Koch says,

Twenty percent of what we do leads to 80 percent of the results we seek [in this case, happiness]; but 80 percent of what we do leads to only 20 percent. We are wasting 80 percent of our effort on low-value outcomes.

This means, that when it comes to happiness, twenty percent of our time leads to 80 percent of our happiness; but 80 percent of our time yields very little happiness.

The depressing fact of the 80/20 principle is that we are spending a lot of our time, energy, and money on things that have little value to us and bring us little joy. But the promise of the 80/20 principle is that, once we put it into practice, we can work less, enjoy more, earn more, and achieve more.

Top 20 Lists

So, now that we know about the 80/20 Principle, we can start determining the 20% in our lives that contributes to 80% of our happiness. The easiest way to do this is to make “Top 20” lists

If you can identify the top 20 things that contribute disproportionately to your happiness or your unhappiness, then just spending more time, energy, and money cultivating your Top 20 happiness contributors and eliminating your Top 20 unhappiness contributors will automatically make you happier.

There are 5 “Top 20” lists you can make to discover ways to increase your happiness and decrease your unhappiness. So, take out some paper and a pen and start making your Top 20 lists. If you can’t think of 20 things to write on each list, that’s OK, just write down as many as you can, up to 20 on each list.

Here are the lists you are going to make:

1. My “Happiness Islands” List

Your “happiness islands” are the small amounts of time, or the few years of your life, that have contributed disproportionately to your happiness.Take a blank piece of paper and write down the Top 20 times in your life that you remember being very happy. Then try to find a common connection in your "happiness islands."

2. My “Unhappiness Islands” List

Repeat the process for your "unhappiness islands." When in your life have you been your most unhappy, and do those times have anything in common?

3. My Top 20 Happiest Achievements (or Top 20 Most Satisfying Achieved Goals)

What are the Top 20 things you’ve done that gave you the greatest sense of self-satisfaction, of accomplishment? What achievements in your life were most meaningful to you? Is there a common thread in those accomplishments, in those goals you set for yourself and met?

4. My Top 20 Relationships List

Of all the people you know (friends, relatives, acquaintances, co-workers, etc.), which 20 people contribute most to your happiness, are most personally meaningful to you, do you feel closest to? Make a list of the names of those 20 people.

5. My Top 20 “Most Upsetting People or Situations” List

What upsets us varies from person to person. This is where your top 20 list comes in handy again. Make a list of the Top 20 people, things or situations that upset you the most—your top 20 stressors or pressure points.

Using Your Top 20 Lists to Create More Happiness in Your Life

Your basic objective, once you’ve identified your happiness islands and your unhappiness islands, should be to increase the time you spend on happiness island activities as much as possible and try to eliminate or significantly reduce any time you spend on unhappiness island activities.

And when it comes to your goals list, try and see if the Top 20 accomplishments you wrote down have anything in common. Weigh the satisfaction and shared qualities of those accomplishments on your list against your current goals. Are you spending time trying to accomplish things that in the past have increased your happiness and sense of personal meaning, or are you pursuing goals that have never proven to you in the past that they will satisfy you?

Richard Koch says, “It is not at all uncommon for analysis of happiness and achievement islands to yield insight into what individuals are best at, and what is best for them, which then enables them to spend time on totally new activities that have a higher ratio of reward to time than anything they were doing before.”

Similarly, once you’ve identified your Top 20 relationships, focus your relationship time and energy on those 20 people and gradually let the others fall by the wayside.

As to your Top 20 “Most Upsetting People or Situations” List, start avoiding what Koch calls the “snake pits.” This means, if you’re afraid of snakes, instead of feeling like you have to overcome your fear of snakes, it is wiser to just stay away from them. Realize that there are situations in which you cope badly, and people you just don't get along with, so start avoiding your Top 20 “snakes” as best you can. Consciously engineer your life so that you don’t have to deal with those people, things or situations any more than is absolutely necessary.

Your immediate reaction will probably be, “But I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to increase my happiness islands and the time I spend on my most important relationships and on the goals that are most meaningful to me! And I don't know how I'll be able to decrease or eliminate my unhappiness islands and my contact with ‘snakes!’ It seems impossible, because most of how I spend my time is already determined by family, work, and social obligations.”

But just do your best to increase the 20% of activities that contribute to your happiness and decrease the 20% of activities that make you unhappy. You'll be surprised to discover that many of the people you thought would object won’t even notice what you’ve changed. And those who do may not care enough to try and force you to go back to your old ways.

Shortcuts to Happiness

So, here are the five shortcuts to happiness.

1. Maximize control over your life. This means try to redesign your life so that you can actually increase the time and energy you spend on your positive Top 20 lists and decrease the time and energy spent on your negative Top 20 lists. The best way to start being more happy is to simply to avoid situations you know from experience are likely to cause you unhappiness.

2. Set reasonable and attainable goals. Remember, that being able to accomplish meaningful goals is one of the major components of happiness and it’s directly related to another major happiness component —having a sense of your own personal worth. Don’t undermine your self-worth by setting goals that are so difficult for you to reach  that you will either be super-stressed while trying to reach them or will fail to reach them at all. Stay away from creating goals for yourself that in areas that have never given you a sense of meaning and accomplishment.

3. Work on achieving happiness in your most significant personal relationships. (Or work on developing new relationships with happy people if most of your old relationships are with grumps.) The 80/20 Principle predicts that most of the happiness you will enjoy from all of your friends and family members will tend to be found in close relationships with just a few of them. Decide who your best friends and closest family members are and give them 80% of the time you spend on all your relationships.

4. Cultivate close professional relationships with a small number of people whose company you enjoy. Work is more meaningful if you have a few close allies that you support and you can count on to support you.

5. Cultivate a grateful attitude about life. It's a proven fact that grateful people tend to be happy people and happy people tend to be grateful. Catch yourself complaining and, instead, find something to be grateful about. And stay away from ungrateful people. Complaining is contagious.

This is Thanksgiving week, so it is a perfect time to practice gratefulness. Yes, it's true...holidays can be stressful times when family tensions flare up and loved ones misunderstand and lash out at one another. But it's also a time we can count our blessings and be grateful that we have a family, difficult as they may be. Many people have no relatives to visit, no grandparents for their children, no parents or brothers and sisters who understand a side of them no one else can.

Happy Thanksgiving!



Born to Win by Muriel James and Dorothy Jongeward. In a previous newsletter I mentioned that I thought an understanding of the principles of Transactional Analysis would be very helpful to just about everyone, particularly parents. After that comment, I was asked if I could recommend a book that covered the core principles of TA in an easily understandable way. Yes, I can, and this is the book. Born to Win was published years ago, but I still consider it an indispensible read. It can be a life-changer if you let it.

The 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch. Koch not only thoroughly explains the 80/20 Principle and the effect it has on all aspects of your life and business, but he gives valuable “keys” for enhancing the 20% that creates the real results.

The Path of Least Resistance and Your Life as Art by Robert Fritz. I love Robert Fritz' work and have attended several of his workshops. To me, The Path of Least Resistance is his most important book because it clearly explains how most of us tend to live our lives by taking the path of least resistance, instead of by making conscious choices about how we want our lives to be and then creating that life for ourselves like an artist creates a painting. Your Life as Art is about recognizing what really matters to you, and then creating your life based on that.

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