Don’t Wag The Dog! (#741)

“Whatever turmoil our mind may be in, in the center of our being there always exists a state of perfect peace and joy, like the calm in the eye of a storm.” – Sri Ramana Maharshi
Over the past week, I have been enjoying participating in some online research in the field of positive psychology via a site called  At random times throughout the day I get a text asking me to log in to their website, and once there I answer a series of questions about my current mood, activities, interactions, and various other elements of my day.

While I have been enjoying these occasional interruptions to my day as “bells of mindfulness” (one came during the writing of the preceding paragraph), I’ve also been wondering what exactly the researchers are hoping to mine from their data.  Certainly patterns will emerge. But what will those patterns really tell us?

Without going out on much of a predictive limb, self-described “happy people” are likely to express gratitude more often than self-described “unhappy people”, and it would be almost shocking if the vast majority of participants didn’t report themselves as happier when spending time with loved ones than while doing things they “have to do but don’t want to do” at work.

But does this mean that the “secret” to happiness is expressing gratitude and spending more time with loved ones?  Do behaviors like these create happiness, or are they simply the natural expressions of being in a positive feeling state?  Which is cause and which is effect?

I would like to share three quick metaphors to explain how I have come to see that the feeling comes first, and along the way you may well see why that distinction is so important to the way we live our lives…

1. The Golf Enthusiast

One of my clients is a former championship golfer and now a gifted coach. He told me that a question he often gets from golf enthusiasts is why they can hit such a perfect shot off the tee on, say, the 4th hole, but will then hit a terrible tee shot on the 5th hole, even though they went through the exact same steps on each hole.

He then engages them in a version of the following dialogue:


Champion: Exactly the same steps?Enthusiast: Yes, exactly!

Champion: Talk me through it.

Enthusiast: OK, well I remembered exactly how I felt while lining up on the 4th hole, and I replicated my physiology and breathing until I was in the exact same feeling state.  Then I thought the same swing thought before bringing my club back, paused at the top of my back swing just as I did on the previous hole, and then traced the arc all the way through to the end of my follow through.  I even noticed myself leaning forward at the end of my shot on the 4th, so I did the same lean on the 5th.  But instead of hitting a beautiful drive down the center of the fairway, I sliced it out of play to the right.  What did I miss?  What was different?

Champion: Well, when you were lining up on the 4th hole, did you put all of your focus and attention on remembering and replicating exactly what you did on the 4th hole?


Even without any understanding of golf, it’s easy to see that any time we try to “retrace our steps” and go back to any location, circumstance, or behavior we were spontaneously happy in in an attempt to recapture that feeling of happiness, the shift in context (i.e. attempted replication vs. spontaneous experience) dooms us to failure.

2. A Rising Tide

My mentor George Pransky shares the analogy of well-being as “a rising tide which raises all boats”.  In other words, when we’re spending time living from our innate wisdom and well-being, everything works better – we have a quieter mind, our relationships tend to be more loving, we make smarter business decisions, and we take better care of our bodies.

So when we feel out of touch with our happiness and well-being, we try to quiet our minds, work on our relationships, develop our business skills, and cultivate some kind of discipline around exercise and diet in an attempt to return to those positive feelings.

Unfortunately, trying to work on your relationship or cultivate discipline in order to be happy is like lifting up a boat in an attempt to raise the tide.  While it may work for a time (as long as we “work it”), the moment we stop trying so hard to lift our spirits we sink back into the “blahs” or even deeper into misery and depression.

3. Wagging the Dog

Aristotle reputedly coined the famous syllogism:

Every man is mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

When it comes to trying to “make ourselves happier” by replicating the behaviors people do spontaneously when feeling happy, we could apply the following slightly sloppy syllogism:

Happy dogs wag their tails.
This dog is not happy.
Therefore, to make it happy, we must wag its tail.

If we stick with dogs, the problem with this solution is obvious – manually attempting to wag a dog by its tail will likely result in a whole lot of barking and a nasty bite.  Yet somehow, when we try to make ourselves do in a low mood what we would naturally do in a higher mood, we wonder why we struggle.

Expanded outside the scope of dogs and happiness, the problem with this outside-in approach becomes even more apparent.  In any feedback system, at least one variable must remain outside of your direct control in order for the system to have any value.  To put it more simply, if you can make the mercury go up and down by yourself, your thermometer is useless; if you can make the needle go up and down manually, the speedometer in your car is equally ineffective.

So if we know that happy people tend to be more tolerant, express more gratitude, have more of a sense of humor, and spend more time with loved ones, those data points become useful markers to help gauge our current level of happiness, not “levers” to try and raise or lower that level.

This is why those of us who work as transformative coaches spend more time facilitating insight than directing behavior – because the minute someone sees for themselves the inside-out nature of happiness and well-being, the behaviors they have been trying so hard to change will begin to change “all by themselves”.

In fact, if I was going to choose a core insight to sum up the essence of our work, it would be this:

It’s not that people feel better when they change;
it’s that people change when they feel better.
Have fun, learn heaps, and may you find the joy that lives inside you now and always and forever…

With love,

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