As a kid, I was obsessed with the Game of Life.
Whenever a new friend came to visit, we’d invariably end up playing — and at some point there would be tears, because the friend would want to stop and I would absolutely have to keep going to find out whether I went into debt sending triplets to sleep-away camp or retired from my job as a cop at age 40.
I started thinking about about my zest for Life recently, while reading through “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?“, a new book by Raj Raghunathan, a professor at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business.
In the book, Raghunathan outlines the multiple ways in which seemingly intelligent, successful people unwittingly sabotage their own chances at happiness. One of the “deadly happiness sins,” as Raghunathan calls the saboteurs, has to do with our need for control over every outcome in our lives.
It’s one thing, Raghunathan says, to be focused on achieving a specific objective, like landing a great job or finding a wonderful partner. In fact, he cites research suggesting that people with a higher need for control generally set more ambitious goals and achieve more.
It’s when we become obsessed with that goal that we start to become less happy. (You can test your personal need for control on Raghunathan’s website.)
As Raghunathan puts it: “You are overly controlling when the desire to achieve outcomes controls you, rather than you being in control of the desire to achieve outcomes.”
One especially interesting finding that Raghunathan cites, based on a study by Robert Vallerand, is that being obsessed with a single goal can have a negative impact on the health of your relationships. In other words, as Raghunathan says, when you are dead-set on achieving a specific outcome, you may pursue it at the expense of other things that also make you happy.
A healthy attitude probably falls somewhere between the way I played Life and the way overly controlling people approach their real lives.
You don’t need to be open to any outcome — doctor or cop, mansion or cottage, triplets or no kids. But you can accept the fact that life doesn’t always go according to plan, and that you could be happy in a number of different situations.
In fact, Raghunathan says uncertainty can sometimes make us even happier than knowing exactly what’s happening and why. In one study, people who received a dollar without knowing why turned out happier than those who received the money and were given a reason — even though everyone had thought the opposite would be true.
It’s a difficult balance to strike: being ok with uncertainty while still displaying ambition. But it likely becomes easier over time, with practice, and leads to greater happiness in the long run.
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