Thursday, December 27, 2007

Living the Purposeful Life: A Formula for Well-Being

A very interesting chapter in the book "Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology" begins with an intriguing title: Life Task Participation and Well-Being: The Importance of Taking Part in Daily Life". The authors, Nancy Cantor and Catherine A. Sanderson, advance the thesis that "sustained participation in personally and culturally valued tasks that change across the life course enhances well-being".

Not all life activities contribute to emotional well-being, the authors note. Rather, "well-being should be enhanced when individuals are able to pursue their distinct personal goals in ways that are intrinsically valued and autonomously chosen, approached at a feasible level, and facilitated in their daily life context".

The important contributor to well-being identified by this research appears to be purposeful activity. Note that purposeful activity can be work-related, but doesn't need to be. For example, writing a song, taking a vacation to a new area of the world, or working out in a gym all could be considered leisure activities, but they are goal-driven. Other activities might even be work-related, but not directly purposeful (many meetings scheduled within businesses!).

One's overall well-being appears to be related to the proportion of time and effort devoted to activity with a distinct purpose. Interestingly, research cited by the authors also suggests that physical well-being is also enhanced by goal-directed activity. This helps to explain why depression is so debilitating: the lack of energy and optimism make it difficult to initiate meaningful activity, which in turn fuels a loss of well-being. Similarly, retirement can be very challenging for individuals who find that old age brings a paucity of purpose-driven activities.

The authors emphasize that resources are essential to sustaining the task participation that underlies well-being. These include monetary resources as well as physical ones (health) and social ones. One formula for emotional success appears to be the ability to deploy an array of resources in one's life toward consistently meaningful activities.

I like the phrase in the article title: "the importance of taking part in daily life". The successful traders I've known definitely take part in daily life and indeed engage in goal-directed activities apart from their trading. This helps sustain a high level of well-being that provides energy and optimism across their career. Where trading is a sole obsession for a trader--an existential and emotional poverty often justified by the empty phrase "passion"--it is very common to find a lack of energy and optimism, especially during times of loss, drawdown, and flat performance.

There's much to be said for kicking back, relaxing, being a couch potato, and getting rest. If the authors are correct, however, this may be necessary to a balanced life, but not sufficient. It's the presence and pursuit of goals--personally chosen, challenging but doable, and changing across the lifespan--that recharges our emotional batteries. It is not enough to minimize stress and distress: high levels of well-being facilitate learning, memory, concentration, and ultimately performance.


The Importance of Well-Being

Goal Setting: What Works