You can never get enough of what you don’t really need. ~ Unknown

I’m a slow learner. In my twenty and thirties, I knew I was ambitious, hard-working, and resourceful but I had no idea what really drove me. Ironically, it was the source of my internal drive that limited my performance and happiness.

I was a focused young man. And although I didn’t blatantly plow over colleagues in the early years of my career, my career pace and path were certainly more important than my relationships at work. It seemed practical to operate this way. I took my work seriously and I had plenty of friends outside of work.

Eventually I heard the feedback from mentors and co-workers. I became aware of the impact my behavior was having on others and of the collateral damage my personality traits were having on my life.

Discovering the Fuel

At forty, ambition no longer served me the way it did in the three prior decades. Although I had achieved a great deal of success, I wasn’t very happy. After a few financial and emotional meltdowns of sorts I decided to shift my priorities and put happiness ahead of success. Periods of crisis and reflection increased my clarity. I recognized that I hadn’t been driven by ambition in the way I had thought. Instead, I’d been driven by fear. This was the fuel for my accomplishments—and my unhappiness.

Fear motivated me to achieve, but once I achieved or exceeded my goals, the fear remained—like fuel pumping into an engine at idle. The more I tunneled through my psyche, the more I could see that under the fear was a deep desire for approval. This desire had become an addiction. The more I got, the more I needed. I had created a recipe for unhappiness.

The Cause of Unhappiness

What recipe have you unknowingly whipped up that gets in the way of being happier and more effective? Below are the three most common recipes for unhappiness. The recipes are a based on a core unmet need that, left unexamined, influences everything you think and do, creates big blind spots (everyone but you sees you as the problem), and causes you to pursue addictive, ill-fated strategies in an effort to meet these needs.

  1. The Need for Approval – To be accepted, approved, affirmed, and esteemed and to have the attention of others
  2. The Need for Control – To control and have power over others
  3. The Need for Survival – To feel safe, secure, and maintain the status quo

Each of us is imprinted with one of these core needs by the time we’re five years old. The imprint comes from the way we were parented and is reinforced by our culture. We can’t blame someone for acting out of a pattern or wound they didn’t bring upon themselves. We can, however, take responsibility for being conscious of our core need, acknowledging our related addictions, and finding direct and satisfying ways to meet our core need. Without this awareness we become needy like a child.

When happiness depends on the way you’re perceived, the way people treat you, or any external event or possession, you will never be happy. Sustained happiness comes when you meet your needs internally. When you have been conditioned to expect your needs to be met from others, you set yourself up for feeling entitled, disappointed, and resentful. When we look to others to make us happy we unconsciously manipulate or compete for the attention and security of others and breed a culture of unhappy, needy people.

Three Steps to Happiness

The shift from an external to an internal search for happiness takes time and practice. Yet you can begin this shift immediately. Follow these three steps.

Step One: Determine what fuels your life. That is, which core need is perennially unmet? Your unmet need may be hidden in your blind spot. Ask those around you what they think your core need is.

Step Two: Recall the stories of your youth and the role models and parenting that led you to believe you needed to be approved or needed order and control or weren’t safe.

Step Three: Shatter the belief that your core need has to be met externally. Consider that you were born happy and it’s your natural state. Happiness as an adult is a process of choosing to remove the lies we tell ourselves—lies that create pain and the illusion that to be happy we need something more from the world around us.

The key to happiness and fulfillment is remembering what you know to be true. Consider and remember these three truths. Use only what you know to be true for you as reminders and tools for sourcing your needs internally.

Approval: The truth is, the most important source of approval is you. Your only block from this approval is the absence of self-acceptance. Your mere existence is proof that you have all the approval you will ever need. Your unconditionally-loving God (or whatever term you use to refer to the great mystery of life) approves you. If another doesn’t accept you, that is about them, not you.

Control: The truth is, you’re not in control. You sometimes think you are and then are surprised and resentful when things turn out differently than you expected. Love what you have. You will always lose when you argue with reality. There is power in your vulnerability.

Survival: The truth is, you will die and you cannot predict when and how. Your ultimate safety is an illusion. Hoarding money or possessions does not remove the internal need for safety and security. (If you don’t believe this ask someone with a lot of both.) Safety and security are choices. You can choose to think you’re safe or not.

I am a slow learner. It took until I turned forty to realize (or remember) that happiness is an inside job. When I stopped looking “out there” for ways to meet my needs I became more effective in my relationships and leadership, not to mention being more peaceful and unflappable (okay, maybe not all the time but I’m working on it).

Carl Jung said that most of life’s problems are emotional and psychological and most of the solutions are spiritual. Call these deeper truths spiritual or simply your reality, but it is the truth that sets us free and returns us to our true nature. When you start with the truth as a core ingredient you will create a recipe for happiness.

Author’s Note: Thank you to author and teacher Fr. Richard Rohr for inspiring so much of what I write. This one is no exception.