You can hack growth…can you hack happiness?

My community ain’t no hack
(my co-founder and I enjoying dinner with our families)

(I’ve taken the Everest Step a Day Challenge to be a more consistent blogger. It’s fitting that embarking on this journey of personal achievement begins with a post about happiness!)

As I dive into reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, one big theme that strikes a chord with me is the idea that happiness is not the destination. It’s not just the final scene of falling in love — rather, it’s the butterflies from the first date, the thrill of the proposal, and the eventual joy at the altar. The secret to sustainable, long-term happiness is building it incrementally.

Then Rubin quoted William Butler Yeats: “Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that. But simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.”

I later met with Andy Johns, a 500 Mentor and Chief Officer of Growth at Quora (and formerly of Facebook). He dropped some knowledge: the key to user growth is to build it incrementally. If you can grow 3% week-over-week, you’ve got 5x growth in a year. Growth is built on small bits that are measurable and, eventually, create enormous impact.
That got me thinking — is true happiness much like true growth?
  1. They both involve community. 
    The best engines of high growth and high happiness involve community that feeds back into itself.

    One of the stories that weaves itself into the documentary “Happy” is about a Danish co-housing community. Multiple, unrelated families share one roof, they care for the children of others as though they were their own, and they help one another with domestic tasks. Although the prospect sounds crowded at first, the correlations are astonishing. It is the relationships from the community that bring every member happiness — and apparently this happiness of community is a part of Danish culture (they do enjoy the title of Happiest Country on Earth). Here’s a great overview of the documentary.

    Similarly, it is often the best startups that build community around their product, and build platforms for meaningful relationships. Path is the most striking cases of this (though community, arguably, is their product). The social network puts a cap on your friends you can follow: 150 people. That’s Dunbar’s number, with the theory that 150 is the maximum number of meaningful, stable relationships 1 person can sustain at any given time.

    I also love Grasshopper’s rebranding stunt of sending people chocolate grasshoppers and how they tied that into a community of influencers. You give to people, and they give back to you. Growth is certainly recursive.

  2. Beware the false highs.
    It’s not the big press releases (often followed by the infamous “Trough of Sorrow”) that will launch your startup to sustainable growth, although the temporary highs can be fun. And we all know that the short-term highs of heavy alcohol consumption can lead to the saddest of sorrows the morning after.

    “Happy,” the documentary, goes in-depth into the 3 things that people often mistake for happiness: money, status, and image. The scientists who’ve studied the subject put forward 3 real indicators for happiness: personal growth, the desire to help, and meaningful relationships. Note how the first bucket of indicators can be lost with the crash of the stock market; but, if you’ve truly put effort into the second category, these things are far less fleeting.

    We talk a lot about user growth at 500 Startups. Josh Elman came to speak about his experiences at Twitter, while Julie Zhou chatted about growth at Hipmunk. There’s been a new term thrown around called “growth hacking” — love or hate it, there are literally titles like “Growth Hacker” or 500’s very own “Growth-Hacker-In-Residence.”

    While hacking with limited resources is an important part of being a startup, growth hacking is a myopic and paradoxical term. You can certainly hack certain pieces of your business (ie. AirBnB hacking Craigslist listings to grow their rental supply) to kick things off. But to truly build growth, you’ll have to come back to your hack and bake it back into your long-term vision.

  3. It’s elusive, but once you’ve got it, you know it.
    Louis Armstrong (founding father of American jazz) croons, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”
    Marc Andreessen (founding father of Andreessen Horowitz VC) blogs, “You can always feel when product/market fit isn’t happening.

    Happiness and growth, untracked, are nebulous concepts to “achieve.” The journey aspect is probably a big reason why, but I think there’s a time when you can say you are truly happy at that moment, or that you are hitting satisfied growth benchmarks. Andreessen also argues that startups “can always feel product/market fit when it’s happening. The customers are buying the product just as fast as you can make it — or usage is growing just as fast as you can add more servers.”

    Growth and happiness may be elusive, but if you have it you’ll feel it. 

Can you hack happiness?
In short, no. Happiness certainly isn’t one-off. For those who haven’t read about the “hedonic treadmill,” it describes our tendency to get used to things that once spiked our happiness points. So while those first moments spent with your new iPhone 5 were beyond glorious, you eventually get used to the brilliant piece of technology in your pocket. Louis C.K. has a hilarious stand-up about how we’ve taken something as simple as flying for granted:

So here it is: happiness IS growth. Happiness flourishes when you push outwards and fight the treadmill of settling into complacency.

Happiness cannot exist without growth, and growth cannot feed itself without happiness. 
User growth, personal growth, community growth…it’s all in there. Perhaps it’s time to revisualize our happiness tendencies to go from a treadmill to a staircase — always pushing away from that last milestone, and moving ahead.

I challenge you not to settle into the mindset of small hacks, but create a sustainable environment of growth. Hopefully, that brings us all a little closer to being happy 🙂