06/21/2011 12:34 am ET | Updated Aug 20, 2011

The Costanza Correction: Why Happiness Is Doing the Opposite

It's not easy to arrive in Los Angeles when you're on a flight to New York. Yet most of us are programmed in just this nonsensical way, to seek out happiness and life satisfaction by going in the exact opposite direction from what can produce it. No wonder we get headaches. The science shows that what produces satisfaction requires a 180-degree course correction from where we're convinced it comes from. The answer lies buried in the footage of an old "Seinfeld" episode. Call it the Costanza Correction.

As you may recall, George decides to do something radical to change his loser status. From now on, he will do exactly the reverse of his normal inclination. "If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right," Jerry tells him. George goes opposite, and suddenly things start happening. He winds up working for the Yankees and gets a girlfriend, unthinkable for normal George.

The Costanza Correction prevents headlong rushing in the wrong direction from what can deliver regular doses of happiness and optimal experience. Let's deploy it now to turn the table on three classic wrong-way myths about gratification.

Firstly, self-worth and happiness are supposed to come from external approval, in the form of yardsticks such as status, money, beauty and popularity, when the research shows that it's generated by the exact reverse -- intrinsic goals that produce growth and gratification felt by you, nobody else. Secondly, your personal value is supposed to come from nonstop production. Any halt in busyness is a mortal sin. But iquality recreation is actually the engine of productivity and life satisfaction, the polar opposite of all the training you get. And lastly, few of us would suspect that what our brains and psyches want is engagement with the unknown, the reverse of the impulse to cling to safety at all costs.

Follow the research, and it's easy to make the Costanza Corrections needed. Beginning with the external approval myth, the evidence tells us that what produces self-value, joy and even a meaningful life is in another direction entirely. Going for the fame, dough or image to win the approval of others is a bust at delivering gratification. The more importance placed on wealth aspirations, the poorer the well-being (Kasser et al.). When self-esteem is based on external measures -- appearance, performance, approval -- there is more stress, anger and substance abuse (Crocker). External approval concerns lead to an increase in social comparison, and more insecurity as a result. When people "organize their lives around wealth and possessions, they are essentially wasting their time as far as well-being is concerned," notes Tim Kasser, who heads the psychology department at Knox College in Illinois.

External metrics fail to satisfy you because they're about satisfying others. You get a brief bump from praise, a promotion or a new car, but you don't feel it inside, and so the thrill is gone in a blink. This leads to the need to get more approval, and so we double down on the wrong direction, going for more money, performance or things we believe will make us popular, and wind up on what the psychologists call a hedonic treadmill, where we can never catch up to the externally-fueled wants we think will fill the void inside.

Take the opposite course with the Costanza Correction, and you're on track for what actually delivers the goods: intrinsic pursuits, things you do for the inherent interest, challenge or fun, for no reward and no one else but yourself. Intrinsic choices make us happy, because they connect us to what matters to us, synching with our values, and allowing us to satisfy core psychological needs that make us feel autonomous, competent and connected to others. This is the route to true self-worth, long-term gratification and something essential to the human spirit: meaning, which compelling research shows comes from self-determined effort, not external rewards.

I met a crew of fired-up folks doing just that on the road to my new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," on the power of engaged experience. By making the Costanza Correction, they found the real reward, the internal payoff, on the opposite path. Richard Weinberg, for example, was a very successful Chicago businessman and entertainment investor, but something was missing: life. He found that elusive item when he took up dancing at the age of 49. "I didn't know I wasn't really living before," he told me. Now a professional dancer able to hoof it in 14 different dance styles, Weinberg says dancing has "given me a ... purpose."

That's not an item that's supposed to come from something as lowly and non-purposeful as play. Yet our second Costanza Correction shows that, when we participate in engaged R&R, it leads not to terminal slackerhood but instead to mastery, growth and the recharging that fuels well-being and productivity. The science is way ahead of our stereotypes on this. Active recreational pursuits increase life satisfaction more than work (London, Crandall, et al.); improve positive mood (McCann, Holmes); and help develop risk-taking skills that satisfy our need for challenge and competence. Erica Gipson, an aikido practitioner I met in the Montreal studio of instructor Karl Grignon, says the Japanese martial art transformed her life, swapping out stress and defensiveness for confidence and focus.

Finally, when you go Costanza, you can reverse field on one of the most insistent obstructions to the life you want: the safety default. Humans were designed with an itchy security trigger because the species had to be hyperalert to threats to survival back in the day on African savannas. But a bunker mentality leads to stagnation and boredom, the opposite of what your brain wants: novelty and challenge. Brain neurons crave novelty so much that just the anticipation of experiencing something new sets off the release of dopamine, the body's party drug. It's called the "exploration bonus." We're born to discover. When that drive gets shut down by fear and comfort zones, so does forward progress and fulfillment of your core needs. You might be safe, but you're sorry.

A tide of research, detailed expertly by Gregory Berns in "Satisfaction," shows that what we really need for fulfillment is a steady dose of engagement, not vegetating in our bunkers. The basis for satisfaction is seeking out things that require us to go beyond the familiar, that allow us to discover and challenge ourselves. Satisfaction doesn't come from autopilot; it comes from taking on things that make us stretch -- like doing the opposite of what we're supposed to, thanks to that singular sage, Costanza.

Joe Robinson is author of the new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," on the science, spirit and missing skills of a happy life outside the office. He is a work-life balance and stress-management speaker, trainer, coach and author at Work to Live.

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