We all want to be both successful and happy, but most of us struggle with finding the delicate balance between joy and growth. It often seems that focusing on one aspect comes at the expense of the other, creating a zero-sum game where it's impossible to have both.
I believed in that myth for most of my life. Until neuroscience showed me an alternative path…
Growth at any cost
I was born in an area near the border of China, in today's Kyrgyzstan. I grew up poor, so I vowed to do whatever it took to have a better life—even if it meant making big sacrifices.
I began working at the age of 10, and by 14, I was studying in university. At 16, I owned a business, earning more than my parents. At 19 I got a full scholarship at MIT, and by 23, I sold my space tech startup, becoming the youngest exec in the world aerospace industry.
Sounds like a dream? It didn’t feel like one. My Joy/Growth ratio was at 0/100. I was very successful, but completely miserable.
I was 25 when I realized I couldn’t do that any more. I decided to quit my job and study the human brain instead of sending satellites into space. My goal was to figure out whether joy and growth were mutually exclusive, or if there was a way to have both.
You can’t have both simultaneously
As it turns out, when we experience joy and savor things that we already have in life, our brain produces serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical messenger used by neurons, and it has many functions, but one of the critical ones is regulating mood. When we have higher levels of serotonin we feel calm, content and satisfied.
When we are pursuing growth opportunities our brain produces another chemical messenger – dopamine. Its role is exactly the opposite to serotonin: it fuels our desire for achievements and appetite for material possessions, wealth and recognition.
Essentially, serotonin promotes a sense of satisfaction, causing us to slow down, whereas dopamine fuels dissatisfaction, driving us to push further. Dopamine,serotonin and circuits in the brain function similarly to the gas and brake pedals in a car – you can’t press both simultaneously.
But there is something else you can do.
Layers of joy and growth
To have a thriving brain and a fulfilling life, you need activities that bring joy and those that foster growth. Joyful activities provide a sense of well-being and contentment, while growth-oriented activities challenge you to learn, evolve, and expand your horizons.
And even though you can’t have them both simultaneously, you can layer these activities in your schedule, and create a balanced daily routine that nourishes both your happiness and personal development, and helps you thrive.
I call it the “layered cake” method.
Three steps to fulfilling life
Implementing the "layered cake" method involves three steps:
Step 1. Assess your current Joy/Growth ratio
Before incorporating joy and growth activities into your schedule, take the time to evaluate your current routine. What does your Joy/Growth ratio look like? Is there any imbalance? How much time do you spend each week pursuing more vs enjoying what is? The reality is it doesn’t have to be 50/50 but bringing awareness to your current situation is critically important.
Step 2. Identify sources of Joy and Growth
Joy and Growth are deeply personal; an activity that brings joy to you, like playing a piano or painting, may be a growth opportunity for someone else. Create a list of 7-10 activities that define Joy and Growth specifically for you.
Step 3. Bake layers of Joy and Growth into your calendar
Block time in your calendar for Joy and Growth activities, layering them in your schedule. Recognize that perfect balance is impossible, so stay flexible. Dedicate 15 minutes each weekend to adjust your plans based on changing needs and priorities.
The belief that Joy and Growth are a zero-sum game is a myth. Neuroscience teaches us that even though you can’t experience them simultaneously, you can integrate both in our lives. By thoughtfully layering joy and growth activities into your daily routine, you can craft a schedule that nurtures your well-being and helps you thrive.
About the author
Katerina Lengold is a former space tech entrepreneur turned brain researcher and mental health advocate with an audience of over 250 000 people. By the age of 23, Katerina sold her space tech startup, ImageAiry, and had become the youngest executive in the world aerospace industry. After severe burnout, she turned her interest from launching satellites to studying the human brain. A graduate of MIT, Katerina started college at age 14 and holds multiple degrees, including in computer science, business administration, economics and data science. She has taught her neuroscience-based approach to living a more productive and joyful life to over 27,000 people from over 40 countries, and her method is accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF).