This is how your brain sabotages your happiness

In this excerpt from The Gap and the Gain, authors Benjamin P. Hardy and Dan Sullivan say if you think that “happiness” and “success” are something you “pursue” and will have in your future, then you’re in trouble. You’re making yourself and others around you miserable.

This is how your brain sabotages your happiness
[Source photo: zakokor/iStock]

“There is no way to happiness—happiness is the way.” —Thich Nhat Hanh


Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and Americans have been unhappy ever since. One specific phrase has come to define American culture and psychology: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Even as a young man, Jefferson struggled with the idea of happiness. He believed we should aspire to it, but that its actual attainment was likely impossible. In 1763, the 20-year-old Jefferson wrote a letter to a college classmate, John Page. He shared a recent experience of being rejected by a woman. “Perfect happiness, I believe, was never intended by the Deity to be the lot of one of his creatures in this world; but that he has very much put in our power the nearness of our approaches to it, is what I have steadfastly believed.”

The pursuit of an unreachable happiness was part of Jefferson’s credo.


This philosophy was the basis of his thinking not only as a romantically inclined youth but also as a middle-aged man who was envisioning the principles of a new nation.

What Jefferson didn’t realize is, with that single statement in the Declaration of Independence, he framed the experience of “Happiness” as unattainable. That notion would go on to shape the culture of America.

By saying happiness is something we’re pursuing, the direct implication is that we don’t have it now. You don’t pursue something you already have. Even if we’ve already achieved something great, this pursuing keeps happiness always up ahead and around the corner. Happiness is after the next achievement.

  • Happiness is somewhere in the distant future.
  • Happiness is out there.
  • But happiness is never here.

If you think this is a stretch, a recent poll found that only 14% of American adults say they’re very happy.

I’m not blaming all American unhappiness on one of America’s most important founding fathers. But ideas can create culture, and culture is perhaps the most powerful force shaping human identity and decision-making. The consequences of this framing aren’t small. By embracing the pursuit of happiness, we rob ourselves of happiness in the here and now. We fail to appreciate who we are and what we’ve done to this point.

When your happiness is tied to something in the future, then your present is diminished. You don’t feel happy, confident, or successful. But maybe in the future you will be, or so the logic goes.


When you’re chasing happiness externally, it’s because you’re disconnected internally. And when you’re disconnected internally, then you’re trying to fill a GAP. Are you in the GAP?

In the early ’90s, Dan Sullivan, the world’s foremost entrepreneurial coach, discovered how pervasive the GAP was among his highly successful clients, as well as people generally. He exposed the GAP as a toxic mindset that stopped people from being happy and appreciating their lives. He knew that until people got out of the GAP, they’d never be as happy or successful as they could be. He set out to help people get out of the GAP. The GAP and The GAIN became one of Dan’s most crucial and transformational concepts. Until now, this concept has been hidden behind the exclusive walls of Dan Sullivan’s Strategic Coach program.

“Your future growth and progress are now based in your understanding about the difference between the two ways in which you can measure yourself: against an ideal, which puts you in what I call ‘the GAP,’ and against your starting point, which puts you in ‘the GAIN,’ appreciating all that you’ve accomplished.” —Dan Sullivan

The GAP is found in both mundane and monumental experiences. You could be in the GAP about getting the smaller half of a cookie (more on this later). Or you could be in the GAP about your entire past—wishing your life had been something different or better.


High achievers are particularly prone to being in the GAP. For instance, research shows that CEOs are twice as likely to have depression than the general public. Entrepreneurs are prone to substance abuse, as well as depression and suicide. Even after some massive victory, their mind quickly goes to the next unreached achievement. Although this can lead to a great deal of external success, the problem remains unresolved internally. Many—if not most—high achievers remain unhappy, and their unhappiness grows deeper and deeper with each external accomplishment. That is, if they stay in the GAP.

Thomas Jefferson was, of course, a very inspiring and significant person to American history. But the fact remains: Jefferson was in the GAP. And that’s why he never “found” the happiness he was pursuing. Unfortunately, Jefferson’s GAP-thinking has become pervasive throughout Western ideology and thinking.

An example of GAP-thinking is a successful but unhappy man named Edward. Edward is a former client of Chad Willardson, the founder and president of Pacific Capital, a premier wealth management firm in Southern California. Back in early 2003, during his first meeting with Edward, Chad could tell by his body language that Edward had anxiety and worry. Edward mentioned that he was concerned about the stock market and where the economy was headed. Chad assured him that with the right team, plan, and strategy, his financial future would be secure and abundant.


After learning about Edward’s financial situation, Chad further confirmed that Edward had every reason to be confident in his future. At that time, Edward was in his early 40s and had a multi-six-figure income with $2.5 million in cash to invest. He told Chad, “If I can just get my investment portfolio to $5 million, then I’d feel secure financially and finally be able to relax.”

They set Edward’s goal at $5 million. Edward followed the plan he and Chad had developed. He was adding money every year to his accounts and his investments were growing and compounding excellently. Within a few years, he passed his original goal of having $5 million in his investment portfolio.

But once he got there, he still didn’t feel secure. He was in the GAP. He was worried about the future. “I feel like I need $10 million to really feel safe and secure,” he told Chad. With his great income and investment strategy, his portfolio eventually did grow beyond $10 million, and by 2019, his portfolio was up to $17 million—over three times his original financial freedom target.


From an outside perspective, this man was more than living the American dream. He had grown to have a seven-figure income. He had a huge nest egg of compounding assets. And without question, he was a savvy and smart businessman. Yet, he never outgrew his GAP-mindset. He never learned how to appreciate his GAINS. He was never grateful or happy about his situation. He remained anxious and worried about the future. He continued to consume GAP-media that convinced him the financial world was going to collapse, and that he was going to lose all his money.

He requested a meeting with Chad. He wanted to abandon the planning and strategy that they’d been successfully executing over the previous 16 years and go completely conservative into cash. His view of the future was pessimistic. He didn’t anticipate any more future growth.

Given that Edward was abandoning the plan and strategy Chad was providing and executing, it was clear they were no longer aligned. They decided to go their separate ways. Edward sold off his investments and put all of his GAPmoney into the bank, where it has sat since early 2019 when they had that conversation.


At the writing of this book in mid-2021, the S&P Index has grown over 68% in the two years since Edward fearfully took his money out of the market. Edward couldn’t escape the GAP. Edward couldn’t appreciate his GAINS. He was always trying to bridge a GAP he believed was somewhere in his future.

But the hard fact is that the GAP was always deep inside himself. Eventually, his GAP-thinking became so extreme that he stopped believing in his future entirely. It’s a sad tale. But even more sad is how common it is.

You too may have fallen for this GAP-mindset. Maybe you too, like Thomas Jefferson and Edward, have continually reserved “happiness” and “success” for your future, but never your present. If so, you will never “find” happiness. Despite your continually growing success, happiness and security will never be yours because the GAP-mindset eventually stops growth altogether.


If you’re in the GAP and think that “happiness” and “success” are something you “pursue” and will have in your future, then you’re in trouble. You’re making yourself miserable. And just as bad, you’re actually making everyone around you miserable with your GAP-thinking. When you’re in the GAP, you see everything though your GAP-lens. Nothing is ever enough. Nothing ever will be enough. You can’t see the GAIN in yourself or others. And until you do, you’ll never be happy. Plain and simple.

Jefferson was wrong.

Happiness is not in the future.


If you’re ready to finally get out of the GAP, then you’re about to learn how. This book will show you the ONLY way out of the GAP. And luckily for you, it’s incredibly simple. But don’t be fooled by the simplicity of what you’re about to learn.

It’s human nature to be in the GAP. The GAIN is the antidote. The GAIN creates immediate happiness. The GAIN connects you to yourself and your own progress. The GAIN transforms everything. The GAIN gives you power over the direction in your life. The GAIN gets you out of the GAP.

On the day Dan discovered the GAP, he was frustrated by one of his clients, Bob (not his real name), who was himself frustrated and thus creating negative energy among the rest of the group.


A fundamental aspect of Strategic Coach, Dan’s coaching program, is having his entrepreneurial clients meet every 60–90 days. While they meet, the entrepreneurs go through thinking tools that allow them to reflect, strategize, and get unique and helpful perspectives for their lives and businesses. Dan asked Bob what he had accomplished in the previous 90 days, and Bob started sharing some of the progress his company had made, such as a new deal they’d secured.

But immediately after sharing what they’d done, Bob began explaining that their “progress” didn’t actually mean anything, because it wasn’t what could have or should have happened.

“Yeah, but none of that really means anything because…”


While listening to Bob devalue his progress and complain about his situation, Dan suddenly and clearly saw an explanation for a weird thing that successful entrepreneurs do to undermine their growth and confidence. This wasn’t the first time he’d heard one of his clients grumble about their progress.

Dan walked to his paper flip chart and drew a picture to explain to Bob what was happening. At the top of the paper, Dan wrote the word Ideal. At the bottom of the page, he wrote Start. Then between the two words, on the middle of the page, he wrote Achieved. He then drew a line between the words Achieved and Ideal.

He explained it to Bob like this:

“The Start” is where you were 90 days ago. ‘The Achieved’ is what you’ve actually achieved over the past 90 days. ‘The Ideal’ is where you wish you were. You have an ideal in your mind, and you’re measuring yourself against your ideal, rather than against the actual progress you’ve made. This is why you’re unhappy with what you’ve done, and it’s probably why you’re unhappy with everything in your life. You’re measuring yourself in the GAP.”

While drawing and thinking out loud, Dan unknowingly formulated what would become one of the most important, transformational, and enduring concepts in the Strategic Coach program. But in that moment, it was just an unpolished insight. And Bob, the unhappy man Dan was talking to, didn’t want to hear what Dan was saying. Instead, Bob stayed in the GAP, and started complaining about Dan’s explanation, pointing out why and how it didn’t apply to him.

Despite’s Bob resistance, the other entrepreneurs in the room were completely blown away by what Dan was teaching them. They immediately observed how the GAP related to their own situations. They could see how the GAP had permeated their lives, and that it was making them miserable.

You’re in the GAP every time you measure yourself or your situation against an ideal. For instance, you may be on your way to a concert with your spouse that you’ve been anticipating, but you’re running five minutes late. If you’re focused on and frustrated about those five minutes, then you’re in the GAP. You’re measuring yourself against your ideal. You’re not actually living in the moment.

All you have to do is shift to the GAIN and focus on the fact that you’re having an exciting night. The whole night is a GAIN. If you focus on the GAIN, you’ll be happy.

In every circumstance you’re in, you’re either in the GAP or the GAIN, but you can’t be in both at once. My wife, Lauren, makes home-cooked meals for dinner every night. Sometimes, our kids get to the table and complain that the meal isn’t their favorite dish. “Are you in the GAP or the GAIN?” I ask them.

They’ve heard it so many times at this point that sometimes it actually sinks in. “Thanks for making dinner, mom.”

The truth is, they’ve just GAINED, right? They weren’t appreciating the meal in front of them— or their lives for that matter—because they were measuring their experience against an ideal in that moment.

Excerpted with permission from The Gap and The Gain: The High Achievers’ Guide to Happiness, Confidence, and Success by Benjamin  Hardy and Dan Sullivan (Hay House, Inc.; Oct. 19, 2021).