Aug 15, 2022

The Other Side: Flourishing in Life Beyond the Military

“How do you experience joy?”

Seems like a simple question. Would you believe that this is one of the most difficult for military leaders to answer? This assessment comes from hundreds of intimate conversations with leaders from all services transitioning from the military over the past three years. Reintegrating back into society after decades of service is not easy. The evidence is in the numbers. Veterans have a higher rate of addiction, mental health issues, and suicide. Despite the vast efforts made by public, private, and nonprofit entities to abate these challenges through awareness and prevention, the incidence of these social challenges have remained relatively constant for the past two decades. We’ve been playing defense against these social issues and it hasn’t worked.

Maybe it’s time to play some offense. Instead of averting failure, we should focus on a different objective: flourishing. Our approach to transition should not be restrictive but hopeful. Fortunately, we have many of the tools necessary to help veterans build a strategic game plan. Positive psychology, the study of how to apply what people do well to optimize performance and happiness, provides a playbook grounded in theory, research, and scientific evidence. We also have the supporting cast of coaches, family members, and citizens like you who believe those who sacrificed to secure our happiness and freedom deserve an opportunity to find their own after fulfilling their duty. We can inspire military leaders with the idea that their best days lie ahead. We can help them find joy.

In order to find out what it takes to find joy, we need to understand what we are working with. We have to understand why a question about joy is so difficult for so many military leaders to answer. Joy becomes a difficult construct due to the nature of what it takes to succeed in the military. It is a challenge of intention, presence, and culture. Once we understand the problem, we can apply what we know about positive psychology to achieve the ideal outcome in life beyond the military: the opportunity to flourish.

The Challenge of Intention

Joy is a difficult construct for military leaders for a number of reasons. The first has to do with an intention to look for it. Research from the field of positive psychology shows that enduring happiness is not a product of significant life events. The satisfaction we feel from graduations, the birth of a child, a promotion, or a vacation tends to decay rapidly. Happiness is born from what we experience in our everyday lives. It is watching your children grow, feeling your partner’s hand in yours, and hearing your kids tell you that they love you. In order to experience joy, you have to be looking for it.

The problem for military leaders is that we don’t look for the good things that are happening. In fact, we are conditioned to do the exact opposite. Our job is to identify and solve problems before they compromise the mission or endanger our people. We excel at finding vulnerability and weakness. Out of necessity, we become experts in risk management. Psychologists call this defensive pessimism - the ability to proactively identify obstacles so that you can take action to overcome these challenges. Leaders hone this skill throughout their military careers. Unfortunately, defensive pessimism becomes a habit that bleeds over into every aspect of life whether it involves a military operation or planning a family vacation.

When you expect to see problems, you tend to find them. The ability to prevent failure is not a recipe for finding happiness. Consider a scenario where you are tasked to count the number of red cars that you see on your morning drive into work - a relatively straight-forward requirement. However, when you arrive at the office, your boss asks you how many green cars you saw. You know that there were green cars along your route, but you weren’t paying attention to them. Your intention was focused on red cars. Same applies to hunting potential vulnerabilities with an expectation to find happiness. It is not that the moments of joy aren’t there, but you just don’t notice them. You can’t expect to notice the green cars when you spend all your time looking for red ones. Because we focus on what’s bad, we simply miss the good.

The Challenge of Presence

Joy occurs in the moment. It requires presence to experience this emotion. As military leaders, we are always looking to the future to shape events to create an advantage. If not forward, we are looking back to apply lessons learned. It is easy to notice when military leaders are off duty because they are the ones constantly checking their phones at their son’s baseball game. If you are a military leader reading this, how often are you checking your phone or work email over the weekend? Do you notice the sunrise when you wake up in the morning, or are you too busy looking at your phone to see if you got any messages through the night. Let’s face it, being present is not one of our more endearing qualities.

In the military, this quality is a strength. Given the nature of urgent, complex, and complicated problems we face, we value the ability to sift through large volumes of information, conduct rapid analysis, and make a sound decision in dynamic, constrained, and dangerous environments. Let me offer one example based on my experience: One of the first, critical lessons we teach pilots in flight school is the ability to cross-check their instruments and systems. This involves the ability to glance at a dozen different analog and digital displays to process what is happening inside the aircraft while maintaining your focus outside the aircraft. Then, we ask aviators to do it at night under limited visibility that requires learning a series of visual cues to estimate movement and maintain spatial orientation. Then, we add five radios speaking simultaneously. Then, we put you in charge of an entire flight of aircraft. Then, someone starts shooting at you.

These demands are consistent for pilots and nonpilots alike. Our operational environment requires a state of cognition analogous to the frequency hop mode of communications - we are constantly shifting our focus from one thing to another every few seconds. Over the duration of a career, it becomes a habit. On a physiological level, our brains become more efficient by constructing the neural pathways to facilitate these processes of active cognition. Because of neural plasticity, we build a structure that is hyper sensitive and calibrated to frequency hop from one task to another. It becomes a new state of being that works in the military such that when we leave, our brains are simply not calibrated to operate in single channel mode.

The Challenge of Culture

According to renowned psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman, the concept of flourishing, the optimal state of performance and happiness, is a function of five qualities: positive emotion, engagement or a state of flow, positive relationships, a deep sense of purpose and meaning, and achievement - also known as the PERMA Model of subjective well-being in the parlance of positive psychology. Once we consider how the military nurtures these qualities through its culture, we can understand why transitioning from the service becomes such a formidable undertaking.

The military culture fulfills the requirements for self-actualization through the rubric of Maslow’s Hierarchy. With a full suite of benefits and a paycheck that arrives on the 1st and 15th of every month, the military provides for the safety and security of the service member and their family. Military leaders face the prospect of losing this when we transition. In terms of psychological needs, the military provides a strong sense of belonging forged through a distinguishable and honorable group identity. Camaraderie is perhaps the most endearing quality of military service. Additionally, the military culture validates and reinforces esteem through the recognizable uniforms, customs and courtesies, rank structure, and rituals steeped in honor and tradition. We don’t have that in the civilian world. Finally, the nature of the work itself challenges leaders to push the boundaries of performance for themselves and the team. The military requires the very best of its people, and therefore pushes them to achieve the very highest level of their potential. We stand to lose a lot when we leave a culture that is familiar and satisfying on so many levels.

On a neurological level, we feel this sense of satisfaction through the steady drip of oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins - otherwise known as the “happiness chemicals.” The oxytocin is the result of the trusted relationships, and love (especially love) that comes from that deep sense of camaraderie. The serotonin is fueled from the esteem that comes from doing meaningful work as part of a respected team. The novelty of achievement from complex problems provides the high we feel from mission accomplishment, and the endorphins allow us to push past the discomfort to realize the upper limit of our potential. The chemical resonance that comes from the flood of hormones and neurotransmitters provide that deep satisfaction and subjective well-being. We are satisfied despite the inherent danger of the work. We don’t need to focus on singular moments when riding a tidal wave of emotion that comes from engagement, meaningful activities, positive relationships, and achievement in the military culture.

That wave comes crashing down upon leaving the military. There is a void that remains when the tide recedes. A certain emptiness that longs for the connection, sense of meaning, and engagement. Once you’ve been challenged to be your best self, it becomes difficult to settle for anything less. Flourishing is the standard because you know what that’s like. Secular pursuits in the name of profit or shareholder value simply don’t hold the same appeal. Over time, the emptiness is consumed by a sense of loneliness and despair. The idea of job placement against a backstop of resources - i.e. those designed to simply stop suicide - are not going to help our veterans find happiness in life beyond the military.

A New Alternative: Finding Joy

The challenge of transition is not to replace what is lost when you leave the military, but to find a new alternative - something better. We join the military for a number of different reasons - college money, an adventure, the opportunity to do something different, but choosing to make military service a career is so much more than that. It is a calling. We assume that service was the calling, but I’m going to let you in on a little secret. It’s not. The military journey is one path to fulfill that calling, but not the only one.

Some of the difficult work in transition has nothing to do with the resume or LinkedIn Profile. It has everything to do with understanding a person’s internal drive. This requires an awareness of personal values, strengths, and purpose. Once you understand how military service aligns with this motivation, you have a template for understanding how another opportunity might align with that drive. This is how transitioning leaders find the engagement, meaning, fulfilling relationships, and worthwhile achievement in life beyond the military.

What about joy? Well, positive emotion becomes the decisive factor in the transition process. Because we don’t see it while we are in the military, the ability to add this quality to our lives provides the potential of greater happiness and satisfaction in life beyond the military. The good news is that the science of positive psychology has already identified and researched interventions that can help set the intention to find joy and increase presence in the moment to experience it. We know what works need only to coach veterans on ways they can integrate these practices into their daily lives. Some examples of these interventions include journaling, acts of kindness, mindfulness, meditation, acceptance, and reframing. Unfortunately, integrating these behaviors into a daily routine is not easy.

Building new habits is a difficult undertaking once an individual reaches their mid-thirties. Every retiree struggles to break free of the habits they formed in the military. According to Dr. Joe Dispenza, an adult’s personality is 95 percent formed by the time we reach the age of 35. When most of us joined the military, we were just kids, so the majority of our adult persona was shaped through the military culture. Now, we need that 5 percent of conscious intention to change our behavior. Furthermore, research suggests that the average time it takes to form a new habit can vary between 18 and 254 days with older adults tending to lean the right side of that scale. Given the physiology of the brain, it definitely takes more time to teach older dogs new tricks.

It’s time to play offense. Choosing to flourish in life after the military is an ambitious undertaking, but one worth the effort. Imagine the value of injecting proven leaders who are committed to helping others and making a difference with a higher sense of purpose and drive than what they experienced in the military. Society benefits from the prospect of repurposing and empowering military leaders. This is the reason why tribal societies choose members of the warrior caste to become the chieftains and wise elders of the social order. However, the journey is not easy, and we’ve seen how veterans struggle to do this on their own. What we ask is for you to come down from your seat in the stands and join us on the field. With your help, the once difficult question of joy can become an easy one. Commit with us to provide more meaningful services such as coaching and an introduction to these interventions to help veterans be their best selves in life beyond the military. Be our partner. Together, we can do this. Let’s ensure that no veteran walks alone.

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