Understanding happiness and success

Photo credit - Eli Defaria via unsplash.com

Photo credit – Eli Defaria via unsplash.com

Happiness is often misunderstood. Many people think that when they achieve something they will be happy. When I get a better job, I will be happy. When I have more money, things will be good. In fact, it is the other way around. Success does not precede happiness. Rather, happiness precedes success.

Two different mindsets
In the last week, I heard two stories highlighting the impact a happiness can have on success. One was from a person with a positive mindset, the other not-so-positive.

A friend emailed me with news from the last six months – both professional and personal. It was a mix of anecdotes from work, home, family and leisure pursuits. What stood out for me was the energy in her writing and how upbeat she was about both good outcomes and challenges. One of these was her completion of the Great Victorian bike ride, an annual event in late Spring.

Her words …

… the ride was an amazing experience in many ways, many of them not expected!  4200 other riders on the road and at the campsites, not to mention 540 volunteers, it was not the peaceful ride I imagined.  Wonderful in lots of other ways … really glad I did it, great sense of achievement!

There was something else that jumped out at me from her email. Happiness. It came through in her enthusiasm for things she was doing – whether they went as expected or not, whether there were challenges or smooth-running success. No matter the outcome, the sense that life is good for her, came through loud and clear.

By comparison, the other story was from a ski instructor who had a series of private lessons. His client claimed that despite annual lessons, she didn’t ever improve. She expressed her concern about the terrain they would cover and articulated her fears of going beyond her comfort zone. There was also a sense that she was taking the lessons because they had been organised for her and often didn’t really want to be there.

As a result, there were some delayed starts to lessons and some early finishes. The overall sense was that she was not happy. She made limited progress in her lessons. The instructor tried every avenue to modify the lessons to suit and to engage and enthuse the client. The experience was draining and left him feeling they had not achieved the expected results.

These different mindsets led to different outcomes. But why? What is the relationship between happiness and success?

Understanding happiness
Many people believe they will achieve happiness when they have or achieve other things. In other words, they suggest happiness is a consequence of achievement. Research shows that the reverse is the case.

… when people work with a positive mind-set, performance on nearly every level—productivity, creativity, engagement—improves …
(Achor, 2012)

In Positive Intelligence, Achor suggests happiness is misunderstood. The “when I get/have … [insert desired result] …  I will be happy” idea – is fraught with failure. It sets up success as a “moving target” that once achieved is raised again. The resulting happiness is only short-lived as the next standard is set.

Instead, Achor suggests cultivating a positive mind-set, so people perform better in the face of challenges. His research indicates a strong correlation between life satisfaction and success. He proposes ways you can increase your happiness and therefore your chance of success.

Increase your happiness through:

  • the habits you cultivate
  • the way you interact with others
  • how you think about stress

Cultivating new habits
Cultivate new habits that create positive change in your outlook. In his research, Achor asked participants to choose one activity from a group of five, to perform on a daily basis for three weeks. Participants reported an improvement in their general sense of well-being following the trial and sustained over a period of four months following it.

You can do this too. Choose one from these, to do for a sustained period.

  • jot down three things you are grateful for
  • write a positive message to someone in your social support network
  • meditate for two minutes
  • exercise for 10 minutes
  • take two minutes to describe (in a journal) the most meaningful experience of the past 24 hours

Interacting with others
Strong social support and a sense of connection with others correlates with happiness and a positive outlook. Studies show:

  • high levels of social support predict longevity as reliably as regular exercise does
  • low social support is as damaging as high blood pressure
  • social support was the greatest predictor of happiness during periods of high stress

Further research shows that even more important that receiving social support is providing it to others. In workplaces, people who interacted this way were more engaged and 40% more likely to be promoted. The activities (listed below), are things you can do too.

  • Offering help to others who are overwhelmed
  • Initiating social interactions eg invite to lunch together
  • Providing social support for others – organise activities, pick up the slack for others
    (Achor. 2012)

How you think about stress
Stress is part of life. It can be a significant factor influencing happiness at work and in life generally. Much of the time, stress is considered as something to be managed and mitigated. The emphasis is on its negative effects.

Graph source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkes%E2%80%93Dodson_law

Graph source: Wikipedia

The classic model referred to for stress, is the Yerkes Dodson law that indicates performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, up to a point. If levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases. So stress can promote growth and be an obstacle to it.

Your attitude toward stress can dramatically change how it affects you.
(Achor, 2012)

People who see stress as enhancing the human brain, view it as enhancing their performance.  Those with the positive orientation reported fewer health issues and increased happiness at work compared to those who regard stress as debilitating.

Managing your relationship with stress is the key. Achor suggests this exercise to get things into perspective.

  1. Make a list of the stresses you’re under.
  2. Group them as those you can control, and those you can’t.
  3. Choose one stress you can control.
    Devise a small, concrete step you can take to reduce it. This helps “nudge” your brain to a positive and productive mind-set.

Choose happiness, choose success
There is a lot of evidence to support the impact of happiness on success. The onus is each one of us in our choice to be happy. We can do things to foster that, in the attitude we adopt and the mindset we select. From this, all things will flow.



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