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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

How Being Happy Now Leads to Future Success

True or false: Success leads to happiness.

I'm not usually a betting woman, but I'd wager big money you believe that's true. You hopefully have first-hand experience of the joy resulting from any number of favorable life circumstances, like a comfortable income, a promotion, marriage, prestige, good health or friendship.

But would it surprise you to learn that if we flipped this cause and effect statement around and suggested that happiness leads to success, it would also be true? Recent medical research explains why.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., of University of California, Riverside, and co-authors Laura King, Ph.D., of University of Missouri, Columbia and Ed Diener, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign examined 225 studies to determine how happiness and positive affect are related to culturally-valued success. While they don't dispute that success does lead to happiness, they also found that success results from happiness as well.

"Our review provides strong support that happiness, in many cases, leads to successful outcomes, rather than merely following them," said Lyubomirsky, "and happy individuals are more likely than their less happy peers to have fulfilling marriages and relationships, high incomes, superior work performance, community involvement, robust health and even a long life."

How does happiness create success? The researchers propose that people who generally feel that life is going well "can expand their resources and friendships; they can take the opportunity to build their repertoire of skills for future use; or they can rest and relax to rebuild their energy after expending high levels of effort." In other words, when we are not using all of our energy to protect or defend ourselves or recover from a perceived loss, we can turn our energy outward toward new goals and achievements.

"When people feel happy," Lyubomirsky continues, "they tend to feel confident, optimistic, and energetic, and others find them likable and sociable. Happy people are thus able to benefit from these perceptions."

When we're happy, we're likely to take on new challenges, make new social connections, learn new skills and get curious about learning new things. If you're interested in personal growth, being happy is an effective strategy.However, being happy for no reason is a challenge. If you're happiness usually depends on something happening to you--like finding a great bargain, enjoying beautiful weather, or receiving a compliment--it can seem strange to try to get happy just for the sake of being happy. Yet if we operate according to the findings of Lyubomirsky and her colleagues, this is exactly what we need to do.

At the risk of seeming naively optimistic, I can share with you that I personally start every day intentionally getting into a good mood. I don't mean getting calm or peaceful or unstressed, I mean downright glad.

Here are some things that work for me as well as some additional ideas that may work for you:

listen to a song that makes you feel good (I have a couple of songs on my laptop specifically for this purpose)

read an uplifting quote (I have a collection of these)

browse through notes of appreciation that people have sent you (I have a collection of these too--feel free to add to them at any time...)

think about something you are grateful for

reflect on past successes

take a few deep breaths

focus on something in your environment that is beautiful or enjoyable

look at happy pictures of yourself

read or tell a joke

say hello to your co-workers with a smile

play with one of the "executive toys" on your desk

exercise

Intentionally getting into a good mood for no reason doesn't mean being in denial about reality.

The authors note that happy people are capable of experiencing sadness and negative emotions in response to negative events, which is a healthy and appropriate response.

They are also clear that happiness is not a "magic elixir" or a "royal road to the perfect life." Other characteristics such as intelligence, perseverance and conscientiousness are desirable traits, but not the same as happiness.

Being happy is simply about creating a fertile internal landscape where growth, openness and curiosity can thrive and flourish. And since being happy is what most of us want out of work and out of life, isn't the freedom and ability to be happy the ultimate success?

A note to managers

As a manager, the idea of trying to increase your team members' happiness may strike you as too touchy-feely, too much like parenting, or simply impossible.

Instead, you may want to consider encouraging, and even more importantly, modeling, characteristics that the researchers found correspond to happiness, such as "confidence, optimism, and self-efficacy; likeability and positive construal of others; sociability, activity and energy; prosocial behavior; immunity and physical well-being; effective coping with challenge and stress; and originality and flexibility."

This may involve:

promoting pleasant, respectful behavior and addressing rudeness

encouraging your team to take care of their health and physical well-being

offering training and techniques for handling stress and managing their workload

promoting work-life balance and making it permissible to turn work off

giving positive feedback; the study shows that happy people are more sensitive to rewards in
their environment, and are more likely to approach rewarding situations

More effective than any of these ideas is the strategy of focusing on your own good mood, and looking for small but frequent opportunities to express it. The article cites a study that shows that mildly unhappy (dysphoric) people are likely to under-perform in leadership and social positions. Human emotions are complex, and can't be regulated by policies and procedures. If your staff perceives an inauthentic optimism or feels that they must force a smile no matter what the challenge, any attempts at false happiness can certainly backfire. As with many useful management techniques, talking the talk before we walk the walk won't get us far. How you feel and act likely has a greater impact than anything you say.

2 comments:

My name is Patricia Rockwell and said...

Yes, yes, yes, I agree. Like your writing style and how you connect actual research with practical advice.

sonja.lyubomirsky said...

Thanks for your post about my work. You may be interested in my recent book, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want (2008, Penguin Press), which discusses scientifically supported ways that people can become lastingly happier (including the tips that you cite).

Best,
--Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D.