Are you happy enough to be successful?

“You have to watch this”, my friend and North of Neutral colleague Carolyn Mathews urged me last summer. As she knows I share her passion for the science behind positive psychology, so she had forwarded me a 12-minute Ted Talk of Harvard scholar Shawn Achor in which he, in lightening speed, covers the high points of the latest research on happiness:

Achor’s presentation was hilarious as much as it was thought provoking.  I wanted to know more and so got myself a copy of his book, “The Happiness Advantage”. Money well spent: a bit like the happiness guide for the executive traveler, Achor takes on the business lens when it comes to happiness and examines how it correlates with success. Bold in his claims, he is able to back them up and offers comprehensive sources to support his assertions. Chances are you have never heard of some of the findings he shares (most academic research articles are, on average, read only by seven people!).

So, in case you have no time to read his book, here is what you should know:

Happiness first, then success (not the other way round).

I still remember my history lesson on Copernikus in high school. With his publication some 500 years ago, where he famously pronounced that the earth revolved around the sun (not the other way round), he ran into a lot of resistance but ultimately his theory changed the way we see the world for good.

Much like the scientific revolution of the middle ages, research over the past 50 years shows that there may be a different relationship of variables when it comes to cause and effect than we may have preciously assumed. For example: do you need to be smart first to wear a doctor’s coat or could it be the coat that influences your IQ points? Have a look at this NY Times article that describes how participants in a research study who put on a doctor’s white coat were found to be significantly more acute and critical in their thinking than those without the coat… Do you first feel like you are in a good enough mood to smile or could it be also the other way around? If you are interested, try a little experiment: smile for at least 20 seconds several times over the course of half an hour and observe what happens to your mood… (We know from neuroscience that we can “trick” our brain into thinking that there is good reason to be happy and as a result produce neuro-chemicals that actually make us happy.)

There is no doubt that success can bring about happy moments. As I was writing this blog, my client Ryan (who works for a well-known strategy consulting firm) called me with the good news that he had been promoted to partner that morning. His happiness was palpable over the phone. However, if we are looking for sustainable happiness (and success), it is foremost a general sense of well-being at work, of being in the flow, and engaged at what we do that fuels success. And despite his promotion, I know from my work with Ryan that in our next session we will need to continue to help him build his authentic leadership style, in order for him to feel fulfilled at work and to be successful over the long haul.

The facts support this. So, no surprise that doctors who are in a good mood are three times more creative and resourceful when it comes to diagnosing and helping patients (a criteria to add when it comes to choosing your physician).  And that optimistic sales people outsell their pessimistic peers by 56%. Smart organizations capitalize on these insights. Take Zappos: different from most call centers in the US that have close to 100% turnover, this online retailer sees very little talent drain (they give their employees full autonomy on how to make a sale, there is no script, no monitoring. And as a result, they are ranked ahead of ritzy brands like Apple or BMW when it comes to customer service).

Happiness is the core, success orbits around it.

Try this: Think of your last bonus at work. What did you do with this money? How long did that feeling of happiness last? How did it impact your level of engagement at work? Now think of an activity at work you engage in because you enjoy doing so, and you notice that you are getting better as you are practicing a skill associated with this activity. What is it? What sort of emotions do you notice when you are in the middle of this activity? What do you notice when it comes to your levels of engagement at work if you integrate more of this activity at work? Not quite sure what activity that might be? Use our complimentary online assessment to get clarity around what passions you at work by clicking here.

You have a choice to be happy. 

Happiness is the sum of: our DNA, the curveballs life throws us, and finally our behavior and the lens we choose to look at the world through. Research shows that almost half of how well we fare in life and in our careers is down to us:

Source: Lyubomirksy, S. (2010). The How of Happiness. New York: Penguin Books.

Did you know that fMRI studies show that cab drivers who deliver their clients without GPS have significantly enlarged hippocampi (the region of the brain responsible for spatial memory)? Have you heard that blind people who rely on their fingers to read Braille showed brain activity no different from seeing people when it came to touches to their non-reading hand, however, when their Braille-reading finger was tapped, an enormous region in the prefrontal cortex (our IQ  powerhouse) would light up – very different from their seeing peers?

As a result of neural plasticity, we can literally change the structure of our brains. This may mean being able to learn a foreign language at the age of 50, or it may mean becoming a more empathetic and trustworthy leader of our teams. The key is that once we are aware of what we need to change to be happy and successful, we can.  And there many interventions that research offers that we can engage in to deliberately change the way we feel. It may be using our signature strengths more often and in new ways at work. It can involve being more intentional when it comes to forging strong relationships at work. Did you know that people who have a ‘best buddy’ at work tend to be seven times more engaged and fulfilled in their careers?

Try this: If you want to run your own experiment, for one week write down three positive events every day. And track your mood over time. What do you notice?

You can change significantly more than you think you can.

Now you have read so far and you may agree that starting with a focus on happiness in our career and lives, a focus on what our strengths are, what energizes us and what we are good at is superior to trying to get to the front in the rat race, and hoping for happiness down the road. You may also have bought into research that shows that a good part of our happiness is in our own hands. The final important message on happiness and success is that we can push ourselves significantly more than we think we can when it comes to making positive change happen.

As I often share with my clients, any kind of change, even if it is much desirable, involves pain. In fact, we know that even much desired change can be as painful as breaking bones. This is why as a coach I help clients develop these small incremental steps towards their change.

Even if experts tell us that certain change is not humanly achievable, we have all heard about ‘miracles’ where people have been able to overcome preconceived notions and realized their aspirations and goals. Be it the Bannister effect, where once the four-minute-mile record was broken, a slew of athletes were able to follow suit, or climbing Mount Everest without oxygen, or the first heart transplants. The story of Walt Disney  comes to mind who started an entire empire based on his mantra of “If you can dream it, you can achieve it. “

In my work as a coach I have seen shy introverts become gifted speakers, reluctant risk takers leave their current corporate position to launch their own start-up, and reluctant leaders embrace their authentic self and inspire their teams in the midst of organizational turmoil to stay the course and to deliver results beyond expectations. As Henry Ford once said so wisely: “If you think you can do it or think you can’t, in both cases, you’re right.”

Try this: In coaching as we work with our clients who struggle to make desired change happen, we often ask them to recall times in their own pasts when they were able to successfully overcome similar challenges. We then explore what strategies they used, what skills they employed to overcome hurdles, be they external or internal. A rather simple, but powerful technique that often results in clients to break through and to tap into their very inner strength they previously had simply been unaware of.