Work hard. Become successful. Then be happy.
That’s a formula that you’ve probably heard and seen before, many, many times. It’s a formula that’s ingrained in our culture.
Lose 5 kilos, then you’ll be happy. Get a new car, then you’ll be happy. Hit your sales target this quarter, then you’ll be happy.
The only problem with this formula is that it isn’t true.
If it was true, then every student who receives an acceptance letter to the school of their dreams, or employee that receives a promotion, or achieved any goal of any kind should be happy. But there is always the next thing to achieve, which leads to an endless cycle of searching for happiness in all the wrong places.
In his book The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor talks about how happiness actually works, and why we’ve got the formula exactly backwards – that happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and is not the result of it.
Achor tells us that positive brains have a biological advantage over brains that are neutral or negative. Cultivating positive brains makes us more motivated, efficient, resilient, creative, and productive. You know, all the things that are likely to make you more successful.
Positive emotions also flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that engage the learning centres of our brains to higher levels. They also help us organize new information, keep that information in the brain longer, and retrieve it later on. Lastly, it also allows us to make more and better connections between the neurons in our brains, helping us think more creatively and more quickly. Again, all things that will help us be more successful.
So, your first step should be fairly obvious – stop waiting to be happy and find ways to become happier now. Here are 7 proven ways you can do that.
- Meditate. Why? You’ll immediately feel more calm, contented and happy. And over time, you’ll actually grow the left prefrontal cortex of your brain, which is the part of the brain responsible for feeling happy.
- Find something to look forward to. Why? The anticipation of the event is often the most enjoyable part of it, and releases endorphins into your bloodstream. Easy peasy.
- Commit conscious acts of kindness. Acts of altruism contribute to enhanced mental health and decrease stress.
- Infuse positivity into your surroundings. Your physical environment has a direct impact on your well-being, which includes the things you allow into your mind. For starters, watch less negative TV. Turn off CNN, right now.
- Exercise. You’ve heard this before, but it can boost your mood and enhance your work performance in a number of ways. Your brain will thank you, and so will those jeans you haven’t worn in 5 years.
- Spend money, but not on stuff. Buying things gives us fleeting joy but spending money on experiences – especially with other people – produces strong positive emotions that last longer.
- Exercise a “signature strength.” When we use a skill or a talent, we experience a burst of positivity. Even better, exercise a strength of character. The more you use your signature strengths, the happier you’ll become.
Most of us walk around assuming that we are seeing the world for what it is. But Achor points out that it’s the mental construction of our daily activities, more than the activities themselves, that defines our reality. Here’s a practical example.
Suppose you are in a workshop, and you’ve decided 2 minutes in that the content is not relevant to you. Let’s also suppose that the presenter also happens to be a very good presenter. You could simply check out for those two hours, stressing over everything else you could be doing with your time, or you could decide that over those two hours you would learn three things about effective presenting.
When you are faced with a difficult task or a challenge, instead of focussing on the reasons you might fail, focus on the reasons you might succeed. Choose to view your work as a calling instead of a job or a career. When the work is it’s own reward, you’ll work harder and longer to achieve your goals. If you’re a leader you have the ability to help those around you to see the positives in their lives, and you’ll get more out of them.
When we intentionally look for the positive in situations instead of the negative, we unlock three magical gifts – happiness, gratitude and optimism. And this is the secret – there are positives and negatives to be taken out of any situation – it’s up to you to decide what you are going to see. Focussing on the negatives is, well, negative. Focussing (and thus finding) the positives will help you get more of what you want in your life.
The best way you can kick this into high gear is to make a daily list of the good things in your life – some people call this a gratitude journal. By reminding yourself of the good in your life, you’ll start to see more of it, creating a virtuous cycle of positivity.
Now, no matter how hard you try to be positive, bad things are going to happen to you. And when stress and crisis hits, our brains map different paths to help us cope. You’ve heard the saying “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”? That’s only true if you view those crisis points as an opportunity to grow and develop.
When being sent off to battle, soldiers are regularly told by their doctors that they’ll either come back “normal”, or with PTSD. But Achor tells us that there’s an often overlooked third option called Post-Traumatic Growth.
Basically, the story you tell yourself about adversity determines how you will deal with it.
People that have a positive explanatory style interpret adversity as local and temporary, whereas those with a pessimistic explanatory style see the events as global and permanent.
Achor tells us that one of the biggest drivers of our success is the belief that our behaviour matters – that we can control our future. But when the stress ratchets up at work, our feelings of control are one of the first things to go – especially when that stress drives us to tackle too much at once. Our brains essentially get hijacked by emotions. But we can take control back by following a few simple steps.
First, we start with self-awareness. The easiest way to recover when you are feeling out of control is to identify the emotions you are feeling and put them into words. Write it down in a journal, talk to a co-worker or friend, or whatever you need to do in order to name what you are feeling. Brain science has proven that this will immediately diminish the power of the negative emotions.
Second, identify which aspects of the situation you have control over, and which ones you don’t. The idea here is to let go of the stresses that are outside of your control, so that you can move your focus on the things you can actually do to improve your situation.
Lastly, start working on the things you can control one at a time. The best way to do this is to get the small/easy ones out of the way first so you start to build some small wins quickly, reinforcing the idea that you do in fact control your fate. Keep doing this one step at a time until you are done. And remember, it’s a marathon and not a sprint – you can’t solve all your problems in one day.
Work hard and become successful. Then be happy. It turns out the truth – as supported by cold hard science – is that the real formula is reversed: Be happy – then work hard and become successful.
The choice is yours if you choose to do so!