Happiness Leads to Success. Period.July 12 , 2012

Happiness leads to success.  Period.

“No, no!” you say, “That isn’t right!”
“Success leads to happiness, all day and all night.”
(my sincere apologies to Sandra Boynton for corrupting her quote about singing pigs….)

The Happiness Myth

Many of us believe down to our core, that if we work hard, we will become “successful” (we each have our own definition of this but it often involves some degree of money, glory or world change).  And once we become successful, we think, then we’ll be happy.  As Shawn Achor explains in his book, The Happiness Advantage, this formula has been indoctrinated in us by our schools, our jobs, and our entire American culture.  If I get that raise or make that sales target, then I’ll be happy.  If I can live in that neighborhood or lose 10 pounds, then I’ll be happy.  Success first, happiness follows.

But more than 15 years of research in positive psychology and neuroscience has proven in no uncertain terms that this formula is not only wrong but the opposite is true.  Happiness leads to success.

The Data is Clear

In 2005, a trio of top positive psychology researchers did a meta-analysis of all the research to date on happiness and positive emotions.  This analysis included more than 200 studies covering over 275,000 subjects and showed without a doubt, that happiness is the pre-cursor to success, not simply the result.  All the research published since confirms and strengthens this conclusion.

Here’s a sample of what studies have shown:  Preschoolers told to think about something that makes them happy were able to put together blocks faster and more accurately.  High-school students primed to think about the happiest day of their lives outperformed peers on standardized math tests.  Experienced doctors who were given a small gift of candy to boost their happiness showed faster and more accurate diagnosis than a control group of doctors with the same amount of experience and training.

Employees reporting themselves as happier at the start of a study received higher evaluations and bigger raises at the end of 18 months than their peers with comparable experience but an unhappy outlook.  Subjects’ happiness level in college predicted their level of income 19 years later, regardless of their initial level of wealth.  People who expressed more positive emotions while negotiating business deals got better outcomes than those who expressed more neutral or negative emotions.  Positive sales people outsell their negative counterparts by 37%.  Positive employees are 31% more productive than negative employees.  And the studies go on and on showing that happiness leads to success in areas as diverse as relationships, income, work performance, health and longevity.

But How Does Happiness Help?

Let’s first take a look at the opposite: what happens when you are nervous or worried or experiencing other negative emotions?  How creative are you?  Is your brain acting at its highest level, or are you stuck obsessing about the only two things you can focus on?  Negative emotions often activate the fight or flight response system which turns off the thinking part of your brain and turns on the prehistoric lizard part of your brain.  This limits your ability to think clearly and find alternative solutions.

But when you are happy, your brain releases dopamine and serotonin, which make you feel good and dial up the learning centers of your brain which help you organize new information, keep information in the brain longer and retrieve it faster later on.  These neurochemicals enable you to make and sustain more neural connections, which allow you to think more quickly and creatively, become more skilled at complex analysis and problem solving and see and invent new ways of doing things.

In today’s knowledge-driven economy, success in practically every job or profession hinges on finding creative and novel solutions to problems.  When you are primed with happiness, you are simply more likely to see out-of-the-box solutions, spot opportunities and better see how to build upon the ideas of others.

What if I’m Not Naturally a Happy Person?

All this research is great for someone who is already happy.  But what about those who weren’t born with happy genes?  Does this research mean that they are doomed to be both unhappy and unsuccessful?  Fortunately, no.  The research is clear that even the most pessimistic of us can learn to be sustainably happier.  Over the next several weeks, I’ll be sharing some simple daily exercises that can help you change your mindset to a more optimistic and happy perspective in both the short and long-term.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach

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