Many people think that hard work is the key to success and happiness, yet we all know it's not possible to work, and work well, 24/7. This realization hit me as I was preparing to interview Emma Seppälä, PhD, associate director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, about her new book, The Happiness Track. In it, Seppälä highlights research on the complex relationship between work and happiness and outlines how we can apply these findings to our daily lives to boost our productivity and resilience, reduce stress and enjoy sustainable success and happiness.
I couldn’t wait to read the book, but I seldom allow myself time for such an indulgence - so I bought the audiobook and planned to listen to it during my commute to work. After about 30 minutes of listening, the book’s focus shifted to multitasking. Doing an activity like listening to a book while driving, the narrator said, may seem like a great way to get a lot done, but it’s counterproductive because the listener is neither fully paying attention to the book or their driving.
As I sheepishly flipped off the audiobook I realized I’d have no trouble coming up with a list of questions to ask Seppälä about her book. Here is a condensed version of our conversation:
Your book offers practical advice on how to apply scientific findings on happiness and fulfillment to one's daily life. How have you applied the techniques in your own life?
In The Happiness Track I talk a lot about building resilience from the inside out. While we can’t control the pressure and life stresses coming our way, there is one thing we DO have a say over: the state of our mind and resilience in the face of stressors.
The fastest and most efficient way to maintain a calm state of mind is through breathing practices. I’ve worked with some of the most stressed individuals in our society: veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with trauma. The research I conducted with them using breathing techniques showed that just one week of breathing practices (called sudarshan kriya) led to significant improvements in stress, anxiety and insomnia and the benefits persisted one year after the intervention. I now make it a point to practice breathing exercises every day and have found them very effective.
I also remind myself to feel grateful every day – a predictor of happiness. Research shows us that we have three times more positive experiences than negative ones every day, yet we tend to focus on what’s negative.
I try as best I can to be of service. I have found that the greatest feelings of fulfillment are those derived from doing things to help or uplift others and research substantiates these experiences.
Another thing I practice is self-compassion. Being hard on ourselves is something many of us struggle with – myself included. Research shows that being hard on yourself actually is akin to self-sabotage. Self-compassion helps you learn from your mistakes, helps you bounce back from challenges and it’s linked to greater levels of happiness and better relationships.
Do you think a person can be healthy without being happy?
It depends how you define happiness. Many people seek happiness through short-term sensual pleasures such as sex, food, money or success. While these things can bring joy, it is short-lived and research suggests that this kind of focus is linked to higher inflammation levels in the body.
Another form of happiness is the joy you derive from leading a life of purpose that’s characterized by kindness and compassion. This kind of happiness is linked to lower inflammation levels and can help buffer the effects of stress on your health.
What was the most surprising finding you learned in your studies of happiness, success and/or compassion?
If you want to be truly happy and to live a life that is fulfilling, make others happy. Of course, this shouldn’t come at a cost to yourself. It boils down to this: Take care of yourself and take care of others.
What would you say to someone who understands that happiness is important for success but has a hard time putting actions that promote fulfillment and happiness into practice?
Some people don’t want to take care of their own happiness because they think doing so is selfish. However, being happy is the least selfish thing you can do. Here’s why: If you are happy, research shows, you impact three degrees of separation away from yourself. In other words, if you are happy, then your friend’s spouse’s mother is also happier. So if taking care of your own psychological well-being appears selfish to you, then do it for those around you. Being happy is a great act of service. Think of those people who walk into the room and just light it up with their presence. They uplift everyone around them. You leave them feeling lighter and more joyful. You too can do the same.
What advice or tips do you have for parents, teachers and leaders who want to foster compassion, happiness and fulfillment in the lives of those who look up to them?
Many parents have approached me after reading my book to ask about this. Parents often want their children to get into the best schools, but they see the stress this can cause and they want their children to also be happy. That’s why I wrote The Happiness Track. If you look at the research, being happy leads to far greater levels of productivity, focus, creativity, performance, attention, memory and even charisma – all the qualities needed for success.
The same is true for leaders in organizations. If their employees are happier, their performance will improve. Research shows that employees prefer a workplace where they are happy to a workplace that pays them a higher paycheck. And workplace well-being is influenced less by material perks than by positive social relationships. The best thing a leader or teacher can do is ensure they are creating a positive culture by acting with kindness, support and compassion. This doesn’t mean becoming a doormat or not giving feedback – but it does mean doing so in a supportive and understanding way.
What's next for you?
I have had many corporate leaders and parents approach me to find out how they can apply these scientific findings. If I can help them create happier work and learning environments, it could impact thousands of lives in a positive way, and that would be wonderful.
Previously: 10% happier? Count me in!, Breaking down happiness into measurable goals, The remarkable impact of yoga breathing for trauma, Study shows happiness and meaning in life may be different goals, What email does to your brain and Six mindfulness tips to combat holiday stress
Photo courtesy Emma Seppälä