Does success make you happy, or does happiness lead to success?
Many believe that once they achieve some particular goal, then they will be happy. If they put their nose to the grindstone and work hard now, they will be successful, and therefore happier, at some distant time.
However, decades of research have shown that when we are happy – that is, our mindset and mood are positive – we are smarter, more motivated and thus more successful.
In other words, happiness brings success, not the other way around.
What Is Happiness, Anyway?
Of course, happiness means different things to different people. And only you can determine what makes you happy and how happy you are.
However, generally, happiness – or “subjective well-being” as scientists often call it – is experiencing positive emotions. It is pleasure combined with deeper feelings of meaning and purpose. Happiness implies a positive mood in the present and a positive outlook for the future.
Aristotle used the term eudaimonia, which translates not directly to “happiness” but to “human flourishing.”
By whatever name, the chief ingredient of happiness is positive emotions since happiness is, above all else, a feeling.
Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of North Carolina, identifies these as the ten most common positive emotions . . .
How Does Happiness Benefit You?
An analysis of over 200 scientific studies on nearly 275,000 people found that happiness leads to success in nearly every domain of our lives, including marriage, health, friendship, community involvement, creativity and work.
Maybe you are still thinking “of course people who are successful in these areas of their lives are happy. Who wouldn’t be.”
However, study after study shows that happiness precedes important outcomes and indicators of thriving. Happiness causes success and achievement, not the opposite.
Recent research shows that the positive effect of happiness is actually biological. Positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that not only make us feel good, but also dial up the learning centers of our brains to higher levels.
Research also shows that you don’t have to be stupefyingly happy to get the positive advantages. Even the smallest shots of positivity can give you a competitive edge.
Positive emotions broaden our intellectual and creative capacities and they counteract physical stress and anxiety.
How To Be Happier
Since positivity is such a good thing, you may be wondering if there are things you can do to increase yours.
If you are lucky, happiness comes naturally to you. Your genetically-determined “set point” of happiness may be higher than others.
But, even if you are not genetically predisposed to be happy, you can reap the benefits of positivity if you work hard enough at it.
If the following activities are performed habitually over time, each has been shown by research to help permanently raise our happiness baseline. (Of course, since happiness is subjective and not the same for everyone, we all have our own favorite happiness booster. And “person-activity fit” is often as important as the activity itself, so if some items on this list do not work for you, don’t force it.)
These are some proven ways to lift your spirits . . .
- Exercise. As you probably know, exercise releases pleasure-inducing chemicals called endorphins. Exercise also improves your motivation and feelings of mastery, reduces stress and anxiety and helps you get into “flow,” that locked in feeling of total engagement that we usually get when we’re at our most productive.
- Spend money on experiences, not on stuff. Money can buy happiness, but only if used to do things as opposed to simply have things.
While the positive feelings we get from material objects are frustratingly fleeting, spending money on experiences, especially with other people, produces positive emotions that are both more meaningful and longer lasting.
- Find something to look forward to. Often the most enjoyable part of an activity is the anticipation. One study showed that people who thought about watching their favorite movie actually raised their endorphin levels by 27 percent.
That’s one reason I maintain my travel bucket list.
- Commit conscious acts of kindness. A long line of research demonstrates that acts of altruism – giving to friends and strangers alike – decrease stress and strongly contribute to enhanced mental health.
- Infuse positivity into your surroundings. Our physical environment can have an enormous impact on our mindset and sense of well-being.
So infuse your surroundings with positivity. Put pictures of loved ones or of treasured experiences in your work area, for example.
- Meditate. Those who spend years meditating, such as monks, actually grow their left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most responsible for feeling happy.
Short of that, daily meditating for as little as 5 minutes can bring feelings of calm and contentment, as well as heightened awareness and empathy.
Research shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness, lower stress and even improve immune function.
- Exercise a signature strength . Do things you are good at. Studies have shown that the more you use your signature strengths in daily life, the happier you become.
As you integrate these happiness practices into your daily life, you will start to feel better. But you’ll also start to notice how your enhanced positivity makes you more efficient, motivated and productive and how it opens up opportunities for greater achievement.
** This information is drawn from The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work which I highly recommend.