Happiness: The Secret to Success (Part 2)

Does happiness impact your success or does success impact your happiness? Think about your own metrics for success.  Maybe you define success by getting that promotion, a raise, or just hitting your numbers this quarter. Consultants define success when they help clients reach their goals.  Teachers define success by the grades of their students.  For some, success could be something as simple as an “atta’ boy” from your boss. Success feels good.  Success makes us happy, right?

Happiness: The Secret to Success (Part 1) explored the intersection of happiness, engagement, and collaborative contributions. When people are happy, engaged, and contributing, the team is successful.  When the team is successful, the members are happier, more engaged, and more willing to contribute.  From an organizational standpoint, that’s the money shot.

But from an individual standpoint, that whole construct tends to get distilled down to this:

The harder I work, the more successful I’ll be.

The more successful I am, the happier I’ll be.


The Neurochemistry of Happiness

It’s easy to get sucked into this logic.  The problem is that it’s scientifically twisted.  Don’t take my word for it.  There are more than two decades of brain-based research that explains what happens in the brain when we experience happiness.  As luck would have it, I get all geeked out by neuroscience.  So, here’s the proof that happiness  fuels success.

Not only do we feel better when we’re happy, our brain chemistry actually changes. When we are positive, the brain becomes more engaged, creative, and productive, and that brain activity increases motivation, energy, and resilience.  This is largely due to the neurotransmitters that are released in the brain.  Dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins are the happy chemicals that are released when we experience certain emotions. On the flip side, negative chemicals are released to protect the brain in stressful situations.

What makes these neurotransmitters so important?  This all takes place in the limbic system of the brain which is the on/off switch for cognitive processing.  In simplest terms, if the limbic system is flooding the brain with the bad chemicals, it’s too busy fighting the stress to think. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.  The brain actually slows the processing to address the stress. When the good chemicals are flowing, the switch to learning, thinking, and processing is flipped on.  They are like Red Bull for the brain.

Your brain works better when the happy chemicals are flowing. 

In fact, we’re much more likely to be successful at work when we’re happy and positive. Positive psychology expert and author, Shawn Achor calls this the “Happiness Advantage.” His research shows that people who have a happy, positive mindset are more successful professionally. Among his findings, sales of happy people are 37% higher, productivity is 31% better, and they are 40% more likely to receive a promotion.

If we know that, then just be happy, right?  Psychologists like Sonja Lyubomirsky at the Greater Good Science Center have been studying happiness to find out how much control we actually have over it.  Lyubomirsky maintains that one’s level of happiness is primarily determined by three things:  genetic predisposition, external factors, and intentional activities. This is how it breaks down.

Only 10% is defined by things we have no control over….losing a job, a car accident, a death in the family.  These are circumstances of life that just happen. While we have not control over them, it’s only 10% of the pie. That feels better, yes? Even with a 50% genetic baseline (which is a predisposition to happiness, meaning that you can rewire your brain to change it), 40% is completely shaped by our behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes – all things we can control. Break that intentional activity down even further, and it is primarily shaped by three factors:

1. optimism (you have control over things that matter)

2. social connectedness (positive interactions with others)

3. the perception of stress (challenge or threat)

In other words, your happiness and your perception of success largely depends upon how you see the world and you have control over that.  The world doesn’t create your happiness or your success.  The way you see the world and your place in it is the key.

The Power of Optimism

Consider the following case study on the impact of optimism on success. In the mid 1980s, Metropolitan Life was hiring 5,000 salespeople a year and spending more than $30K each to train them over the course of two years. Of all the new hires, half quit the first year and four out of five within four years.  Do the math; the ROI was terrible.

At about the same time, psychologist, Dr. Martin Seligman introduced a new theory called learned optimism. His theory was that when optimists fail, they attribute the failure to something they can change, not to a weakness or factor out of their control. This difference in attitude, Seligman maintained, enabled optimists to be much more successful than pessimists.

MetLife hired Dr. Seligman to test his theory on 15,000 new MetLife sales consultants. Each of the new hires took two tests. One was the company’s regular screening exam, and the other was Dr. Seligman’s profile to measure how optimistic they were. He was able to identify one segment of the new hires that failed the company test but scored as “super-optimists” on his profile test. The “super-optimists” outsold the pessimists who passed the company test by 21% in the first year and 57% in the second.

The pessimist sees the difficulties in every opportunity.  The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.

Think about how you feel when you see negative news stories on tv – things which you have no control over – such as ISIS attacks, senseless murders, or a plummeting stock market. If you think that doesn’t impact your personal happiness and productivity, think again.

According to research conducted this year in coordination with the Huffington Post to study the long-term impact of negative and positive news stories on the public, people who watched just three minutes of negative news in the morning were 27% more likely to report having a bad day 6-8 hours later. Conversely, people who watched the same amount of uplifting stories were 88% more likely to look back on the day as a good one 6-8 hours later.

Remember the bad chemicals?  Visualize what happens in the pessimist’s brain. His brain is so busy producing all of the stress-fighting chemicals, there is very little bandwidth left to think, process information, be creative, etc.  Eventually, that stress will actually kill his brain cells.  It snowballs to the point where his goals seem so out of reach, he  takes the “why bother?” attitude and gives up. Psychologists call this learned helplessness, and there is a direct correlation with learned helplessness, chronic failure and depression.

The Bottom Line

If we measure happiness by success, we’ll never get there.  Envision the mechanical rabbit at the racetrack.  The dogs can never catch it. It’s always a pole-length out of reach. Every time you experience success, your own definition of success changes.  While getting the VP promotion may be your definition of success today, once you get it, the new measure of success changes to becoming CEO.  When you successfully hit your numbers, the bar is raised and the new metric is a bigger number. If your level of success defines your level of happiness, you’ll never ever get there.

Likewise, there is a fine line between contentment and complacency.  Happiness isn’t just being content with the life we have.  It’s the optimistic belief that we have control over making our lives better.

Check out Happiness: Part 3 for some simple strategies to rewire your brain for greater optimism, happiness, and success.

Dr. Melissa Hughes is the founder and principal of The Andrick Group. Our mission is to engage, inspire, and educate people who want to improve their work and lives by understanding how the brain works and learning how to use that knowledge for greater personal and professional satisfaction.  

Learning about Learning | Thinking about Thinking


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