Six Simple Keys to Happiness, According to Research

 

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I’m following up last week’s post, which was about the “6 Myths of Success”.

These are western culture’s ideas of what success is and how people should go about achieving success. They are myths, because research has shown that ALL of them actually harm our ability:

  1. to be present,
  2. connect with others, and
  3. cope with stress or setbacks.

Happiness research supports that at the end of the day, people are happiest when they are doing well in these three categories. Regardless of financial situation or an “achieved status” from their career.

For me, I think these myths helped me seriously reevaluate what my version of success truly is. I still don’t have a perfect picture, but I am more in tune with my behaviors and how daily choices can bring get me closer to what makes me happy and eventual success.

Let’s be honest. Up until two weeks before I left for Thailand (July 2018), I was studying for the MCAT, a test you take to apply to medical school. I was stressed, miserable, and my mood was crap. Something nagged at me at the end of every day questioning why in the world was I doing this? My reason for medical school was fading. At night, when I read the books for my yoga curriculum, every page was an clear and obvious message that I was wasting precious time and energy on a goal I didn’t connect with.  

I never showed up to that test. Yep, so dramatic. My family at the time tried to convince me otherwise based on the fact I had been studying for nearly a year. But at the end of the day I couldn’t. I knew no matter how I did on the exam, I was not going to apply, so it didn’t seem worth the stress. The desire to be a physician was lost when I realized there are so many other avenues to help the people I want to help. In this very rare opportunity, I could choose unhappiness or happiness. I chose the latter. And I have not regretted my decision since.

Quick reminder that I’ve taken these from a recent read I really loved. The book is The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success by Emma Seppälä, the science director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

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The Happiness Track by Emma Seppälä

So here’s the good stuff. The Six Keys to Happiness:

***

Key #1: Stop chasing the future and live in the moment.

In the general population, many people’s problems come when they keep delaying happiness in favor of getting more things done so they can be happier later (19). But this is ironic because studies show “we are terrible at predicting what will or will not make us happy. We often overestimate the happiness something will bring us” (22).

“Anxiety and fear arise when your mind is focused on the future…anger and frustration arise when your mind is caught in the past.” (pg. 29)

Mindfulness research tells us that people are truly happiest in the moment. And the more people “practice being present with their activities, the more being present becomes a habit” (34). If people could stop chasing the future or worrying about the past, they would experience true happiness more regularly, rather than excessive amounts of frustration and fear.

Key #2: Step OUT of overdrive and tap into your resilience, so you can bounce back better from setbacks.  

“Our culture values persevering, fighting to attain our goals, and outperforming others – all of which involve some form of stress.” This mindset has manifested into a belief that success demands stress. You cannot have one without the other. “As a consequence, we value intensity, which inherently involves physiological stress” (41).

Acute, short term, or good stress helps us to develop a natural resistance, an inherent immunity, to the challenges life will inevitably throws at us. “Acute stress can increase cooperate, social and friendly behavior” (44). However, we should be able to return to a state of well being easily. Chronic stress, and how we cope with it through food, alcohol or other addictions, ends up depleting our natural ability to deal with stress constructively.

Your breath is a rapid and reliable pathway dedicated to helping regulate the mind and your emotions.” When we get stressed, we need to regularly take a few deep breaths, because it will cultivate an improved ability to cope with the stressor. And at the end of the day, “success is determined by the speed of your recovery.”

Key #3: Manage your energy by remaining calm and centered.

“Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of high performance.” – Jim Loer and Tony Schwatrz, The Power of Full Engagement.

This chapter discusses burnout, and why it is so pervasive in the United States.

It explains high intensity emotions, (excitement, enthusiasm, anger, anxiety) and why Westerners, especially Americans, ‘thrive’ on them. The reality is that “high-intensity emotions are physiologically and mentally taxing” (72). Not only do our intensities exhaust us, but they prevent efficient management of energy, and further contribute to beliefs about negative thoughts and fatigue. It’s one massive negative energy feedback loop.

Calmness is what helps preserve energy. “Using high-intensity emotions selectively and staying calm the rest of the time allows you to conserve energy in the long run” (82). Remaining calm develops self-control and can reduce the impact of your thoughts.

Meditation is a great tool to cultivate calm in your life and restore the mental energy required to navigate our lives.

Key #4: Make time to do nothing. It’s the secret to accessing creativity.

“Creativity helps you find better ways to complete your work and come up with novel ideas that make you better at what you do” (89). Make time for stillness and silence. 

The best way to tap into creative thoughts is “being idle and letting your mind wander. We need a balance of both focus and rest, because if our minds are constantly processing information…we never get a chance to let our thoughts roam and our imaginations drift” (100).

Some people are terrified of doing nothing and become uncomfortable with downtime. Checking e-mails or devices becomes an insidious and interruptive habit preventing creative thoughts. The result is we are constantly thinking about work and life problems.

“We can choose to step out of the permanent Time Square that is buzzing in our heads. Most people are noticing they are drowning in it. Find a way back to stillness: through hikes, sailing, meditation and internet sabbaths” Pico Iyer explains (113).

Key #5: Be good to yourself. How you understand yourself affects your potential.

We are our own worst critics. The constant negative self talk backfires and can inhibit you from trying something new, or taking a risk. When people “stop persevering in anything outside what they are good at, they cannot expand their sphere of knowledge or competence” (124). Whatever are your weakness, they will always be there.

“Research shows that subscribing to the idea of strengths is linked to higher levels of depression, in part because is leads to excessive self-criticism” (125). Self-criticism ruins us. It is an important predictor of anxiety and depression, rather than a motivator.

Where excessive criticism can leave us powerless, self-compassion is at the heart of empowerment. It involves treating yourself the way you would treat a colleague or friend who has failed” (131). So, be good to yourself.

Self compassion can take the form of simply noticing your self-talk, writing a positive note, develop a mantra, or having a daily gratitude list. Self-compassion can “balance our negativity bias by making us more aware of positive experiences in life and helping us focus on the positive aspects of ourselves. Gratitude helps us adopt a more balanced view that bolsters happiness and success” (135).

Key #6: Be kind to others. Compassion serves you better than self-interest.

Being incredibly self-focused creates blind spots, ruins relationships, makes you weak in the face of failure, and damages your health. “Rates of anxiety and depression correlate, in fact, with activity in the part of the brain responsible for thoughts about oneself and if you are excessively self-focused, setbacks can cripple you” (147).

Success can be found through compassion because “compassion is the reverse of self-focus. It is profoundly other-focused. We may think we want money, power, fame or beauty but at the root of these desires is a need to belong, to connect with others” (149).

“Through compassion, you get in touch with your full potential for strength, power and vitality. Through compassion you find purpose” (151).

Compassion is about understanding what others are experiencing so you can interact in the most sensitive and appropriate way. Relationships improve personally and professionally (161). A key to building compassion is paying full attention when others are talking. Resist the urge to interrupt or prepare how you will respond.

***

I believe if we practiced all of these on a daily basis, we’d all be happy. Maybe not every single second of every day, but every day, we would be happy. Little things add up.

This book is a brilliant and easy read. There is so much more information within that I did not cover, so if you’re intrigued, I highly recommend it. After you’re done, you may think of a friend who could really use it. Those are the best types of books, the one’s you want to share.

So take your own notes and pass it along. It could even be a great book for someone who is going through a transition in their career or personal life, or starting college or graduate school. This book is convincing, direct, and motivating. It’s a great reminder that finding happiness comes first and success will follow.

I would enjoy hearing what anyone has to think on this subject of happiness and success. I recently read a compelling article that argued usefulness is the key to happiness. If this post sparked anything for you, feel free to share. I hope you find a little happy in your day today.

XO + OM

LIZ

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