It is that time of the year when people begin thinking about their new year’s resolutions. We often resolve to change our habits, thinking that the changes will make us more successful and our success, in turn, will make us happier. During the past decade, new research has emerged on the issue of the relationship between success and happiness. This research suggests that we may be seeing an incomplete picture of the relationship between success and happiness. While success may contribute to happiness, as most of us tend to think, new research suggests that happiness can lead to success. So rather than chasing success by focusing on changing ourselves, this research suggests that we are likely to be more successful by focusing on doing things that make us happy.
In this post, I cover:
- How happiness could lead to success,
- What makes people happy, and
- What the happiness-success relationship means for you.
While this post appears to be different from our typical focus on virtual teams, we believe that it offers a perspective that would help readers understand some of our past posts, especially those in which we emphasized building social relationships in virtual teams. It also offers a foundation for future posts that we have planned.
How happiness could lead to success
In a 2005 Psychological Bulletin publication, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and Ed Diener document research to argue that happiness leads to success across multiple life domains, including marriage, friendship, income, work performance, and health. They describe happiness as a preponderance of positive affect, i.e., positive moods and emotions. Success is defined as “accomplishing those things that are valued by one’s culture, flourishing in terms of the goals set forth by one’s society.” For instance, being satisfied with one’s married life is an indicator of success, as is job satisfaction.
Positive affect, the authors argue, leads people to think, feel, and act in ways that promote success. Specifically, when people are happy, they feel that all is going well. In this state, people tend to “broaden and build,” i.e., they tend to pursue new goals that expand their skills, resources, and friendships or they may rest and relax to rebuild their energy after high levels of effort. Happier people show many characteristics that promote this broadening and building, including “confidence, optimism, and self-efficacy; likability and positive construals of others; sociability, activity, and energy; prosocial behavior; immunity and physical well-being; effective coping with challenge and stress; and originality and flexibility”. In a nutshell, the authors argue, there are two main factors that account for the success of happy people. First, because happy people experience positive moods frequently, they are more likely to work actively towards new goals while experiencing these moods. Second, happy people possess superior skills and resources, built over time during previous pleasant moods. This is almost like the effect behind self fulfilling prophecy — a positive mindset changes our behaviors and our choices for the better.
What makes people happy?
If happiness can promote success, how can we seek happiness? A fair amount of research, some of which was done by the above authors, has emerged on the topic of what leads to happiness. A notable contributor to this research on positive psychology is Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania (see Seligman’s website on this topic). While many think that happiness is something that just happens to them, Seligman and others in the field of positive psychology hold that we have significant control over our happiness and offer a variety of tools and suggestions for increasing our happiness (see a Time article on this research).
One of the recommended tools is the gratitude journal, which is a diary in which one writes down things for which s/he is thankful. Research has shown that taking the time to count one’s blessings once a week can significantly raise overall satisfaction with life. Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis found that gratitude journals improve physical health, energy levels, and for patients with neuromuscular disease, relieve pain and fatigue. Furthermore, those who elaborated more and have a wider set of things to be grateful for benefitted the most.
Another recommendation is to learn what your strengths are and figure out ways to deploy them (see exercises on Seligman’s website to determine your strength, registration required for exercises). A significant number of suggestions for increasing happiness require being with others and engaging in acts of kindness and giving. According to Christopher Peterson, a University of Michigan professor who is quoted in the Time article, “Giving makes you feel good about yourself. When you’re volunteering, you’re distracting yourself from your own existence, and that’s beneficial. More fuzzily, giving puts meaning into your life. You have a sense of purpose because you matter to someone else.”
What does the happiness-success relationship mean for you?
We have a tendency to think in very limited cause-effect terms. Either happiness causes success or success causes happiness. Well, in truth, it’s not a simple linear relationship – it’s a reciprocal effect. So if working on success to increase happiness is a valid approach to positive change, so is working on happiness to increase success. In our society we tend to think of happiness as an effect instead of a cause, but happiness as a cause is one of the oldest notions in religion and philosophy. We have simply forgotten the powerful impact of a positive mindset.
What does all this mean at a practical level? Make a note of what what you would like to change. Also, figure out ways to be happy. Considering change from a mindset of happiness will help you think of possibilities that you not thought of before. You will think of creative goals and creative ways to change yourself. When you are happy, you are also likely to recommit yourself every day to achieving your goals and making change.
There is also a social effect of happiness. Research shows that if you are happy, you are likely to spread happiness to those around you (see our digest in which we discuss this). Happy people tend to be sociable and to engage in pro-social behaviors. Thus, by being happy, you will not only broaden and build yourself, you will also create conditions that help others succeed. And that is what leadership is all about.