We all know the paradox of the chicken and the egg—historically, one must have preceded the other. Drawing on Darwin’s theory of evolution, we can surmise that the familiar chicken must have evolved in phases, first from reptile to bird through natural selection, and then from wild pheasant to domesticated fowl through artificial selection. So the first “chicken” probably hatched from an egg laid by a pheasant-like animal that wasn’t quite a chicken. But then, what distinguishes a chicken from a not-quite-chicken? It’s all very complicated.
Happiness and success are also strongly correlated, and at first glance, the question of which occurs first would seem to pose a similar intellectual challenge. In fact, much academic literature supports the presence of a causal relationship that may seem counter-intuitive: happiness promotes success, but success doesn’t necessarily promote happiness.
Why is this? And what are the implications of this relationship for the way we organize our personal and professional lives?
In his bestseller The Happiness Advantage and in his popular 2011 TED Talk, positive psychology expert Shawn Achor draws on his own extensive research—including case studies at Harvard University and in the private sector—to argue that happiness is a catalyst for success in both academic and professional endeavours. He also alludes to a growing body of knowledge in the fields of neuroscience and positive psychology that buttress this conclusion.
An explanation Achor offers for the failure of measurable success to consistently induce happiness, is the problem of moving goalposts. Once we reach a particular goal, we tend to immediately adopt a more ambitious one. While goal-setting and ambition are generally desirable traits, aspirations can become unhealthy if we view them from a glass-half-empty perspective, don’t take time to acknowledge our achievements, and constantly berate ourselves over a perceived failure to attain “real” success. To paraphrase Achor, by framing happiness as a product of success, we indefinitely push both happiness and success beyond our cognitive horizon. And in turn, the absence of life satisfaction here and now can actually hamper our future prospects.
Tips for boosting your day-to-day positivity
• Show gratitude to the people who contribute meaningfully to your life, including colleagues, friends, and loved ones. Reflect on your accomplishments with pride, and take time (3-5 minutes) to actively appreciate the positives. Try making a daily journal entry of three things for which you are grateful. Over time, this exercise will train your mind to seek out opportunities rather than dwell on hazards.
• Keep calm and manage your schedule so as to mitigate stress. Chip away at long-term projects incrementally to avoid procrastination-induced deadline anxiety. Focus on conserving energy throughout the workday, so that you keep some in reserve for recreational activities, quality time with friends and family, and hobbies while you’re away from the office. When stress shows up (and it occasionally will), embrace the challenge and think about how great you’ll feel once you’ve conquered it.
• Be kind to others. This is a win-win: agents and recipients of compassion both tend to experience higher levels of life satisfaction. Random acts of kindness, which could be as simple as sending a brief e-mail to show appreciation for the efforts of an employee or co-worker, can make an enduring beneficial impact on the culture of your workplace.
• Clear your head. Sometimes in order to refocus, we need to temporarily un-focus. If you experience a feeling of stagnation at work, try stepping away for a while and enjoying a pleasurable activity. Upon your return, you may be pleasantly surprised by the ease with which your work flows, and by the new insights and creativity your mind generates.
• Eat healthy, balanced meals and allocate enough time for them that you avoid constantly “eating on the run”. Feelings of burnout, irritability, and energy lapses are often at least partly attributable to inadequate nutrition.