Success Follows Happiness, Not the Other Way Around

08/03/2012 07:45 EDT | Updated 10/03/2012 05:12 EDT

Did you know that one of the most effective things you can do to ramp up your success is to first be happy? And did you know you can actually train yourself to be happy? Happy and fully engaged leaders are important in the workplace, but it's just as vital for them to help their team learn how to get engaged with their own work. In this competitive, ever-changing and highly demanding business environment, more personal happiness might just be the big competitive advantage you've been looking for.

Emerging research shows that happiness leads to greater success, innovation, creativity, resilience and engagement. And the good news is that you can actually train yourself to be happier. Ever since I co-authored Awakening Corporate Soul in 1994, it has been my mission to help leaders create more engaging workplaces and inspire individuals to discover more purpose and wellbeing in their own work and life. The emerging field of "positive psychology" is so fascinating because the latest research shows compelling evidence that happy people are more effective at work and that contrary to long held beliefs, we can train ourselves and others to be happier!

Let's explore this. Most of us assume two things that are not supported by the emerging research. The first myth is that someone's engagement and success at work is almost entirely dependent on their manager. Leaders matter a lot when it comes to creating engaged teams but what we often miss is that engaged, happy people often stay productive even when they have less than optimal leaders. Even if we accept that happy people are more productive, more successful and more resilient, we wrongly assume that most people can't be trained to be any happier than they are right now. But the research shows the opposite -- happiness is trainable.

Here are some research findings to ponder much of which was reported in Shawn Achor's book The Happiness Advantage. Doctors who are optimistic and in a good mood reach the right diagnosis 19 per cent faster than doctors who are in an unhappy mood. Employees who are happy take 15 less sick days every year than unhappy employees. Optimistic salespeople outsell pessimistic salespeople by 56 per cent. A study that looked at the happiness of Catholic nuns who had produced journals when they were in their twenties found that happiness was a great predictor of how long they lived with about 10 more years added to their lives!

Recent research in neuroscience shows that just knowing what makes you happy is not enough. Rather, we need to train our brains for happiness and resilience. Here are two examples. If people regularly track what they are grateful for in their work/life, they train themselves to be focused on what they like about their jobs. When people identify tasks they enjoy in their work and focus on doing more of these tasks they become more engaged over time.

Another finding is that people who see their work as a calling as opposed to a job are more productive, work longer hours and put more effort into their work. Having a purpose drives happiness, whereas having merely a job for survival drives unhappiness. And the interesting part is that this is true regardless of the nature of the work. It's just a true for housekeepers as it is for engineers! It's not "what" you do, it's "how" you do it and the attitude you bring.

When I produced a five hour program for the Biography Channel on happiness, I interviewed 250 people over the age of sixty who had been identified as the "happiest person" someone knew. The research was later reported in my book The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die. The striking thing about these people is that their lives did not seem to be any happier or less trouble-free than those of less happy people. They had the same disappointments and failures that others had. What I came to realize is that over time they had trained themselves to be grateful, to see the meaning in their work and to stay in the moment instead of being in wishing, regretting or worrying mode.

Years ago my assistant said to me "you know we spend our whole lives trying to get and accomplish things we think will make us happy. What if we just decided to be happy?" People have the idea that when they attain success, they'll be happy but the opposite is true. Happiness is the key to success, not the other way around.

Here are a few tips for training yourself for happiness:

  • End every day making a list of what you are grateful for
  • Identify a list of activities that make you happy and make sure that one of them is included in every single day even if only for a short period of time
  • Think of your job in a different way. Since research shows that those who see their job as a calling rather than merely a job are happier, write out a higher purpose statement of your job and read it every day
  • Every time you think I will be happy when (fill in the blank), realize that happiness is a choice not a response to circumstances