Do you work hard to be successful, hoping that it will make you happy? Success = happiness, right? According to Emma Seppala, we'd be better off seeing it the other way around.
"I've worked in a lot of high-achieving environments, from Yale to Stanford, Silicon Valley, New York City, and I noticed too many people pursuing success at a cost to themselves," she told me in our Expert Interview podcast.
"They were, in effect, postponing their own happiness now in pursuit of success, with the idea that, when they attained success, they would be happy… But, when I looked at the research, I saw that, overwhelmingly, happiness is actually the secret to success. If you prioritize your own wellbeing, you'll actually be more productive, creative, resilient, energized, charismatic, and influential. You'll have more willpower and be more focused, with less effort."
Seppala is the science director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, so it's no surprise that her reasoning is science-based. Her new book, "The Happiness Track, How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success," brings together research from the spectrum of positive psychology and happiness studies to support her hypothesis that happiness leads to success and not the other way around.
In her book she takes six other assumptions and turns them on their heads. We should focus on our To Do List, always looking ahead to the next task, right? Not according to Seppala. She says we should live or work in the moment instead.
Likewise, some people believe you can't have success without stress. Not true, Seppala says. By tapping into your resilience, you can reduce stress and thrive in the face of difficulties and challenges.
The other four assumptions and their inverted selves are aimed at managing energy better and generally being kinder to ourselves and others. Number five advocates "self compassion."
"Many of us think that self-criticism is the road to self-improvement, that we have to be our own worst critic, because that's the best way to really become better at what we need to do," Seppala explains. "But research is showing that self-criticism is basically a way to self-sabotage, and it's not something that we're aware of but research shows that if you are self-critical you're less likely to be resilient in the face of challenge. You're less likely to bounce back in the face of failure."
Being kinder to ourselves sounds very appealing. But how does it work in practice?
It "involves treating yourself as you would a friend," Seppala says simply. "For example, if a friend fails or makes a mistake, you're not going to beat up on them. Presumably you're going to tell them, ‘You know, everyone makes mistakes. It's normal. It's no big deal. You're fine,’ etc. That's a self-compassionate approach."
She continues: "Research shows that, if you are more self-compassionate, you're actually going to be not only psychologically much better off, happier, less anxious, but also much more productive, much more resilient, much more able to perform at your highest and at your best, and to have better relationships with other people altogether."
Part of building better relationships with others is to treat them with compassion too. Seppala's sixth myth of success is that we must always look after Number One. In her experience, looking out for others delivers better results.
"At work, especially, we're having less and less human moments," she reflects. "We're treating each other more like automatons: the idea that you get your stuff done, I'll get my stuff done. But… really understanding and being there for people, giving them a break when things are difficult, and applying compassion around you is going to lead to tremendous results, not only for your wellbeing, your health, your happiness, and even your longevity, research shows, but also you're creating a better world for everyone around you. And ironically, the results are that you will be more successful. That's what research shows."
In this audio clip, from our Expert Interview podcast, Seppala shares her advice on becoming more compassionate.
How could you introduce more compassion – and self-compassion – into your workplace, and your life in general? Join the discussion below!
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