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Why Happiness, Not Stress, is Key to Success

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5 ways to cultivate lasting fulfillment

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No pain, no gain.

Sleep can wait.

Suffer now, prosper later.

Although slightly hyperbolic, these maxims influence how many of us think about achieving success in our lives and careers. Put your head down and defer happiness in favor of enjoying yourself far later, the logic goes.

There’s good reason for this: most things worth doing are at least somewhat difficult, and require dedication. They take a toll in hours, brainpower, and sweat.

But there’s more to the story. According to a growing body of research, some of our long-held beliefs about how to prosper at work and in life are actually backwards. By expecting happiness later, science says we’re chasing our tails, and missing out on success because of it.

And burnout statistics show it. Burnout rates across industries have reached about 50 percent. That means about one in two of us feel depleted, forgetful, and even listless. Of course, when we’re feeling burned out, we can’t reach our potential. But that’s not all. In a given year, about 18 percent of American adults experience significant anxiety symptoms, and rates of depression symptoms and loneliness are at an all-time high.

Luckily, there are tangible, research-backed habits we can incorporate into our day to decrease stress and promote calm — and in the process, actually set ourselves up for greater career success.

To learn more, we sat down with Dr. Emma Seppälä, author of “The Happiness Track.” Seppälä serves as the science director at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and Co-Director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project.

We dove into what the science says about achieving lasting happiness — and why happiness, not suffering, is a key to success.

Not all happiness is created equal

As we touched on in a recent post on happiness and technology, there are actually different kinds of happiness: hedonic and eudaimonic.

Critically, hedonic happiness is short-lived, and has to do with the self only. “Chasing hits of hedonic happiness alone is a trap, a never-ending goose chase,” Seppälä explains.

On the other hand, eudaimonic happiness involves looking outside yourself, connecting with and benefiting others. “That could mean going about your day with the intention to uplift the people around you, doing random acts of kindness, or engaging in community service,” she suggests. “Use your unique skill sets and preferences to help.” Not only does connecting with and serving others increase fulfillment, but it actually improves health, lowers inflammation in the body, and increases life span. Win-win.

Why happiness is a precursor to success

In “The Happiness Track,” Seppälä explains a crucial insight:

“Decades of research have shown that happiness is not the outcome of success, but rather its precursor.”

Research from the University of North Carolina and other institutions suggests that happiness improves our intellectual abilities, psychological strength, social relationships, and physical health, all of which translates to better efficacy in the workplace.

When we experience positive emotions, we think more clearly, solve creative problems, work more productively, build fruitful relationships, and even increase our colleagues’ productivity. When we’re calm rather than stressed or anxious, we also make better decisions and fewer mistakes.

So instead of thinking of happiness as something we’re working toward someday achieving, we need to prioritize it now. Not only can happiness and career success co-exist, but happiness actually propagates achievement (pretty amazing, right?).

But how exactly can we cultivate that lasting sense of fulfillment? Seppälä gave us her best tips.

Five research-backed tips to increase happiness:

1. Meditate

Whether it’s loving kindness, contemplative, or zen meditation style, meditation has both immediate and long term benefits. It promotes relaxation and clearer thinking, helps us conserve energy, and broadens our self-awareness and attention. With more self-awareness, we can grow and advance, leading more satisfying lives.

2. Practice gratitude

Did you know that three times as many positive events happen each day than negative ones, but we’re wired to focus on what went “wrong”? Cultivating a gratitude practice — like keeping a daily gratitude journal in Evernote — helps us notice more of the good and keeps life in perspective. Try jotting down a list of three items you’re grateful for each day, whether big (like your health) or smaller, for example your friendly morning chat with the barista. “Gratitude helps us see that we’re blessed,” Seppälä reminds us.

3. Spend time in nature

“Nature has a profound impact on our well-being, as well as our ability to think better,” Seppälä shares. Get in the habit of hitting the trails, taking leisurely walks, or heading to the park. If you’re a city dweller, Seppälä recommends decorating your work space with plants or making your computer background a nature photo (yes, this can make a difference!).

4. Cultivate self-awareness

Most hours of the day, advertising messages stream at us through social media, apps, Netflix, the radio, and more. With regular reminders of what we don’t yet have or own, it can be easy to feel like we don’t have enough, creating discontent and even unhappiness. Seppälä reminds us to maintain self-awareness, which we can build through meditation (Tip #1) — and to practice gratitude (Tip #2), which helps us appreciate what we do have.

5. Practice breathwork

One of our most powerful tools for decreasing stress and increasing happiness is pretty fundamental: our breath! Shallow breathing primarily in our chest area can trigger stress, while deep breathing into our belly stimulates our nervous system’s relaxation response. To learn how to use your breath to increase calm and even talk yourself out of negative emotions, Seppälä suggests spending a few minutes each day simply focusing attention on your breath. Is it shallow and quick or gradual and deeper? Over time, you’ll become more aware of the quality of your breath throughout the day, and remind yourself to breathe deeply especially during challenging situations. For additional breathwork exercises, look into alternate nostril breathing, breath counting, and equal breathing.

One last piece of advice

Seppälä’s number one piece of advice for being more productive, successful, and happy? “Take time away from your work,” she shares, whether that means taking time to meditate or get outdoors. “It’s simple, but not easy.”

Here’s a single action step for you: choose one practice from this list and do it five days in a row, then observe any changes.

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