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The modern formula for success is broken.

In today’s world, most people act as if they believe that happiness will be a guaranteed result of success. But if that were true, everyone who got a promotion would be happier.

Today’s BIG IDEA—Research shows that happiness is not the result of success—it is the fuel. Consciously or unconsciously, most of us have this backwards.

What do many high-achievers do when they face challenges? They buckle down, work longer hours, shorten sleep, cut back on family time, skip exercise, postpone vacations, binge on unhealthy food, or cope with substances just to relax. 

Do any of those things sound like the recipe for high-performance?

Do you ever bring your best self to your work or family when you are exhausted and unhappy?

Sometimes smart people do dumb things. 

In the midst of the most stressful parts of our lives, we often cut off the very lifelines that would help us cope well and perform better.

Research from Harvard

Shawn Achor is one of the worlds leading experts in happiness research. He is a bestselling author, international speaker, and global organizational consultant on the relationship between happiness and success. I will include the link to his TED talk at bottom, which has more than 17M views.

Achor first became interested in happiness during his time at Harvard when he noticed that many students were showing significant signs of depression.

When faced with the rigorous demands of academia, some students withdrew to the library basement in order to relentlessly pursue their grades. Others took breaks, spent time with friends and family, and injected fun into their heavy academic schedules.

Which students were more successful?

After interviewing more than 1200 students at Harvard, Achor found that it was not the students who withdrew to pursue success at all costs that were more likely to be successful. It was the students who deliberately pursued social connection and more balance during times of stress—that were much more likely to be successful.

He spent the next several years developing himself into one of the world’s leading experts on positive psychology.

Here are some incredible research findings he cites in his book The Happiness Advantage:

  • One study found that doctors who were given Lolli-pops before seeing a patient were 19% more likely to reach the correct diagnosis, and showed three times the creative problem solving as that of doctors who were in a neutral or negative mood prior to seeing a patient. The doctors were not even allowed to eat the candy so that blood sugar could not be implicated for their lifted mood. (Journal of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Making, 1997)
  • Another study demonstrated that optimistic salespeople outsell their peers by 56%.
  • A huge meta-analysis of more than 200 studies with 275,000 people found that happiness leads to success in nearly every domain of life—marriage, health, friendship, community, creativity—and especially work. (Psychological Bulletin, 2005)

Many people put off happiness until some distant time in the future only to realize that success did not bring the fulfillment they thought it would.

Tragically, some of these people will even sacrifice their health and close relationships along the way.

Not only is happiness available to you now—but if you focus on cultivating more of it—research suggests you are also much more likely to become successful.

“We believe that the longer we tough it out, the tougher we are, and therefore the more successful we will be. However, this entire conception is scientifically inaccurate.” –Shawn Achor

Create your happiness fitness plan

Since research suggests that about 50% of happiness is genetic, the other half is a result of how you cultivate your mindset and behavior.

Now that you know that happiness creates rocket fuel for your success trajectory, my challenge to you is to begin treating happiness like a rigorous personal training program. 

The following are scientifically proven actions you can take:

  1. Exercise. Numerous studies have found that exercise can be as effective in treating depression as medication and therapy. When you skip exercise, you deliberately eliminate something proven to boost your mood and insulate you from stress. Not the mention the positive effects on your physical health. Start with 25 minutes three times per week.
  2. Schedule things to look forward to. Studies consistently show that when we have things to look forward to, our positive anticipation helps us cope with the pressures of life and work. Whether it’s a dinner with friends or a vacation to Patagonia, make sure you develop the discipline of consistently putting these things in your calendar.
  3. Write down 2 wins per night. Try this every night for a month and see if you don’t start to notice that you are more optimistic, grateful, and content—and more likely to see positive elements in difficult circumstances. It can literally rewire your brain to better spot the good things in your life.
  4. Don’t withdraw from social connection during tough times. Time with family and friends is often the first thing we cut when we are in crisis mode. But research could not be more clear that relationships are what make life worth living. By shorting them in times of stress, we undercut the very thing that would help us be more successful and resilient during challenging times. Make a new habit of purposely scheduling more time with friends and family during stressful work seasons.
  5. Identify and use your strengths regularly. Research shows that people who know their strengths and deliberately use them, are happier and more successful. It makes sense that the people who absolutely love what they do will always outperform the people that don’t—especially over the long haul.  Grit, passion, and perseverance keep them fueled through challenges. Find ways to use your strengths at work and home. I recommend Strengthsfinder 2.0 or the VIA character strengths survey. Both tools are based on research. Link at bottom.
  6. Meditate. Neuroscientists looking at brain scans have identified that monks who meditate regularly actually grow a larger left prefrontal cortex! This is the region of the brain most responsible for happiness and creative problem solving. If you need somewhere to start, I highly recommend the Headspace app. Start with 3 minutes a few times a week (I have no relationship with Headspace).
  7. Take short breaks throughout the day. Research shows that the optimal work rhythm is approximately 50 minutes of focused work followed by a 15-minute recovery period. Going outside or short walks creates even better recovery and return to a focused state.

Application to family, teams, and organizational health

Your happiness workout plan will not only improve your odds of success at work, but also  increases your leadership influence at home. Modeling hard work with resilience is a vital life skill you can pass on to your children and family.

You can also share these principles with your team and organization. Studies by Gallup on employee wellness show that unhappy and disengaged employees take about double the number of sick days as happy and engaged team members.

Applying and modeling these principles as a leader amounts to less absenteeism, less turnover, higher productivity, and improved employee engagement.

Stop modeling busyness and burnout—apply this today!

Have a great weekend.


*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.

Suggested Resources

  1. Shawn Achor TED Talk
  2. VIA Character Strengths Test
  3. Gallup Strengthsfinder 2.0 test
  4. The Happiness Advantage—Shawn Achor
Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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