I met her at a seminar on resilience and she cornered me afterwards explaining she'd always known happiness and success were linked, but now realised it wasn't in the way she'd thought.
She said, "All my life I've been led to believe that if I did well at school, participated in high-flying debating and sports teams, ran half-marathons, found the right man and was hired by a good firm, that would make me happy. You're telling me I've spent my whole life getting it wrong."
Not entirely wrong, but yes, ticking those boxes is only half the picture.
Happiness Leads to Success
Emma was referring to research I'd shared. Work conducted over a decade ago by American psychologists who proved that experiencing success makes people happy (there is indeed plenty of evidence for that), also found that the reverse is true. Feeling happy engenders success: happier individuals out-perform their non-happy peers on income, work performance and physical health and in their marriages and friendships too.
Happiness precedes success. Fact. And I don't think Emma from Wellington is the only person who's failed to grasp that.
The Benefits Of Frequent Positive Emotions
Before we further unlock this riddle, it's important to understand that by "happy people", psychologists refer to individuals reporting a preponderance of positive emotions. Experiencing positive emotions more frequently than negative is a hallmark of wellbeing. But as positive emotions are fleeting – unlike negative emotions, which tend to linger and haunt us – we have to work hard at boosting that emotional ratio towards the positive.
Sure, some people are born with a sunny disposition, a tendency to notice the good, but all of us can cultivate a habit of gratitude. It can take time and effort to over-ride our inbuilt negativity bias, but the research points to manifold benefits from doing so.
How We Can Foster Greater Frequency Of Positive Emotions?
The trick is to understand the full breadth of positive emotions.
When seeking to be "happier" take a look at the experiences, people and places that bring the following into your life: curiosity, hope, awe, serenity, gratitude, amusement, joy, inspiration and pride. All of the above are categorised in psychology as positive emotions, and we know that frequency rather than intensity is a greater predictor of wellbeing, meaning we want to pepper our lives with liberal amounts of all of them.
Because most of us have never explicitly been asked to consider such things, it might pay to write them down. Even if you're not a writer-downer, go through the list one by one and ponder, "What does this emotion look like in my life, where and how can I get more of it?"
As an example, I know the people I can hang out with when I'm in need of a good laugh, that tramping or mountain biking in the back country returns awe to my life, listening to Desert Island Discs gives me hope, going to the movies can inspire me, watching our kids play sport fills me with pride, and heading to the beach or sitting by the fire with a good book invokes serenity.
Obviously, we're not aiming to tick them all off in a day, but understand these emotions are important.
They lead to enhanced creativity, greater problem solving, a longer life, a stronger immune system, enhanced relationships and greater resilience.
When I'm feeling down and starting to feel life is spinning out of control, I'll sit down and work out a plan for topping up my positive emotions.
I visualise my mental health as a piggy bank. If I'm raiding it all day long with the stresses and frustrations inherent in contemporary living, then
I know it's my job to pay into my piggy bank, to top up my positive emotions and restore the emotional balance back in my favour.