THE BLOG

Happiness, Success, and the Spirit of Giving

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

In the media this last week and featured in the New York Times editorial page yesterday is a new study on happiness by Andrew Oswald of Warwick University in England and Stephen Wu of Hamilton College in NY. It explores quality of life data like weather, crime, traffic, and living costs with an indicator they call happiness and ranks each of the states by it. Missed in the hubbub about the article is that some of our wealthiest states -- New York, California, Connecticut -- also seem to be the grumpiest states.

It makes me wonder, especially during the holiday season, what really does bring happiness? Is it the quality of life measures suggested by the study? My bet is it's something deeper. On another level, health, achievement, pleasure, romance, looking good, and not looking stupid seems to be our constant companions, but do these pursuits bring us lasting happiness? Happiness is aided by these things, but satisfaction in them often leads to wanting even more of them, and like a candle consuming itself, it is exhausted through usage. It is not enough. Like Lily Tomlin once said, "the problem with winning the rat race is that even if you win, you are still a rat." So if you acquire, position, or manipulate something in your outside for your happiness, isn't that a frail premise to lean on?

A couple of years ago during Christmas season I decided to wrap up and cash-in a basket of coins I had accumulated. Every day when I come home I empty whatever change I have in my pocket into this basket. In the past, this change would disappear as my children would pick through it for extra spending money. Now in an empty nest, it was over flowing. So I threw the change in a bag and took it to the local grocery store where there was an automatic coin sorter. As I was entering the store, an old friend of mine was ringing the bell at a Salvation Army donation stop. I spontaneously handed the bag of coins to him and we instantly broke into laughter and appreciation for what we were both doing. That moment stuck with me and continued to serve as a source of joy, comfort, and happiness for days.

The spirit of Christmas is one of giving, and as we have often heard, in giving, we also receive. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "It is one of the beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely help another without helping himself." Have you ever given your time to help someone with a flat tire, given directions to someone who is lost, given up your seat to someone who needs it more, or simply given support to someone having a bad day? What happens to you inside? I'll bet that those small acts of generosity are often the highlight of your day. Everyone is better off and you get a helper's high.

I have been a student of happiness in my spiritual path and human effectiveness in my work most of my adult life. The irony is, as these seemingly separate pursuits began to merge for me, I found that what makes you happy can also make you successful. The spirit of giving gave me the clue. I found the basic secret to greater happiness and success is to move from a self centered world to a more other centered world.

How does this work? It's a simple, elegant trick - you just engage the world in ways that lessens your grip of self-concern. Let's look at it.

First happiness. The amazing thing is that as you shift your focus from yourself to others and to causes in your outer world, good feelings arise inside. When you are frustrated with the cashier for being slow, for instance, put yourself in that person's shoes for a moment and see what happens inside. O try truly empathizing with another person, or supporting them something without expectation in return, and see what happens. Again, good feelings arise, and so does your positive self regard. Compare that to getting a new a new car, or a new outfit. Which feeling is greater or more enduring?

Here is another take on it. Have you ever asked whether happiness makes you kind, or if being kind makes you happy? Interesting question isn't it? Studies show that acts of kindness lead to greater happiness. Why? Because it takes the focus off of you and places it on someone else.

I have often been asked, "I just don't feel giving or kind or grateful, so how can I act that way?" Daniel Goleman says we don't think our way into new behaviors, we behave our way into new ways of thinking. We can rewire ourselves through our actions, and those actions can lead to changes in our being. Instead of the power of positive thinking, it is the power of positive action. So acting with kindness evokes feelings of kindness, generosity feelings of generosity, and gratitude feelings of gratefulness. Your happiness grows. It's the same principle.

In commenting on how he achieved greater happiness philosopher Bertrand Russell said "Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection." If you pursue happiness it will elude you, but if you focus on your family, your friends, your work and doing your very best with them, happiness will find you.

Now success. In his ground breaking research, Jim Collins found that the highest performing organizations tend to be led by people who were both driven (not so surprising) and humble (surprising). By humble he meant that they worked quietly behind the scenes on serving the mission of the organization and those who were serving that mission, rather than themselves. They balanced their personal ambition with a dedication to a cause and helping others serving it. And that is a key point - they were both selfish as well as selfless - driven to succeed while being in service to other. Highly effective people are not free of self-interest - they just have something else they are working on too.

There is now a whole canon of research on human effectiveness that shows that overly self-interested ways of being results in problems while opening to others makes for more productive, creative, and adaptive ways.

This just makes sense. Think of it, if you are on a team and everyone is playing as a team, then the team performs better. The whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. On the other hand, if everyone plays for themselves, then the team performs worse. Are you there for you, or are you there for the others too and the greater purpose? It is that simple.

In my own study of success and leadership, this is easy to see. I have found that those who serve other tend to succeed while those who serve self tend to derail. It is so predictable. Don't get me wrong -- we always act in our own self interest, but it is in our own self interest to act in the interest of others too. Great leaders are also serving something other than themselves. Some may get by overly committing to self interests in the short run but not over the long haul.

Finally, the most interesting thing in all this is that the better you feel about yourself, the more likely you are also to extend yourself out and help in positive ways. It's like Mark Twain said, "Whoever is happy, will make others happy too." So to live and lead your life from this other centered place is a powerful catalyst for positive change, not only in your life, but in the lives of others too.

Clint Sidle is the Director of the Roy H. Park Leadership Fellows Program at the Johnson School - Cornell University and author of This Hungry Spirit: Your Need for Basic Goodness (December 2009) www.larsonpublications.com.