In an editorial in the New York Times last week David Brooks argued that most of us pay attention to the wrong things when it comes to happiness and success. We want to believe that success and material gain bring happiness, but that works only up to a certain point. As a nation, for instance, we have become much wealthier over the last 50 years but have experienced no measureable increase in overall happiness. We also know from studies over the last two decades that neither financial gain nor winning the next promotion brings lasting happiness. These things exist on the surface of life, but what brings true happiness lies much deeper.
Nonetheless, we are stuck believing that success drives happiness. The real truth, however, lies the other way around. If there is one thing I have learned over the last decade of my work, it's that after a certain threshold is met, it is happiness that actually drives success. Even more than that though, it's not only that what makes you happy also makes you successful, but also, more likely to do good in the world.
Why? First, your odds of success are greatly increased when you put your time and energy towards things that make you tick. There is an emerging body of research showing that immersion in a meaningful activity matching your talents gives you a feeling of competence, confidence, and enjoyment, and allows you to perform at a higher level. In other words, happiness brings success. Second, the better you feel about yourself, the more likely you are to extend yourself into the world in positive ways. Think of it. When you feel good about yourself, you are more predisposed to being supportive, charitable, cooperative, and productive. It just makes sense.
So what, then, makes you happy?
The answer to that question is very simple but a littie counterintuitive. As I said, many equate happiness to acquisitiveness, whether in wealth, health, or fame. But these things do not make us fundamentally happy, they just make us want more, and in this day and age we are often led to believe that we can get it for almost nothing. Many New Age self-help and happiness programs, for instance, tell us that we can fulfill our desires by simply visualizing what we want - as if the Universe were a catalogue that we can flip through and shop. This is delusional. In spite of our efforts to find it, get it, be it, we are not getting any happier.
Instead, what we really want is to find a sense of relevance, purpose, and belonging in our lives. This does not come from being obsessed with what we are or are not getting, or with looking good and not looking bad. Ironically, this self-absorption in the pursuit of happiness is the very thing that prevents us from experiencing it. Instead, true happiness comes from taking exactly the opposite approach - through engaging the world in ways that lessen this grip of self-concern.
Take a moment, for instance, and reflect on what happened during the times in your life where you shifted your time and energy away from yourself and onto others or to greater causes. My bet good feelings arose. You might also ask yourself, does happiness make you kind or does being kind make you happy? Interesting question isn't it? Studies show that acts of altruism lead to greater happiness - acting kind brings feelings of worth. Try truly empathizing and supporting a good friend or another, or giving them something without expectation in return, and see what happens. Again, good feelings arise. Compare that to a new outfit. Which feeling is greater or more enduring?
Yet the most interesting thing is that shifting your focus to a more other-centered world like this also brings greater success. New studies have found that high performing organizations are led by people who are driven but that drive is directed to a greater cause and to those serving that cause. They are in service to something else, not to themselves. In my field they call such people the Servant Leader, the Level V Leader, or the Emotionally Intelligent Leader. I like to call them the Purpose Driven Leader.
This just makes sense. If you are on a team and everyone is playing as a team, for instance, the team performs better. If everyone plays for themselves, the team performs worse. Highly effective people balance their personal ambition with a dedication to a cause. They are both selfish and selfless - driven to succeed while being in service to other.
So moving from a self-centered world to a more other centered world makes you not only happier, but also more successful. And, as Mark Twain said, "whoever is happy, will make others happy too."
Imagine, to live your life from this place is to be a powerful catalyst for positive change, not only in your life, but in the lives of others too.
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