"I will be happy when..."
This innocent comment is the very reason that happiness is so elusive for us in the modern world. We think: I will be happy when I have a successful relationship. I will be happy when I find a job. I will be happy when I'm out of this relationship. I'll be happy when I get that job promotion. I will be happy when my kid gets into the right school. The formula is clear: arbitrarily-defined success, then happiness.
Based upon the research in the new book "The Happiness Advantage," that formula -- success then happiness -- is scientifically backward. Over the past several years, I have been researching the relationship between happiness and success, only to discover that the problem is not that we forget to pursue happiness, but that we are pursuing it with the wrong formula.
Think about how some people conceive of relationships: "I am unhappy being single, so I will be happy when I am dating the person of my dreams." I had a friend in high school tell me that he would never be happy until he met his other half. This is exactly the formula of "I will be happy when..." While researching for an online dating website, I found that people who use this formula actually decrease their chances of finding a date. We have found that happiness and positivity are attractive traits. When the person we date is positive, it raises our own happiness, improves our immune system and lengthens our lives. So we are biologically attracted to happiness. Thus, we are turned off by the desperation which often stems from believing that happiness exists on the opposite side of success.
We don't quote Freud much anymore, but he did get one thing right: Freud said we leak information through every pore. Our brains are designed to look past things we control consciously (like what we say) to look at how we unconsciously say it. Negativity, uncertainty and desperation leak out through our non-verbals: our eyes, lines on our face, the tone of our voice, etc. So if a person wants to start dating, the key is to not wait for happiness. The key is to cultivate happiness first, which shines through on first encounters, instead of wallowing in the discontent of delayed happiness, waiting for some arbitrary success point in the future to trigger happiness.
This is true in every aspect of our life. I have worked with some unemployment service providers who wonder whether it is okay to have an article about happiness research in a newsletter about unemployment. Absolutely. If we think, "I will be happy only when I have a job," then we are putting happiness after success, which significantly decreases the chances of that person getting a job. Job interviewers, just like potential relationship partners, are looking for positive people to work with and to create a good environment. We leak optimism or pessimism through every pore.
So how can we pursue happiness right now? When I was counseling overwrought Harvard students, one of the first things I would tell them is to stop equating a future success (dating) with happiness. Dating does not mean you will be happy. If that was true, then everyone in a relationship would be happy. Look around and you'll see enough empirical proof that relationship does not guarantee happiness. The same is true with success. Is everyone with a job happy? Then stop thinking that finding a job, getting a promotion, etc. is the only thing that can bring happiness. Success does not mean happiness. Check out the entertainment section of The Huffington Post to look for examples to disabuse you of thinking that being beautiful, successful or rich will make you happy.
Second, we need to break the belief that our external world (how much money we make, are we in a relationship, what the economy is doing, etc.) is predictive of our happiness. Only 10 percent of our long-term happiness is predicted by the external world; 90 percent of our long-term happiness is thus how our brain processes the external world. This is why we find people at the same job who are positive and love their work, and others see it as drudgery and stress. This is why some people love being single and others cannot stand it. The external world does not predict your happiness, which is a freeing scientific realization about how much control you actually have over your happiness.
Third, happiness is a work ethic. You have to train your brain to be positive, just like you work out your body. Doing one positive habit, like eight minutes of meditation a day, journaling for two minutes about a positive experience (it backfires if you write about negative ones!) or writing a two-minute long positive email to a friend once a day -- all have been found in research over the past decade to significantly increase happiness, whatever your current life circumstances. Training your brain for gratitude is one of the most powerful ways to accomplish this. Gratitude is the recognition that the present can make you happy instead of waiting for a future event. Thus, if you think of three things you are grateful for over the course of 21 days, your level of optimism in life significantly rises.
The other half of the research in "The Happiness Advantage" is the good news: if you reverse the order of the formula, you end up with greater happiness and greater success rates. Happiness is the precursor to greater success. Every single relationship, business and educational outcome improves when the brain is positive. If you cultivate happiness while in the midst of your struggles, work, at school, while unemployed or single, you increase your chances of attaining all the goals you are pursuing, including happiness.