11/25/2014 08:09 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

6 Concepts to Make Us Happy and Useful in Business

If you went on a bike ride in strong wind, as I did this morning, would you want to be against the wind on the way there and with it behind you on the return, or the other way round? If you like the icing on a cake, would you eat it last or first?

1. Defer Gratification

If you like to save the best for last, you defer gratification. Psychologists have shown that people who acquire the self-discipline to defer gratification are more likely to do well in life, achieve more, and be happier. They are less likely to get into debt, be late for meetings or miss appointments, drop out of school, become addicts, get divorced, or end up in prison.

The ability to defer gratification is partly a matter of self-direction and self-discipline, but it is also related to how children are brought up. Kids who are ignored or spoiled by their parents, or who see the world as a frightening and unpredictable place, may find it hard to defer gratification. They'd want to grab satisfaction while they can. Those with secure home lives, who are truly loved, whose parents spend time with them and are themselves self-disciplined, can more easily learn to defer gratification.

Of course, deferred gratification can be carried too far. As Warren Buffett has said, "Working to improve your resumé is like saving up sex for your old age." Make sure that you have at least one treat each day!

2. Accept Yourself

Experiments have shown that success in life is correlated with self-love, with the ability to accept oneself even while being ashamed of bad actions. Self-acceptance is uniquely a problem for humans -- other creatures don't suffer anxiety or have inner critics the way we do. It is paradoxical, but if we believe we are miserable sinners, we are more likely to do harm to ourselves and others, than if we believe we are divine creatures with access to high levels of potential for good. The failure to accept ourselves is at the root of much depression and failure in life.

3. Show Loving-Kindness to Yourself and Others

Self-acceptance comes when we are loved by others, but it is harder to be loved if we can't demonstrate love. It's more difficult to love others if we don't love ourselves. Every minute of every day, we exist to a greater or lesser extent in two circles -- the virtuous circle of feeling loved and giving love; and the vicious circle of not loving ourselves, not loving the people around us, and not being loved by them. Sometimes the virtuous circle is uppermost; sometimes the vicious circle. Small triggers can propel us from one circle to the other in an instant. An unkind word, a piece of bad driving, brooding on what somebody said to us, giving way to feeling of guilt, anxiety, or inadequacy -- all can make us bad-tempered. If we are bad-tempered, we are likely to provoke further bad triggers. All this can be stopped in an instant by a smile, a hug, a cheerful thought, or doing an unsolicited favor. It is easier to stay in the virtuous circle and exit from the vicious circle if we accept ourselves: "We are a child of the universe. We have a right to be here."

4. Have a Cup of Tea with Our Emotions

Every moment we bombard ourselves, and are bombarded from without, by emotions. We feel happy or sad, confident or fearful, pleased or angry, generous or jealous. There are three things we can do with our emotions.

One is to be overwhelmed by them, so that the emotion becomes us. We become emotion-in-motion. Though this can make us ecstatic, it can also make us miserable. It certainly makes us moody and volatile. We are at the mercy of our emotions. We lack self-control. Emotions can overpower us just as surely as drugs do. We are "under the influence" of emotion.

The second thing we can do with our emotions is to suppress them. Feeling a bit blue? Snap out of it. Feeling worried about the future? Forget about it -- live in the present. Feeling slighted -- ignore it. Feeling inadequate to a task -- suppress the thought, and do a shoddy job.

The trouble with suppressing emotions is that they come back with doubled force, usually when we are least able to deal with them rationally. Like buying protection from the Mafia, it works in the short-run but digs us deeper into the racket.

The third and best way to deal with emotions is to do what I call "having a cup of tea" with them. You examine the emotion as it comes along in a curious and detached way. You realize that the emotion is something separate from you -- it is a feeling, an expression of opinion, but it is not "you". So, for example, you feel angry. You talk to the angry emotion in a friendly way. Where did the anger emotion come from? Why did it erupt? Where is it going? Is it going away? Is there anything you need to do as a result of the anger? Or is it better to let the anger rise and then fade away? Does the anger want another cup of tea? No, it's had its say, and it's on its way. It won't bother us again today.

5. Create Kind Thoughts

Thoughts and emotions live together in the crowded rooming-house we call our mind. Emotions are things we feel. Thoughts are things we think. Like new lovers, they are constantly touching each other. Our thoughts affect our emotions, just as our emotions affect our thoughts.

Emotions are things that happen to us. We can't stop them and we can't control them very much either. We are perpetually at the bus stop, and the buses keep coming along, though the sequence of buses and their precise timing is unpredictable.

But thoughts are different. We make them (to say we have them is too passive -- we are in charge of our thoughts, or we can be). Though some thoughts will occur to us out of the blue, we can choose whether to endorse, develop, or reject the thought (and anyway, the thoughts out of the blue are at least partly the creation of our own subconscious mind).

Thoughts come in many flavors -- facile, profound, practical, abstract, constructive, destructive, rational, imaginative, original, recycled, copied, and so forth. But there is one dimension of thoughts to focus on here -- some are kind, and some unkind. Some are to do with us, and some are to do with other people.

We are more likely to be happy if we think kind thoughts about ourselves and other people.

6. Be curious

Ask questions, not out of politeness or the wish to lubricate conversation (though nothing wrong with either of these), but because you really want to know the answers. Ask yourself, ask your circle of friends and contacts, ask the universe! Many thanks to Shona, who made a great comment about asking questions in response to my post last week. I have been thinking about this ever since.

In their engaging book, Mindfulness, Mark Williams and Danny Penman say "it's difficult to be curious and unhappy at the same time". Try it -- they're right! When you start thinking, there is so much paradoxical and unexplained about the world. Try asking yourself, "Why do I do what I do?" If you ask it in a mode of true open-minded exploration, that question alone will keep you going for a long time. Some other possible questions:

• "What is the best thing I have ever done?"

• "What is the best thing I am going to do in the future?"

• "Why do some friendships work out so much better than others?"

• "Why do some societies work better than others?"

• "What do I want to be remembered for?"

• "What excites me most?"

• "Why is love so much more constructive than hate or indifference?"

I have six more "concepts for life" to explore, but I don't want to wear out my welcome or make this blog too long, so I'll save them for next week.

Action Implications

1. Do the hardest or least enjoyable thing each day first - if it needs to be done at all. Give your children the love, time, security, and example to help them learn to defer gratification.

2. Accept yourself. Reject your inner critic.

3. Don't judge yourself harshly - be kind to yourself. Learn to love yourself. Be kind to others. If you feel judgmental or displeased with someone, ask instead how you can be kind to them.

4. Have a cup of tea with your emotions. Invite them in; give them their say; send them on their way.

5. Every day, have at least one kind, constructive, and useful thought - and put it into action. Before you have a drink or dinner, ask yourself, "What was my kind thought for the day?"

6. Every morning before you start work, set yourself your Curious Question of the Day. Keep thinking about it until your curiosity is sated.

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