Why do you do what you do? Do you ever take the time to stand back and wonder, just for a moment, what it is that drives your decisions; what it is that pushes you further along the path you are travelling; that makes you (nevermind the chicken) cross the road?
For me (and I’d hazard a guess it may well be for you, too), it was the pursuit of success. I longed to be ‘successful’. Come. What. May. You see, when I finally made it – when I was at last ‘successful’ I’d be happy. When I had everything I wanted – every marker of success I longed for – I would be able to sit back, fold my hands behind my head and let out a content, satisfied sigh, as I surveyed all that I had accomplished, and basked in the happiness it had brought with it.
Only it never seemed to quite work out like that. In fact, hindsight (wonderful thing such as it is) showed me just how flawed, and painfully ironic, my rationale for achieving happiness was: the more ‘successful’ I became, the more the happiness I wanted to get my hands on slipped through my fingers, and the more miserable and discontent I became.
As you can see in this clip, Megamind knows just how that feels – how success does not bring with it the sense of wellbeing he had hoped for.
But here’s what I’ve come to realise: Megamind and me, we had it all back to front. It isn’t the pursuit of success that leads to happiness, it’s the pursuit of happiness that leads to success.
Now, I know what you are thinking, because, for a while, I thought it, too: how do you expect to find happiness if you haven’t experienced success? I get it – it’s a ridiculous notion that rubs against everything you’ve had modelled to you as you progressed through school, college and on into a career: if you’ve achieved success, but happiness remains elusive, then clearly you are not yet successful enough, so you’d best try harder.
But here’s what I know… you can try as hard as you like – working long into the night, seven days a week, training five hours a day, studying round the clock, earning millions and rising to the top of the pile – but, just as Megamind found out after he’d finished off Metro Man, it simply won’t be enough. Happiness must come first.
And you don’t have to take my word for it; the evidence proves it. In 2005, three researchers – Lyubormirsky, Diener and King – published a paper (The Benefits of Frequent Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success) that pulled together research from 225 studies that had assessed over 275,000 participants to show that happiness is, indeed, a precursor to success.
Happier people were shown to earn higher income, to be more engaged in their communities and to have more high quality social relationships and more fulfilling marriages. Of course, it could be that people were happier because of their higher income, great friends and fantastic marriage; but, again, the evidence suggests otherwise.
Lyubormirsky and her colleagues isolated studies that clearly showed that happiness and ‘Positive Affect’ (essentially, good experiences and emotions) precede success-invoking behaviours. For example, increased social interaction and activity, ambitious goal-setting, pro-social activity, resilience, healthy living, creativity, problem solving all seem to flow more readily in happy people than in those who do not report as feeling happy.
Happy moods appear to lead people to seek out others and engage in their environment, be more adventurous and open, and to be more empathic and sensitive (Veenhoven, 1988); as well as experience greater relationship closeness (Waugh & Frederickson, 2003); engage in increased physical activity (Schaller & Cialdini, 1990); demonstrate excited, affectionate and affiliative feelings (Lucas, 2001; Watson, 1988); and enjoy higher levels of energy (Lehr, 1982) than in their not-so-happy peers.
But the evidence trail doesn’t end there. Numerous studies show happier people are more likely to engage in voluntary and charitable activities (e.g. Cunningham, Steinberg & Grev, 1980): essentially, happier moods appear to lead to increased helping.
There is also physical evidence that supports the idea that happiness creates a foundation for success. Several studies indicate that happy people have higher pain thresholds and greater resilience in stressful situations than non-happy people; as well as a more positive approach to treatments for serious illnesses, and a greater willingness to follow the prescribed treatment regimen.
Finally, many lab studies (spearheaded by Isen and colleagues) indicate that happy people show more originality and creativity when it comes to problem solving and task activity.
And all of that evidence, as well as my own first-hand experience, tells me that, as a society we have got it wrong: our focus should not be on achieving success so that we can be happy, but on being happy, so that we can achieve success. Or, in other words, instead of doing things* in order to* experience happiness, we did those things because we were already happy.
Imagine what the world would look like if that was the case. Imagine what your life would be like. Pretty amazing, right? So what can you do to begin that process of discovering happiness for the sake of happiness and, not as an outcome of achievement?
Well, start by appreciating what you have within your grasp, right now. Grab a piece of paper and make a note of all the things you are grateful for. Then, over the course of the next seven days, spend five minutes each evening before you go to bed making a note of just three things from that day for which you are truly grateful.
I know it doesn’t sound like much, but just try it – trust me, you will be astounded at just how much it transforms the way you feel.