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Creating resilient happiness in the midst of uncertainty

A conversation about happiness with researchers Shawn Achor and Gretchen Rubin.

Woman sitting at a computer smiling talking on the phone

Creating resilient happiness in the midst of uncertainty

Happiness. It can feel like forbidden fruit. As soon as we feel it, happiness slips through our grasp and we find ourselves waiting another millenia before catching a glimpse.

Many of us have been told if we do the work and focus on achieving our goals, happiness will come. Happiness is a result of doing things right and getting what we want. 

The equation we live by usually goes like this:

Hard Work + Success  =  Happiness. 

The trouble lies in the evolving nature of success. There will always be more goals to achieve, more dreams to strive for, imperfections to make perfect. If this is your equation for happiness, it could take a long while before you’re tasting that particular dream.

But what if we inverted that equation? What if - instead of waiting for happiness to find us - we created happiness right here, right now?

That equation might instead look something like this:

Happiness + Value-Aligned Work = Resilient Motivation and Long-term Success

Rather than resulting from hard work Shawn Achor, Harvard happiness researcher, suggests that happiness fuels hard work, motivating us and inspiring creativity in the pursuit of our goals. Happiness doesn’t come as the natural result of a life well-lived. To be happy, we must find and create happiness in the smaller moments that make up our days, weaving themselves over time into the larger fabric of a joy-filled and fueled life.

But how do you do that? How can you create happiness here and now, in the midst of a global pandemic, heightened polarity in politics, and stressful waves of unemployment?

Happiness, with Shawn Anchor & Gretchen Rubin

We decided to ask two happiness experts to join us in exploring how to build habits that create happiness. With us, we had leading happiness expert, New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Advantage and Big Potential, and BetterUp Science Board member, Shawn Anchor, and Gretchen Rubin – one of today’s most thought-provoking observers of happiness and human nature, author of New York Times bestsellers Outer Order, Inner Calm, The Four Tendencies, Better Than Before, and The Happiness Project, and host of the awards-winning Happier podcast.

Why Don’t We Prioritize Happiness?

Many reasons come to mind when exploring why we deprioritize our own happiness. Shawn was quick to point out one of the current constraints we face in this particular moment - happiness feels selfish.

It can feel wrong to prioritize our happiness as we and those around us face crippling unemployment, health issues, loss of loved ones, racism, sexism and political pressure. But sitting in the toxic stew of negativity and what’s wrong with the world doesn’t help us, nor those we love and work with. 

Another barrier to prioritizing happiness? Gretchen remarks on how many are quick to think that happy people are lazy, when in reality - happier people are more likely to be involved in activism, in charity and motivated to work!

In her words, “When we’re happier, we have the emotional wherewithal to turn outward and to engage with the world, and with the pain of the world. And when we’re less happy, it’s easy to turn inward and become preoccupied with our problem. So when people worry if it’s selfish to be happier? Well -- you should be selfish if only for selfless reasons!”

The Benefits of Prioritizing Happiness

In Shawn’s early work exploring the effects of positive psychology on hospital teams, he worked with leaders to practice gratitude, deepen their social connections, examine work routines to incorporate happiness, and adopt daily positive habits. The results? Surprising.

In the midst of the pandemic - Shawn found that team who adjusted their routines and mindsets to focus on happiness experienced:

  • 50% less burnout 
  • 20% increase in optimism
  • highest ever increase in social connections 
  • dramatic increase in patient safety 

Currently, this hospital is now rated as one of the top 5 hospital systems, ranking in the top 1% for patient safety. 

In Shawn’s words, “If happiness is such an incredible advantage, we need to find a way of harnessing that power in the midst of the challenges we’re experiencing right now.”

Additional cornerstone studies by Dr. Martin Seligman and others have found that doctors primed with positivity are 19% faster and more accurate at making medical diagnosis. Another study found that the top 10% of optimists at Metlife consistently outsold the other 90% by 89%. Supporting research found that if you take a neutral salesforce and raise them on average to the top quartile of optimism, their sales rise cross-industry by 37%.

Studies show that when we prioritize meaning and happiness in our lives:

  • Memory improves
  • Creativity triples
  • Problem solving triples
  • Intelligence rises
  • We live longer
  • Symptoms are less acute
  • Social bonds become deeper

Clearly, prioritizing happiness isn’t a waste of your time. So how do you get started?

5 Tips for Happiness-Building Habits

  1. Healthy Habits for Happiness

    Before we can focus on happiness, we must attend to our well-being. If we don’t have energy, it’s easy to get irritated or feel unmotivated. Prioritizing healthy eating and movement is vital. Even more important? Getting those 8 hours of sleep each night. If you find it difficult to get to sleep at a reasonable hour, set a bedtime timer. Make sure you start winding down at the same time each night, so your sleep and well-being can support your happiness and energy levels the next morning. 

  2. Depth > Breadth of Social Connections

    Did you know that a mountain will look 20% more challenging when thinking of climbing it by yourself, versus when you’re standing with someone by your side? Social support matters, but the type of social connection does as well. Often, we lean towards filling our lives with activities to keep us engaged and excited.

    Experience shows we actually benefit more from fewer yet deeper social connections, as opposed to a wide breadth of events. So when you’re looking for a way to energize yourself, make sure to hold room for a few meaningful, life-affirming social events with loved ones like virtual coffee or cocktail dates.

  3. Understanding Yourself and Your Needs

    Different people need different things. Self care is not one-size-fits-all, and building habits that support daily happiness starts with understanding your specific blueprint, and what you need. Gretchen identifies a number of ways we differ from one another in what we need to feel happy. 

    Morning versus Night Person?

    Identifying when you feel most energized and productive can help you organize your routine more effectively. Forcing yourself to wake up bright and early might not be your cup of tea. Alternatively, sometimes we’re primed to give our best work in the mornings, but consistently sacrifice our routines at night, preventing us from getting those essential 8 hours that energize us the following morning.

    Simplicity versus Abundance?

    What environment helps you work more efficiently? Some of us benefit from clean surfaces and a minimalist approach. Others of us like inspiring photos, quotes, and decorations spread across every inch of our walls. Our environment directly impacts our mental space, so ensuring your environment highlights what makes us happy is helpful.

    Moderator versus Abstainer?

    Some of us are grazers and feel more energized and healthier eating throughout the day. For others, it’s easier to cut something out of our life altogether. Figuring out which style you lean into can help you develop healthier eating habits to support a happier lifestyle.

  4. Catalog the Positive

    Often, the reason we fall short of our resolutions to make change is because it can feel like we’re starting from the beginning. While a fresh slate can seem appealing, it actually makes it harder for us to pick up momentum behind building these new habits to reach our goals. 

    So instead of starting at zero, Shawn suggests cataloguing all the positives from last year. Whether in your personal life, or at work – making a list of all of last years’ accomplishments can propel you into consistent habits this year. This practice encourages us, and helps us start from a position closer to our end-goals, where we can pick up momentum with ease and excitement. 

  5. 21 for 2021 Resolutions

    For your New Years’ Resolutions this year, it is never too late to get started and Gretchen suggests adding a slight twist for some extra fun and motivation. Her first guideline - when you’re creating your resolution or goal list, start with easily accomplishable tasks that you can quickly cross off. These will build your confidence and momentum as you tackle more difficult goals and habits.

    Additionally, it can be incredibly motivating to choose a one-word theme for the year like “commitment”, or “simplify.” So as you move through your goals, you’re building your momentum within the larger context of your year-long theme. Along the lines of choosing a theme, Gretchen explores her own resolutions for 2021, which she’s organized in a 21 for 21 format. This could look like 21 minutes of reading each day, 21 pages of writing each day, 21 minutes for whatever habit you want to build this year.

Happiness is not a result - it’s a habit we choose everyday that can unleash incredibly powerful creative and motivating energy that helps us power through our goals. 

So ask yourself, “How am I  building happiness habits into my life this year?” If your answer is “I’m not,” then it might be time to explore how happiness could improve your work and life.