This is Part 1 in a 3-part series of posts based on a workshop I developed and presented to a group of leaders in Los Angeles in June. (Here's Part 2, on Excellence, and here's Part 3, on Boundaries.) The underlying concepts discussed here originate with social psychologists Martin Seligman, Sonja Lyubomirsky and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi; business thinkers Peter Drucker, Seth Godin and Michael Gilbert; and executive coach Susan Scott, and I'm deeply grateful to them for their influential and important work.
Thanks to my colleague Mike Allison for the opportunity to spend time with a group of people whose growth and development he's been supporting for the past few years, and many thanks to the members of that group for welcoming me into their community. Thanks also to my Stanford colleagues Andrea Corney, Carole Robin, Lisa Schwallie and Ricki Frankel--the five of us worked together developing what eventually became Taking Stock and Moving Forward, an elective taught by Carole to second-year students at the Graduate School of Business. I'd already been working with the concepts touched on in these posts for several years (and in this series I often revise passages from my earlier work), but the experience of collaborating with that team was incredibly educational and furthered my understanding immensely.
Happiness: Organizational success starts with leaders who feel a personal sense of happiness and fulfillment. Not all successful organizations are led by happy people, and not all unsuccessful organizations are led by unhappy people (although I suspect the correlation is higher in the latter case), but I believe that, all else being equal, happy people make better leaders, and happy leaders build better organizations. Research shows that we have a substantial degree of control over our levels of happiness and fulfillment, and we exercise that control most effectively through small-scale, consistent intentional activities, not through large-scale changes in our life circumstances.
Excellence: Leaders cultivate excellence in our organizations by striving for it ourselves. We achieve excellence most readily by focusing on our strengths and making the most of them, not by focusing on our weaknesses and seeking to overcome them. In order to employ this approach, we first need to identify our "signature strengths," the traits that are most meaningful to us and in which we find the most fulfillment, and then we typically need to do some "strategic quitting," letting go of certain responsibilities or tasks in order to focus on others where excellence is obtainable.
Boundaries: The demands of leadership and the dynamic nature of work today inevitably make the concept of "life/work balance" seem out of reach--but "boundaries," not "balance," should be our goal. Good boundaries allow leaders to live an integrated life, fulfilling our organizational responsibilities while insuring that our other needs are met as well. But we can’t establish boundaries alone—we need to collaborate and communicate with others, a process that requires us to step into difficult conversations more effectively.
Part I. Happiness and Intentional Activities
The field of psychology has, for the most part, focused on mental illness and its causes. These efforts have met with success—we can effectively treat and in some cases fully cure most forms of mental illness. But a consequence of this approach is that we know relatively less about mental health and its causes.
Beginning in the late 1980s and '90s, a number of psychologists recognized this gap in our understanding and turned their attention to the study of mental health, happiness and other forms of high functioning. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania was a leader in this group, and he's often credited as the father of "positive psychology," as this field of research came to be known.
Here's a brief example of the type of the research conducted by positive psychologists, drawn from Seligman's 2002 book Authentic Happiness:
Fordyce Emotions Questionnaire
Question 1: In general, how happy do you usually feel? Pick the one statement that best describes your average happiness.
10. Extremely happy (feeling ecstatic, joyous, fantastic)
9. Very happy (feeling really good, elated)
8. Pretty happy (spirits high, feeling good)
7. Mildly happy (feeling fairly good & somewhat cheerful)
6. Slightly happy (just a bit above normal)
5. Neutral (not particularly happy or unhappy)
4. Slightly unhappy (just a bit below neutral)
3. Mildly unhappy (just a bit low)
2. Pretty unhappy (somewhat "blue," spirits down)
1. Very unhappy (depressed, spirits very low)
0. Extremely unhappy (utterly depressed, completely down)
Question 2: On average, what percent of the time do you feel happy? What percent of the time do you feel unhappy? What percent of the time do you feel neutral (neither happy nor unhappy)?
The percentage of time I feel happy:
The percentage of time I feel unhappy:
The percentage of time I feel neutral:
I'm not drawing any particular conclusions from this specific set of data, but I do find it a useful introduction to the quantitative measures of happiness developed by positive psychologists, a body of research that underlies the findings discussed in the next section.
Update, April 2015: Note that my understanding of Lyubomirsky's research has changed substantially since I wrote the passage below in 2010. Most significantly, the graph below shows the amount of variance in happiness among individuals in Lyubomirsky's research that can be predicted by heritable traits, life circumstances, and intentional activities. It does not indicate the extent to which these sources contribute to the happiness of a given individual. See the clarifications at the top of my 2009 post on The How of Happiness for further details.
Sonja Lyubomirsky is a social psychologist who studied with Seligman, completed her Ph.D. at Stanford and now teaches at UC Riverside, where she has been researching happiness for a number of years. Lyubomirsky's work culminated in the 2008 book The How of Happiness, which I discussed extensively in February 2009 and which includes the following graph:
This image conveys three of the most important (and surprising) findings from positive psychology research:
1. Half of our happiness is attributable to a "genetic set point" inherited from our parents and similar to other genetically influenced predispositions, such as weight. (As the graph indicates, the other half of our happiness is attributable to a combination of life circumstances and intentional activities.) Lyubomirsky writes:
The set point for happiness is similar to the set point for weight. Some people are blessed with skinny dispositions: Even when they're not trying, they easily maintain their weight. By contrast, others have to work extraordinarily hard to keep their weight at a desirable level, and the moment they slack off even a bit, the pounds creep back on.
So those of us with low happiness set points will have to work harder to achieve and maintain happiness, while those of us with high set points will find it easier to be happy under similar conditions. This framework fits with our current understanding of genetics in which the question of "Nature vs. Nurture?" has been supplanted by a model in which genes we possess are turned on or off by certain behaviors and factors in our environment.
2. A surprisingly small amount of our happiness—just 10 percent—is determined by our life circumstances. Lyubomirsky continues:
[O]nly about 10 percent of the variance in our happiness levels is explained by differences in life circumstances or situations--that is, whether we are rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, beautiful or plain, married or divorced, etc. If with a magic wand we could put [a group of people] into the same set of circumstances (same house, same spouse, same place of birth, same face, same aches and pains), the differences in their happiness levels would be reduced by a measly 10 percent.
Lyubomirsky notes that this finding runs contrary to many of our efforts to obtain happiness:
One of the great ironies of our quest to become happier is that so many of us focus on changing the circumstances of our lives in the misguided hope that those changes will deliver happiness… An impressive body of research now shows that trying to be happy by changing our life situations ultimately will not work.
Why do life changes account for so little? Because of a very powerful force that psychologists call hedonic adaptation…
Human beings are remarkably adept at becoming rapidly accustomed to sensory or physiologic changes. When you walk in from the bitter cold, the warmth of the crackling fire feels heavenly at first, but you quickly get used to it and may even become overheated… This experience is labeled physiological or sensory adaptation. The same phenomenon, however, occurs with hedonic shifts--that is, relocation, marriages, job changes--that make you happier for a time, but only a short time…
Human beings adapt to favorable changes in wealth, housing, and possessions, to being beautiful or being surrounded by beauty, to good health, and even to marriage…
Although we may achieve temporary boosts in well-being by moving to new parts of the country, securing raises, or changing our appearances, such boosts are unlikely to be long-lasting. The primary reason…is that people readily and rapidly adapt to positive circumstantial changes.
The implication is that almost all efforts to increase and maintain happiness through changes in life circumstances are doomed to fail. Even the most positive changes will eventually be taken for granted as we adapt to them, and their long-term impact on our happiness will be minimal.
3. Finally, the remaining 40 percent of our happiness is determined by our behavior--intentional activities that we might call "happiness strategies." This is the core of Lyubomirsky's thesis: We can't alter our genetic set points, and changes in life circumstances don't have a lasting impact on our happiness, but we can increase and sustain our happiness through intentional activities. She concludes:
If we observe genuinely happy people, we shall find that they do not just sit around being contented. They make things happen. They pursue new understandings, seek new achievements, and control their thoughts and feelings. In sum, our intentional effortful activities have a powerful effect on how happy we are, over and above the effect of our set points and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. If an unhappy person wants to experience interest, enthusiasm, contentment, peace and joy, he or she can make it happen by learning the habits of a happy person.
Twelve Happiness Strategies
The twelve activities described by Lyubomirsky as "evidence-based happiness-increasing strategies whose practice is supported by scientific research" include:
1. Expressing Gratitude: Counting your blessings for what you have (either to a close other or privately, through contemplation or a journal) or conveying your gratitude and appreciation to one or more individuals whom you've never properly thanked.
2. Cultivating Optimism: Keeping a journal in which you imagine and write about the best possible future for yourself or practicing to look at the bright side of every situation.
3. Avoiding Overthinking and Social Comparison: Using strategies (such as distraction) to cut down on how often you dwell on your problems and compare yourself with others.
4. Practicing Acts of Kindness: Doing good things for others, whether friends or strangers, either directly or anonymously, either spontaneously or planned.
5. Nurturing Social Relationships: Picking a relationship in need of strengthening and investing time and energy in healing, cultivating, affirming and enjoying it.
6. Developing Strategies for Coping: Practicing ways to endure or surmount a recent stress, hardship or trauma.
7. Learning to Forgive: Keeping a journal or writing a letter in which you work on letting go of anger and resentment toward one or more individuals who have hurt or wronged you.
8. Increasing Flow* Experiences: Increasing the number of experiences at home and work in which you "lose" yourself, which are challenging and absorbing.
9. Savoring Life's Joys: Paying close attention, taking delight, and replaying life's momentary pleasures and wonders, through thinking, writing, drawing, or sharing with another.
10. Committing to Your Goals: Picking one, two, or three significant goals that are meaningful to you and devoting time and effort to pursuing them.
11. Practicing Religion and Spirituality: Becoming more involved in your church, temple or mosque or reading and pondering spiritually themed books.
12. Taking Care of Your Body: Engaging in physical activity, meditating and smiling and laughing.
These aren't the only meaningful happiness strategies, but they're all evidenced-based and supported by the research of Lyubomirsky and her colleagues, and together they constitute a list sufficiently broad so that each one of us can find the set of activities that's right for us as an individual.
* A note on "flow": The concept of "flow" has been the primary research topic of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Cheek-sent-me-high). When we chart our mental state during activities that present us with a varying level of challenge relative to our skill--see below--we find that when our skill is substantially higher than the challenge being posed, we become bored. Conversely, when the challenge is substantially higher than our skill, we become anxious. And when the two are relatively balanced, we find ourselves in a state of "flow," where we lose track of time and become fully absorbed in the activity. This is the state we're referring to when we say we're "in a groove" or "in the zone." While Csikszentmihalyi's research has shown a number of advantages to cultivating opportunities to experience flow, Lyubomirsky's work shows that more flow experiences result in greater happiness.
What Strategies Are Right for You?
All of the happiness strategies listed above are potential options for us, but it's essential to choose strategies that best address the sources of our unhappiness, that take greatest advantage of our strengths, talents and goals, and that can be adapted most readily to our needs and lifestyle. In determining which happiness strategies are best for us, we should consider the following factors:
"Naturalness": Some strategies simply feel "natural" to us, making it easier for us to stick with them.
Enjoyment: Some strategies provide us with intrinsic enjoyment and seem both interesting and challenging to us.
Value: We inherently value and identify with some strategies, and would practice them freely even when it's not enjoyable.
Guilt: Strategies that work best don't induce feelings of guilt, shame or anxiety.
Situation: Finally, strategies that work best aren't mandated by our immediate situation, but are more universally applicable and can be practiced in many different contexts.
The How of Happiness contains a "Person-Activity Fit Diagnostic," which Lyubomirsky developed based on the work of psychologist Ken Sheldon to help you select the strategies that are the best fit for you based on the criteria above. Lyubomirsky offers a short online version of the diagnostic, but I find the full version much more useful, although it's a little more time-consuming to complete. Here's a printer-friendly paper version of the diagnostic (PDF, 35 KB, requires Adobe Reader).
Note that the bulk The How of Happiness describes each of the 12 strategies in detail, including the specific activities that have the greatest impact on happiness as well as certain limitations and challenges associated with each strategy. For a full understanding of how to implement these strategies most effectively, I highly recommend reading the complete book.
Next Steps and Questions to Consider
- Complete Lyubomirsky's "Person-Activity Fit Diagnostic" online or on paper.
- What strategies feel like the best fit for you?
- How might you implement them in your own life?
- Commit to three strategies for the next three weeks and assess their impact.
Here's Part 2 of this 3-part series, on Excellence and here's Part 3, on Boundaries. Again, thanks to my colleagues Mike Allison, Andrea Corney, Carole Robin, Lisa Schwallie and Ricki Frankel. And many, many thanks to Martin Seligman, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and their colleagues--their groundbreaking research into these topics has made it possible for me to be of much greater service to my clients and students, and I'm tremendously grateful.