A Happiness Researcher on the Key to Fulfillment

“You’re never happier than when you’re present right now.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • How to be happy while staying productive
  • Why occasionally pulling back can help professional success
  • Ways to boost your creativity

Emma Seppälä is the Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism, the Co-Director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project at Yale University, and the author of The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your SuccessDavid Burkus is an award-winning podcaster and author of Under New Management: How Leading Organizations Are Upending Business as Usual. He recently hosted Emma on Radio Free Leader to discuss the importance of daydreaming, how to avoid burnout, and the secret to managing your energy.

David: Was The Happiness Track the natural progression of Fulfillment Daily, or was there a different inspiring moment to get your ideas into a book?

Emma: I started Fulfillment Daily because a lot of people came to me saying, “We need a website where there’s all of the science on positive psychology and happiness.”

But the book came out of something else. I saw that high-achieving, successful people were buying into this misconception that in order to be successful, they had to postpone or even sacrifice their happiness. So many of them are driving themselves into the ground. We’re seeing 50% burnout rate across industries. 70% of the American workforce is disengaged.

But if you look at the data, again and again you see that if you take care of yourself and the people around you, you’re actually going to be more charismatic, make better decisions, have more emotional intelligence, be more creative, more focused, more productive.

I wanted to write The Happiness Track to give people a sense of relief that there is a better way. You can be happy and get the things done you need to.

David: For the people who strive to be high-achievers, there’s a tolerance of the idea that it’s going to be stressful, it’s going to be hard work, we have to stay focused, and we have to prioritize that in order to achieve that level of success.

[But] there’s research that daydreaming every once in a while, losing focus a bit, going home, enjoying your family and friends can actually make you more productive. Stepping off the throttle a bit can actually make the car go faster.

Emma: Yes. I’m originally from France, I lived in China for a couple of years, and obviously I’ve lived in the US for 20 years. I saw a lot of different approaches to happiness and well-being. One thing we know is that the US is driven by two things. One is the Protestant work ethic, this idea that you have to prove your worth in the eyes of God through your life’s work. We’re also very much influenced by the immigrant work culture. The ancestors of this country had to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, be very tough and work very hard.

Those are two influential factors that have turned the U.S. into such an industrious, innovative place. The problem is that for many Americans, life is work. That mentality is burning them out, and they’re actually accomplishing less than they would if they were to take more care of themselves.

David: It’s obvious that someone with a disengaging job should be a little less focused because that work is killing them. But I really love what I do. I’m sure you’re in a similar boat, where the work that you do engages and energizes you. But we’re still at risk of burnout. How do you figure out that right level when you actually enjoy the work?

“We’re more likely to have breakthrough moments when our brain is in a deeply relaxed mode.”

Emma: I do very much enjoy most of my work. My work involves a lot of creativity, and I know that I have gotten my greatest insights when I was out on a hike or taking a walk or meditating. Again if you look at the data, we get our creative bursts, our a-ha moments, when our brain is in delta wave mode, when we are in a state akin to daydreaming, to deep relaxation. It’s that state that you’re in right before sleep, for example. That’s why we will get those bursts of inspiration or realize the solution to a problem at those convenient times, or when we’re in the shower.

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We’re more likely to have those breakthrough moments when our brain is in that deeply relaxed mode. I’m in Silicon Valley where I see people so intensely focused on doing the next big, disruptive thing, but they’re constantly working. They don’t even stop to eat or to exercise. If they were to actually stop, relax, do something different, they’re more likely to find a solution.

David: You’re absolutely right. Not only is it going to create burnout, you’re depriving yourselves of the insights that you need.

There are huge advocates of this idea of focusing in on your strengths and staying away from your weaknesses. You say that we don’t need to do that all the time.

Emma: Yes, because if we have a strong idea of what our niche is and of what our talents are, for example, “I’m a writer, not a numbers person,” we’re creating a situation where we never stretch past our boundaries. We don’t get out of our comfort zone, we don’t discover our potential. Research has shown again and again that having these beliefs about what you can and cannot do leads to you operating within a much smaller sphere of your own potential.

This goes back to creativity. When I interviewed some of the most creative individuals I knew, I noticed that they make time for doing things that are completely outside their field, they make time for meditation, to play, to have fun. These three things can help give you those breakthrough ideas. Learning something different from what you do every day, diversifying your activities, triggers your creativity. It allows you to draw lines between points that you otherwise would not have seen.

David: A lot of us are really driven. We want to build our business, our creative work, whatever it is. There’s that idea of keep striving, keep trying to accomplish, keep looking to that next hurdle. I think we need that, but we also need to keep that in check. How do we do that?

Emma: Well first of all, it’s important to have goals, ambitions, aspirations. The problem is when we’re constantly focused on the future, we’re much less productive in the present moment. Secondly, we become stressed because a mind that’s in the future really increases our stress levels. The third thing is it impacts your relationships. We know, for example, that individuals who are highly charismatic have this ability to be so present that they connect with other people in powerful ways.

You hear about Bill Clinton, for example. Apparently he makes people feel like they’re the only person in the room. What is that? That is the ability to be present. Relationships matter, and your ability to be fully present with another person will make an incredible impact on your career.

Not only are you going to be more productive, but you’re never happier than when you’re present right now, even if you’re doing something you don’t want to be doing. You are happiest when your mind is with whatever it is you are doing. Whether you’re talking about success or happiness, it’s one and the same here, that ability to be present.

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I also talk about this idea that you can’t have success without stress. We buy into this idea that in order to get anything done, we have to be fueled up with adrenaline. That’s why people over-schedule themselves. They over-commit. They wait to the last minute to get things done. They fuel up on coffee after coffee after coffee. There’s this idea that this is the only way to get things done.

As a consequence, people come home at night, and they’re exhausted. If we were just sitting there all day, why are we so tired? It’s because of this constant activation of the fight-or-flight stress nervous system. It impacts your attention, your memory, and your immune system, and it starts to slowly break down your body by increasing inflammation at the level of your entire body.

There are a lot of benefits to learning to tap into the other side of your nervous system, your parasympathetic nervous system, which allows you to calm down. I’ve done research with some of the most stressed individuals in our society, veterans with trauma, and just by using a very simple technique, breathing, we found that they were able to calm themselves down. In minutes, blood pressure goes down, heart rate goes down.

Individuals will think, “How can I get anything done if I’m calm?” That’s the secret managing your energy. You’ll get a lot more done without the exhaustion.

David: In your TEDx Talk, you talked about the breathing technique: in for a count of four, hold, and then release. It’s amazing how quickly you can simmer down. I actually use it at night when I’m trying to shut my mind off and go to bed.

Emma: That is one of the breathing techniques that actually saved one of these veterans’ lives. It’s so powerful, the breath. It’s your ability to calm your own mind.

The yoga tradition has talked about it for millennia, and yet here we are just constantly unable to shut down our minds, unable to shut down our anxiety. So we’re seeing a lot of medication being used, a lot of alcohol being used, just to calm down. Yet we have these innate tools [to make us] happier. 

David: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Emma: The greatest secret to happiness is to share it with others, to help others. The quote that I live by is by Rabindranath Tagore: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”