Emma Seppälä and Anett Gyurak on Happiness, Resilience, and Overcoming Stress

“If the state of our mind is resilient and happy, then we will be able to face everything that we need to do in a much more productive, focused, and resilient way.”

Emma Seppälä, PhD. and happiness researcher extraordinaire, recently released a groundbreaking book, The Happiness Track, that questions cultural assumptions about the interrelation of success and happiness. Her work on this subject has been featured in Psychology Today, The Harvard Business Review, and Scientific American Mind, among many other publications. Here with Anett Gyurak, psychologist and researcher at Facebook, Seppälä discusses happiness, resilience, and the best way to overcome stress.

Anett GyurakIn your book, you state that happiness might not come from success, but rather, in order to be happy, you need to make happiness a striving in and of itself. Through this transformation, success then becomes easier to obtain. It is a very provocative statement: in order to be successful, you need to be happy first. It’s usually the other way around.

Emma SeppäläIt might help to share an insight into what led me to write the book in the first place. I’m originally from France. I grew up there until I was 17, but I came to the U.S. for college. Then after that, I went to China for a couple years. I lived in Shanghai and then I came back to the U.S.

Wherever I went, I was always intrigued by what makes people happy. I noticed that some people have everything and aren’t happy and some people have nothing and are happy. That made me question, what brings about happiness? It made me realize that happiness has a lot to do with the state of our mind, much more than with our circumstances. It also inspired me to look into the research behind happiness and well-being. I ultimately did my doctorate at Stanford, where I looked at questions of happiness, and investigated things like the impact of meditation on our feelings of connection to others, the impact of yoga-based breathing on trauma with veterans returning from Iraq Afghanistan, and so forth.

I was in Silicon Valley and Silicon Valley’s just abuzz. There’s just so much going on, so much ambition, so many amazing things that are happening. And yet, I also saw, not just in Silicon Valley, but also at Stanford and some of the places that I’d worked in New York, that wherever there were really high achieving, very smart, very productive individuals, I also saw a lot of burnout.

It doesn’t matter what field you work in — non-profit, for-profit, medicine, law, etc. — there’s about a 50% burnout rate across business. Another statistic by the Golub Foundation is that 70% of the American workforce is disengaged. These statistics are so revealing about our approach to work. Something’s not working. Incredibly talented people are working themselves into the ground and there’s a sense that that’s the only way. How am I going to be successful if I’m not also kind of burning myself out? Isn’t that the cost I have to pay? You can’t really have success without stress.

Those are the theories out there. Yet, as I looked into the research again and again, I found that actually, these assumptions are wrong. They don’t stand up if you look at the data. For example, one thing that we try to be is innovative, creative, disruptive. When asked what’s the number one thing you look for in incoming employees, CEOs across industries and across countries say creativity. Above everything else, creativity. Yet, how are we going about being creative?

Creativity comes up when you’re in a state of complete relaxation. For example, that’s why you might have a great idea in the shower or right before going to sleep when you’re in a really mellow place. When the brain is in delta wave mode, that’s when we’re at our most innovative. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to train, and learn, and so forth. But we spend all day focused. The moment you wake up, you’ll be on your phone. Then, in the car, you’re listening to a podcast, then you’re on your computer, then you’re on your TV. We can go an entire day completely focused. In the past, we would maybe wait for the bus, and just sit there and wait for the bus. What do we do now? Check our phone. That’s just the way we’re doing things.

Again, if you look at the research, taking time to actually be idle, taking time to read outside your field, to do things that are fun, to be playful, those are all ways that we can boost our creativity. If you look at human beings, we’re the only mammals who stopped playing when we reached adulthood. You’ll see it with a cat or dog, they won’t stop playing. Again, these are ways that we can access our creativity. This is just a really small example of how, if we took more time to take care of ourselves, to take time off, we would be more creative, which is exactly what we want.

“If the state of our mind is resilient and happy, then we will be able to face everything that we need to do in a much more productive, focused, and resilient way.”

The United States has fewer vacation days than almost any other country. If you look at the statistics, most Americans don’t even take all of their vacation days, all 10 or whatever that we have. Of those that do, 91% are checking their work email. Do you see how we’ve bought into this idea that we cannot ever step away? We’re working ourselves into the ground in the hopes of achieving our goals and yet, we’re achieving very high levels of burnout.

I’m not saying stop working. It’s not an option. I’m not saying that we should be on vacation all the time or anything like that, but there are some ways that we can be resilient in the face of incoming demands. We can’t change how much pressure’s coming at us, whether it’s professional or even personal. You have kids, you have loans, you have all sorts of other things to deal with, but the one thing we can do something about is the state of our mind. If the state of our mind is resilient and happy, then we will be able to face everything that we need to do in a much more productive, focused, and resilient way. Also, this state of mind results in better relationships and greater charisma in what we do in our everyday life.

Anett: You listed three common beliefs or ideas that prevent us from pursuing our happiness and paying attention to our happiness level. What are these three beliefs that prevent us from adopting happiness?

EmmaOne of the things, and we talked about this just a little earlier is this belief that we can’t have success without stress. I’ve worked with arguably some of the most stressed individuals in our society. The veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, they’re in a constant state of fight or flight which means that they’re in a state of chronic stress, unable to sleep, and so forth.

That can seem very different from our circumstance as working professionals, but we’ve also bought into this idea that we need to be in a state of chronic stress. That’s one of the reasons that so many people feel like they need to over caffeinate, over schedule themselves, wait till the last minute to get things done. There’s a sense that I can’t get through my day if I don’t have a little bit of that stress. There is such a thing as good stress. Good stress gets you through that deadline, or gets you across the street if there’s oncoming traffic. It mobilizes all of your resources. It mobilizes your immune system, it mobilizes your ability to focus and concentrate. However, when that builds over time, that chronic stress is not good for you. It starts to deplete our system, and that’s what leads to burnout.

If you’re constantly in high-alert mode, your body is being taxed at very high levels all the time. What we’re seeing is this belief that we have to be in high-adrenaline mode during the day to get things done and then at night, we’re wired and can’t go to sleep, need sleeping pills, anti-anxiety pills, alcohol, something to relax.

Someone gave me this example the other day, “I’m taking out a frozen pizza and putting it in the microwave, then I’m putting it back into the freezer, back into the microwave, back and forth.” We’re constantly jerking our nervous system into this very high state of alertness and then back down. When actually, we have that natural resilience within us. We don’t need to be in high-adrenaline mode. If we are constantly in that state, we’re burning ourselves out.

There are ways to actually change how we feel and have that alertness, but without that high level of stress. One that we looked at with the veterans is very simple, yet very effective, and that’s breathing.

Breathing seems incredibly obvious, yet it is an incredibly effective way to change how you feel. Let’s say you’re very stressed or you’re very angry. Someone comes up to you and says, “Don’t be so stressed,” or “Calm down.” It’s the most annoying thing ever. Right? If we say it to ourselves, it’s hard too. Trying to talk yourself down from something. Through breathing, though, you can actually change how you feel.

There’s a research study that showed this when participants came in and worked to feel certain emotions. The scientists noticed that their breath changed for each emotion. You’ll notice this in your daily life. Let’s say, you had a long day of work, and you’re finally home, and you just plopped down on the sofa. What do you do? Sigh, right? If you’re feeling very anxious, or achy, or you’re talking to someone who’s anxious or angry, you’ll notice that they are breathing very fast. If you have a little child who’s really happy and running around in the sprinklers, you’ll notice they’re breathing really deeply. Again, this is something that’s obvious. Sobbing and laughing are other very obvious examples.

The most interesting part of that study was the second part in which different people came into the lab, and then were told to breathe in those patterns that matched the emotion, and were asked how they felt. What do you think they found? It matched the emotion. They were able to evoke that emotion within themselves. I think the study is mind blowing. I talk about it all the time. We’ve studied emotions-

AnettYou and I should have done this study!

EmmaYeah. We should have done this study. We were in an emotion regulation lab in psychology. The idea is, regulate your emotions by changing your thoughts. We all know it’s really hard to change your thinking. Yet, there’s so much you can do.

That was one example of how you can can maintain resilience in the face of permanent stress, which allows you to manage your energy so that you’re not exhausted. That’s really powerful. The veterans that I’ve worked with were able to sleep again. I’m not talking about insomnia, but they were able to regulate their nervous system within a week, which is incredible given how much they were suffering from trauma. If it could work for them, it could work for us too.

AnettIn America we have this saying, “Don’t worry, be happy.” Is this the message that you’re trying to suggest to us? That we just don’t worry, we just be happy?

EmmaThank you so much for asking that question! Honestly, I think we all feel that’s a really simplistic message. Also, we define happiness in different ways. Happiness for one person will feel and look different from happiness for another person. One thing that the research shows is that happiness is often talked about in 2 different ways in psychology. One is, hedonic happiness and one is eudaimonic happiness. Hedonic is the pleasures of life. The sex, drugs, rock and roll, money, achievement, awards. All the things that give you that high. It could be a notification on Facebook. Anything that gives us that burst. It is a burst and Anett, as a neuroscientist, you’d probably describe this in better detail than I, but it’s a release of chemicals in the brain that make us feel good. And yet, this happiness doesn’t last for very long. That’s why if you had a burst of happiness from let’s say, a piece of chocolate cake, or a raise, or a promotion, soon thereafter, it’s worn off and you want more.

“The pleasures of life are here for us to enjoy, but what research suggests is that if your life is characterized predominately by eudaimonic happiness, that actually leads to a much longer, sustained well being.”

However, eudaimonic happiness is that form of happiness that comes from a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning, and a sense of connection to others. A sense of something greater than yourself. It’s what you feel if you’re a parent. It’s what you feel if you’re doing service. It’s what you feel if you’re contributing to something that’s helping others in some way. It doesn’t have to be feeding children in Somalia or something like that. It can be something like, everyday when I go to work and I start my day, my intention is to uplift everyone that I meet in whatever way that I can. Say something nice to them or whatever it is. When you have a life characterized by eudaimonic happiness, your happiness is much more sustained. It doesn’t diminish. It’s not a short burst that comes and goes. Research even suggests that you have lower inflammation at the cellular level, and your longevity’s increased.

Should we not have fun? No, by all means, we should have fun. There’s nothing wrong with hedonic happiness. The pleasures of life are here for us to enjoy, but what research suggests is that if your life is characterized predominately by eudaimonic happiness, that actually leads to a much longer, sustained well being. Think back just recently, if you were able to help someone, maybe a friend, who was going through a breakup, or your neighbor who needed something, or in some way, you were able to uplift someone. Think about how that made you feel. It probably made you feel a lot better for longer than a notification.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.