Why Happiness Leads to Success (Not the Other Way Around)

“The brain actually performs better when it’s happier.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • How the Space Race led to standardized testing
  • Why our education system sends the wrong message about happiness
  • Whether or not you can still choose happiness in the midst of depression

Amy Blankson is a member of the UN Global Happiness Council, the bestselling author of The Future of Happiness, and the only person to receive a Point of Light from two sitting US Presidents. Srinivas Rao recently hosted her on the Unmistakable Creative Podcast to discuss education, gratitude, and why a happy life is often a successful one.

Srini: As a parent and a happiness researcher, what is the key to raising happy and well-adjusted kids?

Amy: I constantly work with my kids on practicing gratitude. My kids now are nine, seven, and four, and when we go to bed at night, we’ll say our prayers, and then I’ll ask the kids to say three things that they’re grateful for.

They are so good at it now, and I think that it’s because they’re trying to delay their bedtimes. For me, that’s a huge win because we know from the field of positive psychology that you can’t think both negatively and positively at the exact same moment.

My middle child is one of the more anxious children that I know. She worries a lot, she’s concerned about whether or not she’s good enough or loved enough or strong enough or smart enough. Particularly for her, the gratitudes have been so transformational. When she tries to draw a picture and crumples it up because she didn’t do it quite right, she’s able to look for the good in that moment, and refer back to it later. That character development is so much more important to me than whether she’s an exceptional athlete, or whether she makes straight A’s at school.

Srini: What do you think about education in its current form?

Amy: I think that we have been taught for so long through the education system that we have to be successful in order to be happy. That if you work hard, then you’ll be successful, and once you’re successful, then you’ll be happy.

We know from positive psychology that that philosophy is backwards. The brain actually performs better when it’s happier, and that’s what leads to success, not the other way around.

I think it’s worth looking at why we got to this place originally. As I researched this, I discovered that way back when we were trying to build the Sputnik spaceship, we were competing against countries like Russia to get to space first. The Department of Education tried to push beyond other countries in science, technology, engineering, and math to make that happen. There were actual recruiting meetings where recruiters would travel around the country and find young people that they could funnel into those fields.

spacex-71870As we started to create those standards, that was the beginning of standardized testing. That was the beginning of America looking into, “How do we, as a nation, raise our scores? How do we make our schools better?” Which is in some ways a good conversation and in other ways, a harmful and unhelpful conversation, because education is so much about discovery and creativity and learning for the sake of learning, not trying to get ahead of another country.

The byproduct is a generation of people who have been raised thinking that this formula was the way that we’re supposed to work. We work hard, and then we’ll be happy. I want to rewrite that rule for the next generation, and I want to teach them that if you’re happy now, then you can be more successful, but the key is to focus on the process, and not the outcome. That’s one part of it.

I think the other part is encouraging kids in their natural capacity to be compassionate individuals, to tune in to their emotions on a level where they’re aware of how they’re feeling, they can express emotions, and they are okay to feel positive. We did a study with adults working in some of the Fortune 500 companies, and 58% of employees said that they felt held back by a negative social script at work.

Social scripts are these unwritten rules that we have in society, where, say, you are in the elevator with one other individual. You don’t want to make them feel awkward, so what do we do? You might nod a hello very quietly, stand on the opposite side of the elevator, look down at your feet, and most likely pull out your cell phone and seem really busy, right? This is the social script for elevator behavior.

I want to set some new social scripts for education that say positivity is encouraged, emotions are encouraged. That the expression of your emotions in healthy ways is not only important but actually valued and vital to your success, and that happiness has a function within education. That’s why one in four Harvard students wound up taking the science of happiness course, much to their parents’ surprise when they got their tuition bills. They say, “Why are you taking a course on happiness and not economics?” It’s because at the top of the educational apex, we’re finding that we wish we had learned about happiness long, long ago. Let’s rewrite this now.

thought-catalog-217861

Srini: I have some fun memories of college, but I wouldn’t call it the happiest time of my life. I wish that I had known what I’ve learned from the work that you have done, because it would’ve given me a much different perspective on the entire college experience.

Amy: Absolutely. I wish I had known back in college that 90% of our happiness is determined not by our genes or environment, but by our perception of the world, by our ability to see a certain scenario as positive and not just negative, or to be able to see positive and negative but to give priority to the positive. I think we could reinforce this message in society to overcome what we’ve been taught for the last couple of decades.

Srini: That is a perfect setup for a question that I wanted to ask around depression and mental health issues. Sometime in 2014, I got into a period of pretty severe depression. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how many times I returned to my self-help books, I was on a downward spiral. I had to take medication because I hadn’t slept in months. What has your research has shown about when we’re not able to get out of depression solely through positive habits?

Amy: Well thank you for your transparency, and I’ve definitely been there, too. When we say that happiness is a choice, a lot of people push back and say, “That sounds great and everything, but when you’re really depressed, it’s really hard to get to that place of a choice.”

I have also taken antidepressants. I think that they can be incredibly useful to help you get to that place where you can make a choice again. There’s also some practices you can use to get yourself trained before you hit depression, and to pull yourself out of depression.

Gratitude is a wonderful way to start. Journaling is hugely important because you are able to capture the most meaningful parts of your life. It can take just two minutes to write a quick snippet about something meaningful to you, even in the midst of everything else seeming non-meaningful, to find that one thing and hang on to it. Because those moments of gratitude or those moments of meaning become a ladder out of a dark hole for you. Each gratitude, each journal entry, becomes a rung on that ladder, and it can take you back to the place you want to be.

I also think it takes a lot of social support—friends, family, coworkers, individuals in your life who are engaged and invested in making sure that you are healthy. Social support is the greatest predictor of long-term happiness, along with your optimism and the way that you see stress.

 

This conversation has been edited and condensed.