Success, most of us have heard, is hard. We've read about Bill Gates's insane hours when starting Microsoft, gossiped about Elon Musk's divorces (and plenty of other founders' rocky personal lives), and discussed the psychological cost of entrepreneurship. Listen to enough of these tales of exhaustion and trouble and it's easy to assume that getting to the top professionally is bruising and stressful.
But that's the very belief that could be holding you back from achieving great things, according to Stanford researcher Emma Seppala, a Stanford researcher and author of the new book The Happiness Track.
"After working in many high-achieving environments ... I noticed too many people pursuing 'success' at a cost to themselves," Seppala has written. "They were postponing their happiness now in pursuit of success ... with the idea that, when they attain success, they will be happy. Yet they were burning themselves (and others) out in the process."
The trouble is that science shows this exactly the wrong way to approach success. "When I looked at the research," writes Seppala, "I saw that--overwhelmingly--happiness is actually the secret to success. If you prioritize your happiness, you will actually be more productive, more creative, more resilient, more energized, more charismatic and influential. You will have more willpower and be more focused, with less effort." Sepala is not the only scientist to make the point that happiness generally precedes achievement, not the other way around.
Be nice ... to yourself
Which is fascinating, but also a bit general. Great, now I know I should be happy to give myself the best shot at accomplishing impressive things, what can I do with that information besides add another stress to my already overworked brain?
Seppala, thankfully, doesn't just admonish the ambitious to be happy. She also offers concrete, research-derived tips on exactly how you can modify your psychology to both improve your mental well-being and increase your odds of getting ahead. In short, this advice boils down to a simple dictum--be nicer to yourself.
In fact, you can even encapsulate Seppala's advice in a handy rule of thumb--treat yourself with as much kindness as you'd treat a friend.
Research has "shown the immense power of self-compassion and compassion not only for our personal well-being but for our work life," she writes. "Self-criticism is basically self-sabotage whereas self-compassion--treating yourself with the understanding, mindfulness, and kindness with which you would treat a friend--leads to far greater resilience, productivity, and well-being."
Specific strategies for self-compassion
Seppala offers those looking to tweak their mindset for both greater success and greater happiness a handful of specific strategies that can help them increase their self-compassion.
- Notice your self-talk. So you screwed up. Don't tell yourself, "I'm an idiot!" Instead, be more gentle with yourself and acknowledge, "I had a moment of absentmindedness. That's OK."
- Write yourself a letter. If your emotions are overwhelming, write yourself a letter as you would write to a friend, advises Seppala. This might feel strange the first time you do it, but it will help you keep the situation in perspective.
- Develop a self-compassion phrase. Dr. Kristin Neff, a self-compassion researcher, uses this one: "This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment; may I give myself the compassion I need."
- Make a daily gratitude list. Every day, write down five things you're thankful for. Studies show gratitude physically changes your brain, making it easier for you to see the bright side of your life going forward.
Would you say the things you say to yourself to your best friend?