Would you rather be happier or more successful? That should be a no-brainer, shouldn't it? Sadly, many ambitious professionals (including me) would find it a tough choice to make.
But there's good news: You really don't have to choose. Contrary to our popular idea of the super-driven, often joyless executive or entrepreneur, the fact is that the happier you are, the more successful you're likely to be. That observation comes from best-selling author and executive coach Wendy Capland. A while back, I wrote a column from an interview with Capland, and as a follow-up we decided she would coach me and that I would write about it.
Our conversations lately have tended to revolve around happiness. Not surprising: I've reached some of my personal goals over the past several months. (One of them was to grow readership for this column, which topped 1 million last month for the first time.) But an intense work schedule, coupled with the hunt for a home in an overheated real estate market had left me feeling more harried and exhausted than satisfied or serene. Where, I wondered, was the joy in all this?
It's an important question, Capland says, because if you're successful but not happy, not only does that suck for you but also you may not stay successful for long. "It's a universal thing that if our mood is any version of negative, our results will be affected," she explains. That negative mood can result in what she calls a "downward spiral."
Get into that spiral, and others will notice, consciously or unconsciously, and they may be put off. "I don't want to hang out with anyone who's consistently in a downward spiral mood," she says. "I don't want to do business with them, or have them as friends, or talk to them unless I have to. People are interested in surrounding themselves with others who are more positive. They want to do business with them."
The message is clear. If you're not happy you should do something about it, for the sake of your career, if not for the happiness itself. Changing from unhappy to happy may be a tall order, but Capland has some suggestions that may help:
1. Treat it as a practice.
If you wanted to prepare for a marathon or learn a new language or gain the brain-improving benefits of meditation, you wouldn't just work on it for one day and then forget about it. You would make it a priority to fit this new skill into your schedule and make time for it every day. You should take the same approach to happiness, Capland says. "You're always working to increase your mastery around a particular thing," she says. This should be no different.
2. Look for ways to shift your mood.
If you're in a situation where you're feeling the downward spiral and it's likely to affect your performance, ask yourself how you can shift your mood so you can have a better outcome? Capland was once scheduled to appear on a television news program at 10:30, but had to wait until 11:45 to actually go on the air. "My mood could have been annoyance, or fright about what I was going to say," she recalls.
Instead, she turned to technology. "They let me sit in the studio," she says. "I was posting on social media and checking my email. The executive producer came by to ask if I was all right, and I said, 'I'm having an awesome time!'" That positive attitude helped Capland come across as more up and engaging when she did get on the air, and it made the interview more fun for her as well. "If I'd come from a mood of 'I'm frustrated you made me wait so long,' it would have been much flatter."
3. Be grateful.
There's no evidence that being successful makes you happy, but plenty of evidence that being grateful does. It's a simple enough practice to pause and mentally name three things or people you are grateful every morning before you get out of bed. I try to do this every day. If you don't, you should.
4. Notice what makes you happy.
If you're like most people, there are some aspects of your job that are tedious, annoying, or frustrating, and other aspects that make you feel happy. Capland suggests closely observing what parts of your work make you feel good to find clues as to what career goals you should pursue. (If no part of your job makes you happy, stop reading this column immediately and go look for another job.)
"Notice what causes you joy and follow that," she says. "I know I'm on the right track when I notice how happy I am," she says. For example, she noticed that being on TV makes her happy, and so she's looked for more opportunities to do that.
5. Find meaning.
Doing something that feels meaningful is one of the surest paths toward happiness, Capland says. "That's how we move in the world, based on what matters to us," she says. Finding ways to incorporate doing something that seems meaningful to you into your work will raise your happiness quotient without otherwise changing your job. It might be as simple as leading the effort for your company todonate products or services to a worthwhile cause.
6. Make a happiness list.
Capland instructed me to make a list of things that would make me happy. It was a great thing to do, if only because writing down things I really enjoy and making plans to do them improved my mood in itself. My list includes things like going to the movies on my own, going horseback riding, and learning to belly dance (even if I suck at it, which I may). What will you put on yours?
7. Don't postpone joy.
A friend of mine who has survived breast cancer and just turned 60 tells me this is her new motto. The truth is it should be everybody's motto. However old or young, and ill or healthy we may be, we never know how long we we can keep doing what we're doing, or being wherever we are.
So pick something from your list. Or something you've always wanted to do, or some goal you've always wanted to try for. And then go for it, right now. Today, if possible. The only thing you have to lose is your bad mood.