By Ellen Keithline Byrne
As an executive coach who works with women leaders, it’s not unusual for me to see the sad, worried eyes of my coaching clients as the “aha” moment hits, and they realize: “I have burnout.”
This realization often comes as a shock. Once it’s teased out and women further share their feelings of exhaustion and lack of energy for work they once loved, it becomes glaringly obvious to them. But until that point, it’s typically something they beat themselves up for, their inner voice saying, “I just need to work harder! What’s wrong with me?”
My business partners and I estimate that almost 20% of the women in our six-month leadership intensives are expressing some symptoms of burnout. What we know is that it’s insidious and can slowly creep up on you. These clients have moved past periodic times of being “stressed out” into chronic stress. This occupational phenomena clouds the mind, where a person struggles to assess their situation clearly, and they often end up beating themselves up for not being good enough.
One client, a CEO in a mid-sized insurance company, who had been truly passionate about her work, realized she was burned out. After years of tirelessly committing her time to the business, one day, she struggled to listen to the Chairman of the Board when he walked into her office, whereas in the past she looked forward to their conversations. She described it as the Charlie Brown adult voice that’s just “wah, wah, wah.” She felt exhausted when she woke up each morning, and just wanted to stay home, make soup, and watch I Love Lucy reruns.
This description is unfortunately not unusual. Our clients often have the reputation of being driven and passionate. Yet, over time, they feel overwhelmed and struggle to identify what’s wrong. Sometimes, I hear them contemplate leaving their company just to find some sense of inner peace. And sometimes, they don’t make changes until they end up in emergency rooms or with a serious health diagnosis. This can often lead to a leave of absence or termination. Successful leaders need to know what burnout looks like and get help early.
Here is what we know:
Burnout is now considered a serious work issue, as the pace and complexity of our work environments have rapidly changed. In May of 2019, the World Health Organization updated the definition of burnout as: “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” This new definition is raising the awareness of burnout and strengthening its link to work. It legitimizes the need to pay attention to these occupational symptoms and find solutions that alleviate toxic work environments. As the expert on burnout, Dr. Christina Maslach of the University of California, Berkeley, describes it as “a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job.”
It’s no surprise that women report higher levels of burnout. One study identified gender inequalities in the workplace as a key element that’s impacting occupational mental health. Women were found to have lower levels of decision-making authority and were often overqualified for their roles, which ultimately leads to less satisfaction at work and a sense that they have fewer career alternatives. We see this frustration all the time, and it often manifests in beating oneself up. Women often think it’s their own fault that they’re not thriving.
Our concern after decades of working with women leaders is that it’s getting worse. Here is what we recommend:
Determine right away whether you have burnout, and if so, how bad it is.
Burnout is progressive. People typically start with one or two of the following identifiers, and it usually builds from there. In Maslach’s research, she highlights three main questions to ask yourself:
- Are you regularly physically and emotionally exhausted? Do you feel a lack of energy and/or have trouble sleeping? Do you worry excessively? Feel more edgy? Feel sad or hopeless?
- Are you more cynical and detached than usual? Do you no longer feel joy from things that used to bring you joy? Are you less interested in socializing and are you feeling less connected to people than you once did? Are you more negative than usual? Do you see the glass as half empty?
- Are you feeling like you’re not contributing anything meaningful, where you once were? Do you feel a sense of ineffectiveness and that all of your hard work isn’t actually accomplishing anything?
If you respond “yes” to all or most of the questions, the alarm bells should be going off. It’s time to schedule an appointment with your internist, mental health professional, or a coach. These questions — especially the last two — take the concept of normal “stress” to the next level, in terms of how it has impacted your overall mindset.
Catch it early. Awareness is the first step.
This is sometimes the hardest part. We can be tough on ourselves and are often not willing to reflect on our own behavior.
Clients will often share that colleagues and friends have expressed concern that they are not themselves or that they are doing too much. But they brush it off as just needing to work harder and smarter. If you’re hearing similar comments from colleagues or friends, take heed. Coming to terms with the idea that you are either in “crisis” or heading there soon is not easy. Examine the list above and be honest with yourself.
Whether it’s a good friend, family member, therapist, or coach, it’s important to have someone who can challenge your thinking and give you another perspective. Once burnout has its hold on your mindset, decision making can get fuzzy. By identifying patterns and regaining clarity on priorities, you can establish better boundaries, for instance by delegating where necessary, by saying “no” to projects that do not serve you long-term, and by taking better care of yourself. These steps can help you feel a sense of progress towards relieving your symptoms.
Make your emotional and physical well-being a priority.
Put healthy eating, exercise and a good sleep routine at the top of the list. Schedule in lunch breaks and stop working at a reasonable time. Take all of your vacation. Too many companies report that employees forgo vacation time; 27.2% of paid time off went unused in 2018. And too many women tell us that they’re the first ones into the office, and the last ones out. Reframe that “work harder” message to work smarter, which includes breaks from work to stimulate the relaxation response and dissipate the stress response. It takes giving yourself permission to shift your mindset around what’s a priority and a commitment to establishing healthy coping mechanisms to combat stress.
Examine your work environment.
Burnout is a result of a mismatch between the demands of the job and the available resources. In a recent HBR article by Robin Ely and Irene Padavic, they identified that “what holds women back at work is not some unique challenge of balancing the demands of work and family but rather a general problem of overwork that prevails in contemporary corporate culture.” The current workplace mantra of “we have to do more with less” is not sustainable. With your manager or other senior leaders, review the structure of your role, the culture of the firm, and how to support an environment where everyone thrives.
For women leaders to better respond to and adapt to our changing workplaces, it’s critical that a clearer understanding of what burnout is and how it manifests is necessary. As a coach, I hope that through education, my clients will be able to catch it early, apply the coping mechanisms they’ve learned, and not end up with serious health issues. We should all be striving for workplaces where everyone thrives.
Forget “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”
These days, gurus across the internet claim dozens of routines will put you on the path to fulfillment. In one camp, there are the evangelists of wholesome habits: Get up early, make your bed, and exercise, and you’ll inevitably encounter success. Then you have the mindfulness contingent, who says daily meditation will deliver clarity to even the most frazzled capitalists. Other habit-based programs take consistency to the extreme, suggesting eating and wearing the same things each day. If you’re skeptical of these well-intentioned suggestions, don’t kick yourself for your cynicism. It’s hard to know if any of these habits truly work for you––or anyone. That’s why we experimented on our own, surveying over 1,000 people on how successful they feel in several major life areas. We then asked them about their habits to gain a statistical view of the practices that correlate most closely with fulfillment. If you’ve wondered which habits allow other people to achieve their purpose and prosperity, you won’t want to miss our results. Read on to see how successful people consistently spend the one resource they can’t replenish: their time.
Defining success, by demographic
Before we explore any particular habits, it’s helpful to learn how people define success more specifically. After all, it’s something of an abstract concept, although most participants agreed on its major components: More than 80 percent identified happiness and freedom as essential parts of success. Fulfilling family life and good physical and mental health were also popular selections. Interestingly, a smaller percentage said success could be defined regarding professional growth, one’s job, or one’s income. Even fewer said a great sex life was an integral part of succeeding, with less than 40 percent of respondents saying this kind of passion was a part of their vision for fulfillment. Some compelling differences cropped up among men and women, however. Women were slightly more likely to emphasize freedom, family life, and physical health. Conversely, men were more likely to associate success with mental health instead. Generational contrasts included a drop off in focus on family life with each successive generation. Over 90 percent of baby boomers said family was essential to success, whereas only 75.7 percent of Gen Xers said the same. Among millennials, family life didn’t even crack the top five success characteristics.
Calling ourselves a success
In every life area we designated, baby boomers were most likely to claim success. Call them boastful, but bear in mind they’ve had more time to succeed––and appraise their experiences with more gratitude in retrospect. In many ways, younger generations were dramatically behind in self-reported success, such as in the realms of family, friendships, and mental health. Interestingly, however, millennials were more likely to call themselves successful than Gen Xers in most categories. Perhaps these findings reveal Gen Xers in the throes of a midlife crisis or the hubris of youth among the millennial crowd. Contrasts among men and women yielded interesting insights as well, with female respondents more likely to feel successful in their family lives, friendships, and relationships. Meanwhile, men had the distinct upper hand concerning mental health and stress level. In what could be interpreted as a grim indication of workplace inequalities, men were also more likely to feel successful regarding their professional growth, jobs, and incomes. Given the lingering pay gap in America, there may be good reason nearly two-thirds of women feel thwarted on the subject of earnings. Overall, however, roughly three times as many people called themselves “unsuccessful” versus “highly successful.” That statistic may speak volumes about human nature and self-esteem, but we have a more pressing question to consider: What do these folks who feel highly successful do differently?
Habits successful people share
When we considered which habits highly successful people practice to a much greater extent than unsuccessful individuals, two major themes emerged: cleanliness and healthy choices. In the category of tidy practices, we found highly successful people cleaning their cars, changing their sheets, and making their beds far more often. Some suggest completing these tasks can help us feel accomplished and in control, so we face the rest of our days with some momentum. The same could perhaps be said for healthy habits that highly successful cohort tended to practice, including exercise, taking vitamins, and resisting frozen or prepackaged meals. In addition to these habits, meditation was a common denominator among folks who felt highly successful, and notably absent from the routines of those who felt unsuccessful as well. In fact, meditation was the habit around which successful and unsuccessful people differed most in several key life categories: friendships, jobs, mental health, professional growth, and stress. Given these potential payoffs, it’s no wonder many companies are encouraging their employees to adopt meditation practices in the workplace.
Sanitize for success?
Let’s take a closer look at how cleanliness might correlate with success, comparing the frequency with which different groups tackle household chores. In every specific cleaning activity studied, those who felt the highest degree of success tidied up most often. This positive correlation continued at every level of self-professed success: Those who felt moderately successful cleaned up more often than those who felt only slightly successful, who did so more frequently than unsuccessful respondents. Sometimes, the immediacy of cleaning seemed relevant as well. Nearly two-thirds of highly successful people did the dishes right after they were done using them. Similarly, 61 percent of highly successful people folded clean laundry as soon as the dryer was finished. Then again, some orderly habits did not correlate with success according to our data. Packing unfolded clothes in one’s suitcase or sweeping dirt out of sight rather than into the trash didn’t seem to hurt anyone in the long run, nor did buying new clothes instead of doing laundry.
Maintaining the body and mind
Self-care should pay off in obvious ways: You don’t need to be a dentist to understand the benefits of flossing. But our findings indicate highly successful people were quite disciplined in this regard and feelings of success were correlated with the frequency of these self-care efforts. This connection extended to measures aimed at maintaining physical health, such as exercise and dental care regimens, but highly successful people also read and practiced meditation more often, suggesting intellectual well-being is also paramount. Successful respondents were also more likely to consume news regularly, a finding that contradicts recent research suggesting staying constantly informed can actually prove harmful. Additionally, successful people were less likely to stay up late, perhaps because so many of them are early risers with busy days ahead. On the other hand, our data demonstrate no correlation between success and going to sleep early or waking up before one’s alarm. Perhaps when it comes to beauty rest, success demands a reasonable middle ground.
Ingest for success?
In a victory for parents everywhere, breakfast really does seem to be the most important meal of the day––or at least essential to those who feel highly successful. Conversely, frozen or prepackaged meals negatively correlated with success. On other questions of consumption, however, our results were more varied. Interestingly, highly successful participants ate out less often than moderately and slightly successful peers, although unsuccessful folks dined out least of all. Similarly, highly successful people were actually less likely to conduct meal prep than moderately successful respondents, suggesting a complex relationship between this habit and success. We did find a strong connection related to groceries, however. Only a third of highly successful people tried to take as many bags in at once as possible to avoid multiple trips. Among all other groups, about half attempted this “overload” method.
Success means saving
However much we resist materialism, financial concerns arise at many points in our lives and may shape our understanding of success. We found people who identified as moderately or highly successful were quite likely to have a range of investments, especially savings and retirement accounts. Conversely, less than a third of people who felt unsuccessful had a retirement account, and only a fifth were invested in stocks. These data resonate with broader concerns about Americans’ lack of retirement savings and other assets that might support them later in life. Although some have said homeownership is no longer part and parcel of the American dream, property ownership was substantially higher among people who felt highly or moderately successful. Additionally, less than a fifth of slightly successful or unsuccessful respondents had other investments, such as an ownership stake in a business.
Healthy habits, healthy home
Perhaps we’ll never incorporate all potentially healthy habits into our lifestyles simultaneously––incremental improvement is more attainable. If our findings have revealed habits you find admirable, establish some priorities and pursue them passionately. If our data suggest anything, it’s that small actions can have sweeping implications. So set a few manageable goals for yourself and discover achievement is possible. After all, hopeful thinking may be the most important habit successful people have in common. If you’re looking to transform your home into an orderly space conducive to good habits, you don’t have to go it alone. Whether in need of painting or pest control, Porch helps homeowners connect with trusted professionals. Letting the pros handle your home-improvement hassles––now that’s a habit we can all get used to.
To compile the data above, we surveyed 1,005 people through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The surveys all took place in March 2018. Each person was first asked to answer how often they performed certain behaviors and later asked to evaluate their success levels on a scale of 1 to 7 in various areas of their lives. Scores across all categories were averaged to identify a respondent’s overall success level. All correlations presented relating to behavior frequency, unless otherwise stated, were found to have statistical significance through ANOVA and Chi-squared analyses. Because the information we collected relies on self-reported data, it may have issues relating to selective memory, telescoping, attribution, and exaggeration. Because “success” is a subjective term, we did not have an objective measurement for it and relied solely on a respondent’s appraisal of their success across several types of success.
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By Sonja Lyubomirsky
It may sound corny, but the research clearly demonstrates that you would be happier if you cultivated an “attitude of gratitude.” However, instead of your following this advice blindly, it’s important to understand why and how expressing gratitude works to make you happier. Indeed, there are no fewer than eight reasons for why I advise people to practice it.
First, grateful thinking promotes the savoring of positive life experiences. By relishing and taking pleasure in some of the gifts of your life, you will be able to extract the maximum possible satisfaction and enjoyment from your current circumstances. When my first child was only a few months old, an older woman approached me while I was struggling with the stroller. “Your baby is so beautiful,” she said. “Appreciate this age; it goes by so fast!” At the time I was feeling overwhelmed and sleep-deprived and, to be honest, didn’t much appreciate her glib intrusion, but it had a powerful effect. Taking time to feel grateful for this small child allowed me to step outside the dreariness of my long days caring for her and to savor the magic of the small moment I shared with my daughter.
Second, expressing gratitude bolsters self-worth and self-esteem. When you realize how much people have done for you or how much you have accomplished, you feel more confident and efficacious. Unfortunately, for many people, it comes more naturally to focus on failures and disappointments or on other people’s slights and hurts. Gratefulness can help you unlearn this habit. Instead of automatically thinking, “Woe is me,” in response to any setback, the practice of gratitude encourages you instead to consider what you value about your current life or how you are thankful that things aren’t worse.
Third, gratitude helps people cope with stress and trauma. That is, the ability to appreciate your life circumstances may be an adaptive coping method by which you positively reinterpret stressful or negative life experiences.(5) Indeed, traumatic memories are less likely to surface – and are less intense when they do – in those who are regularly grateful.(6) Interestingly, people instinctively express gratitude when confronted with adversity. For example, in the days immediately after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, gratitude was found to be the second most commonly experienced emotion (after sympathy).(7)
Expressing gratefulness during personal adversity like loss or chronic illness – as hard as that might be – can help you adjust, move on, and perhaps begin anew. Although it may be challenging to celebrate your blessings at moments when they seem least apparent to you, it may be the most important thing that you can do. In one of my recent courses, I had a severely disabled older student named Brian. He has some mobility – but not much – in his hands and is able to control a wheelchair by pressing on a lever located near his shoulder with his bent right hand. One day the class was going around the room and talking about their happiest moments in life. This is what Brian said: “My happiest moment is kind of a perverse one. It was the day that I came home from the hospital, after my accident. I felt defiant. I said, ‘Ha! I’m still alive! I beat you!’ I don’t know who exactly I beat. But I felt grateful that I was home. It seemed like a little thing, but being home from the hospital after four months was so good.” Echoing this perspective, sixty-seven-year-old Inger, who had been given a short time to live, described her illness this way: “When you can hear the minutes ticking and you know the buzzer is going to go off in any minute and your time will be up, you see things so clearly. You just know without a doubt where your values are and why you’re alive, and you’re so grateful for each moment.”(8) Inger and Brian have a remarkable capacity for gratitude, a capacity that undoubtedly serves them well in both sickness and health.
Fourth, the expression of gratitude encourages moral behavior. As I mentioned earlier, grateful people are more likely to help others (e.g., you become aware of kind and caring acts and feel compelled to reciprocate) and less likely to be materialistic (e.g., you appreciate what you have and become less fixated on acquiring more stuff). To wit, an Auschwitz survivor was once described this way: “His life was rooted in gratitude. He was generous, because the memory of having nothing was never far from his mind.”(9) In one study, people induced to be grateful for a specific kind act were more likely to be helpful toward their benefactor, as well as toward a stranger, even when the helping involved doing an unpleasant, tedious chore.(10)
Fifth, gratitude can help build social bonds, strengthening existing relationships and nurturing new ones.(11) Keeping a gratitude journal, for example, can produce feelings of greater connectedness with others. Several studies have shown that people who feel gratitude toward particular individuals (even when they never directly express it) experience closer and “higher-quality” relationships with them.(12) As Robert Emmons argues, when you become truly aware of the value of your friends and family members, you are likely to treat them better, perhaps producing an “upward spiral,” a sort of positive feedback loop, in which strong relationships give you something to be grateful for, and in turn fortifying those very same relationships. In addition, a grateful person is a more positive person, and positive people are better liked by others and more likely to win friends.(13)
Sixth, expressing gratitude tends to inhibit invidious comparisons with others. If you are genuinely thankful and appreciative for what you have (e.g., family, health, home), you are less likely to pay close attention to or envy what the Joneses have.
Seventh, the practice of gratitude is incompatible with negative emotions and may actually diminish or deter such feelings as anger, bitterness, and greed.(14) As one psychiatrist has argued, “gratitude…dissolves negative feelings: anger and jealousy melt in its embrace, fear and defensiveness shrink.”(15) Indeed, it’s hard to feel guilty or resentful or infuriated when you’re feeling grateful. My friend’s sister is one of the few working moms I know who feel not an ounce of guilt. The reason is that she is a prodigy at asking friends and family for help and thanking them so profusely and sincerely afterward that they feel like rock stars.
Last but not least, gratitude helps us thwart hedonic adaptation. If you recall, hedonic adaptation is illustrated by our remarkable capacity rapidly to adjust to any new circumstance or event. This is extremely adaptive when the new event is unpleasant, but not when a new event is positive. So, when you gain something good in your life –a romantic partner, a genial officemate, recovery from illness, a brand-new car – there is an immediate boost in happiness and contentment. Unfortunately, because of hedonic adaptation, that boost is usually short-lived. As I’ve argued earlier, adaptation to all things positive is essentially the enemy of happiness, and one of the keys to becoming happier lies in combating its effects, which gratitude does quite nicely. By preventing people from taking the good things in their lives for granted – from adapting to their positive life circumstances – the practice of gratitude can directly counteract the effects of hedonic adaptation.
By Lisa C Walsh, Julia K Boehm & Sonja Lyubomirsky
Work hard, become successful, then you’ll be happy. At least, that’s what many of us were taught by our parents, teachers and peers. The idea that we must pursue success in order to experience happiness is enshrined in the United States’ most treasured institutions (the Declaration of Independence), beliefs (the American dream), and stories (Rocky and Cinderella). Most people want to be happy, so we chase success like a proverbial carrot on a stick – thinking that contentment lurks just the other side of getting into college, landing a dream job, being promoted or making six figures. But for many chasers, both success and happiness remain perpetually out of reach. The problem is that the equation might be backwards.
Our hypothesis is that happiness precedes and leads to career success – not the other way around. In psychological science, ‘happiness’ relates to ‘subjective wellbeing’ and ‘positive emotions’ (we use the terms interchangeably). Those with greater wellbeing tend to be more satisfied with their lives, and also to experience more positive emotions and fewer negative ones. Research suggests that it’s these positive emotions – such as excitement, joy, and serenity – that promote success in the workplace.
Let’s look first at the cross-sectional studies that examine people at a single point. This allows researchers to determine whether happiness and success are correlated. Relative to their glummer peers, happier people are more satisfied with their jobs; they also receive greater social support from co-workers and better performance evaluations from supervisors. Notably, it might be that bosses give happy employees higher performance evaluations due to a halo effect, where a favourable impression in one area (such as happiness) influences opinion in another area (such as work ability): eg, ‘Tim is happy, so he must be great at his job too.’ However, there’s also some evidence that people with higher wellbeing perform better on a range of work-related tasks: one pivotal study found that sales agents with a more positive outlook sold 37 per cent more life-insurance policies than their less positive colleagues.
Happiness is associated with excellent work performance in other areas as well. People who frequently experience positive emotions tend to go above and beyond for their organisations; they’re also less likely to be absent from work or quit their jobs. People with better wellbeing also tend to earn bigger salaries than those with lower wellbeing.
However, such cross-sectional research has its limits, since it can’t establish which comes first – happiness or success. Longitudinal studies can help here, as they follow people over days, weeks, months or years to see how they’ve changed over time. According to the longitudinal literature, people who start out happy eventually become successful, too. The more content a person is at an earlier point in time, the more likely she is to be clear later on about what kind of job she wants, as well as to fill out more job applications, and find employment. A key study found that young people who reported higher wellbeing than their peers just before graduating from college were more likely to receive follow-up job interviews three months later.
Positive emotions are also predictors of later achievement and earnings. In one study, happy 18-year-olds were more likely to be working in prestigious, satisfying jobs and to feel financially secure by age 26. In another, people who were more cheerful when starting college went on to have higher incomes.
But it’s not enough to establish that happiness comes before success; we want to know, does one cause the other? After all, there could be some unmeasured variable, such as intelligence or extraversion, that’s driving both wellbeing and work performance. Indeed, extraverts are more likely both to be happy and to earn greater incomes.
Well-designed experiments can control for these variables. For example, studies have randomly assigned people to situations that make them feel neutral, negative or positive emotional states, and then measured their subsequent performance on work-related tasks. These experiments showed that people who are made to feel positive emotions set more ambitious goals, persist at challenging tasks for longer, view themselves and others more favourably, and believe they will succeed. Happy people’s optimistic expectations appear to be realistic, too: on both clerical-coding assignments and digit-substitution tasks, people with positive emotions tend to do better and be more productive than those in the grip of neutral or negative emotions. The weight of experimental evidence suggests that happier people outperform less happy people, and that their positive demeanour is probably the cause.
From our review of more than 170 cross-sectional, longitudinal and experimental studies, it’s clear that wellbeing promotes career success in many ways. That’s not to say that unhappy people can’t succeed – which is just as well, as a sad person reading this and telling herself she must cheer up to be successful is unlikely to help matters! To the contrary, history demonstrates that depressed individuals such as Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill can accomplish incredible feats. Both negative and positive emotions are adaptive to situations – there’s a time to be sad, just like there’s a time to be happy.
So for any business leaders or managers reading this, we’d caution against hiring only overtly happy people or pressuring your employees to be more upbeat. Such strategies have backfired in the past – as in the case of the mandatory jollity imposed on staff at the US supermarket chain Trader Joe’s, where the policy ironically made workers more miserable. People and companies hoping to boost happiness in a healthier way would have better luck if they introduced positive activities, like performing acts of kindness and expressing gratitude.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1951 said that: ‘The good life, as I conceive it, is a happy life.’ But he went on: ‘I do not mean that if you are good you will be happy; I mean that if you are happy you will be good.’ When it comes to making your mark at work, we agree. If you want to be successful, don’t hang around and wait to find happiness: start there instead.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
by Jason Marsh
Few things seem more American than the pursuit of happiness, but are we going about it all wrong?
That’s one of the questions raised by The Myths of Happiness, the new book by Sonja Lyubomirsky.
Lyubomirsky is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and one of the leading researchers in the field of positive psychology. Her previous, best-selling book, The How of Happiness, published in 2008, is chock full of the best research-based practices for increasing happiness. The Myths of Happiness follows up on that work by explaining how our assumptions about what will and won’t bring us happiness are often flat-out wrong. Understanding those myths, Lyubomirsky argues, can help us avoid the psychological barriers to a rich and happy life.
As part of our Greater Good Podcast series, she recently spoke with Editor-in-Chief Jason Marsh about why we are so often mistaken about what will make us happy—and how we can really achieve happiness.
You can listen to the interview here, and we encourage you to subscribe to the podcast series through iTunes. Below we present a condensed version of the discussion.
Jason Marsh: Your book is called The Myths of Happiness. Can you give us an example of the kind of myth you’re talking about?
Sonja Lyubomirsky: There are really two categories. The first is the idea that if we’re not happy now, then we will become happy when x, y, and z happens: When I get married I’ll be happy, when I strike it rich I’ll be happy, when I have kids, when I move to that city I’ve always wanted to live in. The problem is that those events do make us happy—but they don’t make us as happy as we hope, or for as long as we think they will.
For example, marriage does make people happy, but the most famous study on marriage shows that the happiness boost only lasts for an average of two years. We also know that passionate love—the love that media and movies and literature tell us that we should all be experiencing—tends to dissipate over time. If love survives, it tends to turn into what’s called “companionate love,” which is really more about deep friendship and loyalty. But because our culture holds passionate love up as an ideal, we think that there must be something wrong with us when our relationships aren’t as exciting to us a few years later than they were at the beginning. The same thing goes for our jobs, or the amount of money we make.
JM: Are these myths just a product of the media—or do you think they might be rooted in certain innate, perhaps psychological, propensities?
SL: Wow, that’s a good question! I do think media and the culture propagate these myths. I don’t know whether they’re hardwired or evolutionarily adaptive. I will say that the psychological phenomenon hedonic adaptation—which is a big theme of my book—does strongly affect our ideas of what makes us happy.
Hedonic adaptation means that humans beings are remarkable at getting used to changes in their lives. It is evolutionarily adaptive, and perhaps hardwired, so all of us get used to the familiar. That might be because in our ancestral environment, it was important to us to be vigilant or alert to change—a change in the environment might signal a threat, or it could signal a reward or opportunity for reward. And so when things are the same, when stimuli are constant, we don’t tend to notice them or pay attention to them very much.
But the downside of hedonic adaptation is that when a relationship becomes familiar—or when a job becomes familiar, or when your new car becomes very familiar to you—then you start taking the spouse or job or car for granted. You stop paying attention to them, and that’s when we have adapted.
JM: And that adaptation can lead to neglect or dissatisfaction. Hedonic adaptation is also called the hedonic treadmill—and that sounds kind of negative. It suggests that no matter how hard you push, you’re always going to wind up in the same place. But there’s a flip side to that story, which speaks more to human resilience.
SL: That’s right. We were just talking about the first myth of happiness, but there is a second. That’s the myth that a lot of things would make us really unhappy, maybe forever. So if we got a divorce we would be unhappy forever—if our spouse died, if we got ill, if our dreams don’t become fulfilled, then we would die unhappy.
But hedonic adaptation takes place in response to negative experiences as well, which contributes to our resilience. We are really good at adapting to negative changes.
That’s not true of every bad event—a couple of recent studies have shown that people who have experienced severe disability do adapt to some extent, but they never go back to the original baseline of happiness, and the same is true of bereavement at a later age.
But on average, people don’t seem miserable for as long as we think they do. Take divorce. It turns out that people are remarkably resilient after divorce—including the children. I was just looking at some data that show that after a few years, divorced people actually become quite a bit happier than they were before. They don’t go back to their baseline—they way exceed their baseline.
Another example is being single, not finding a partner. We think, Oh my God, if I don’t find a life partner, a soul mate, I’ll be forever unhappy. Turns out that single people are just as happy as married people. Married people are happier than divorced, separated, or widowed people, but single people are very happy.
One of my favorite findings is that lifelong singles tend to have an average of a dozen meaningful friendships that they have maintained for decades. I always think about people like me, who are married and who have kids—I mean, how many of us have a dozen friendships that we’ve maintained for decades? And single people also, of course, get meaning and purpose from their work, from hobbies, from other domains of life.
I guess the underlying theme is that nothing is as joy-producing or as misery-inducing as we think it is. There’s no sort of sure course to happiness, and there’s no sure course towards misery either.
JM: As you completed the book, you discovered you were pregnant—and you dedicated the book to your new daughter. Some research says parenthood makes us unhappier, but your lab recently published a finding that suggests that’s not exactly true. So what is the relationship between happiness and having kids?
SL: Children and happiness is actually a very complicated topic, so, of course, there are a lot of contradictory findings in the literature. Some studies show that parents are happier than non-parents, and some show that parents are less happy.
We just published a paper that has three different studies that show, in general, parents are somewhat happier, and they report more meaning in their lives. This is true as they go about their days and when they spend time with their children, as opposed to when they’re doing other things.
But, you know, after we published that paper we asked ourselves: Well, is the question whether parents are happier even a very meaningful question, because there’s so many different kinds of parents? Can you really lump together parents of newborns to parents of 30-year-olds?
I have these two great grad students, and they just wrote this really great review paper addressing that question. We looked at all the literature on parenting and happiness and we put it all together. Basically, we find that certain kinds of parents are happier: parents who are middle-aged and older, parents who are married, parents who have children in their custody, parents who have relatively trouble-free children—and fathers, actually. It turns out the happiness effect is much stronger for fathers as opposed to mothers.
So when you try to answer that question, you really have to look at the kind of parent, and the kind of child you have, and the age of the child, and the age of the parent. But I think one of the bottom lines from the research is that parents do report greater meaning and purpose in their life after they have children.
JM: Right, so in some ways it’s not just a question of what kind of parent are you talking about—but what kind of happiness are you talking about. Parenting does not give rise to the same hedonic pleasure that defines other kinds of happiness—it instead gives a deeper sense of meaning and purpose.
SL: That’s right, and they’re both part of happiness. Thank you for pointing that out: There are different kinds of happiness, and they’re both important, and they’re actually correlated—they usually go together, but not always.
JM: A lot of the work coming out of your lab takes a more nuanced approach to the many different paths to happiness. To what extent do you feel the messages from positive psychology have gotten simplified to the point that people have started to believe there’s a sure-fire formula to happiness?
SL: Let’s say you publish a study that shows being grateful makes you happy—which it does. But then the finding gets repeated over and over again in the media, and people seem to think, Oh, it’s easy, all I have to do is be grateful.
But, actually, it’s much harder than that. It’s actually very hard to be grateful, and to be grateful on a regular basis, and at the right time, and for the right things.
In my lab, we’re really interested in more than just what makes us happy. We’re trying to discover what factors impact the pursuit of happiness. We have a paper in press that introduces a model that explains all our research in one picture, about what factors impact happiness.
So, for example, some people have a lot of social support, some people have little social support, some people are extroverted, some people are introverted—you have to take into account the happiness seeker before you give them advice about what should make them happy. And then there are factors relevant to the activity that you do. How is it that you’re trying to become happier? How is it that you’re trying to stave off adaptation? Are you trying to appreciate more? Are you trying to do more acts of kindness? Are you trying to savor the moment? The kind of person you are, the different kinds of activities, and how often you do them, and where you do them—these are all going to matter.
JM: I assume you must get asked all the time, “How do I become happy?” What do you tell those people?
SL: Women’s magazines will often ask me things like, “Alright, I need six five-minute happiness strategies.” And I say, well, there aren’t any five-minute happiness strategies. This is something you have to do kind of every day for the rest of your life. Just like if you want to raise moral children, or if you want to advance in your career. It’s a goal you pursue your whole life.
by Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan
When there is negative news everywhere you look and unprecedented financial and logistical challenges facing so many companies, it can be tough to advise people to stay positive. Many leaders we work with worry, especially now during the global pandemic, that trying to emphasize positivity and happiness will make them look out of touch — and rather than helping their people, it will backfire.
The findings from our multi-year research project at a hospital system in Iowa indicate quite the opposite. It’s precisely in the midst of a setback or challenging time, that leaders should be actively encouraging positivity because it will help teams weather the storm.
Three years ago, Genesis Health System, which is comprised of five hospitals and a regional health center, was not profitable. This was true for many hospitals, which were experiencing the lowest profitability since the 2008 financial crisis. Consequently, few leaders at Genesis were talking about happiness at work and Jordan Voigt, president of the largest medical center (Genesis Medical Center-Davenport), was facing a conundrum. He wanted to infuse more positivity into the culture at the medical center, but they were about to undergo two rounds of massive cost reductions and layoffs. In addition, they were asking staff to reduce their hours and take time off with or without PTO.
Still, he felt it was important to focus on the company’s culture and hypothesized that positivity could help the center at this crucial time. We worked with the medical center to roll out a series of positive psychology interventions department by department so we could test the effectiveness compared to groups that had not been exposed to the interventions. Each department designed positive changes tailored to their subculture spanning from gratitude exercises, increased praise and recognition from managers, and team-based conscious acts of kindness.
The color “orange” was adopted to symbolize positive changes. For example, in some departments, when people returned from vacation, their colleagues cover their offices with words of appreciation on orange post-it notes. The staff from the organizational behavior department bought caterpillars for every department in the entire hospital and together released the Monarch butterflies after they hatched as a symbol of change. When moms have new babies, the staff give the big brothers and sisters plush orange frogs called baby Sparks as a symbol of the kind character of the department. Employees receive a Spark Award for spreading happiness through a kind act. You can even find orange hair nets and orange oxygen carts in some departments.
In addition, the department leaders and staff were tasked with examining how to change existing work routines to create more happiness at work, like starting their meetings with three positives or adopting a praise and recognition program. We staggered the teams trained so we could effectively test in real time how different departments fared with the setbacks.
As happiness researchers, we expected the departments exposed to the interventions to do better, but even we were surprised by the extent.
For the individuals who had not yet been exposed to the positive intervention, only 23% of the team members reported they were “very expressive of optimism at work.” That jumped to 40% after participating in the positive psychology culture training (measured six weeks after the intervention). Even in the midst of the massive organizational changes, the percentage of respondents who reported that they were happy at work went from 43% to 62%. Individuals feeling burned out “often” dropped from 11% to 6%. Individuals reporting “high stress at work” dropped by 30% after they participated in the workshop on creating positive mindsets on the team. Social connection improved as well. The number of respondents who said “I feel connected at work” went from 68% to 85%. This was after staff reductions where some coworkers and friends were no longer at the organization.
In the parts of the hospital that had not been part of the intervention, only 37% of respondents claimed Genesis was going in the right direction, compared to 63% in the groups who went through the intervention. Imagine if double the number of people on your team felt like the company was going in the right direction, even in the midst of an incredibly challenging time.
Why did this work and what can you learn from it? We have written previously about the efficacy of positive psychology interventions upon performance, so we won’t rehash that here. But here are four key takeaways for leaders who want to know how to start the conversation.
Role model from the top
Oftentimes leaders give lip service to the value of a positive mindset and people being their greatest asset, but then they don’t bother to attend their own internal positive leadership workshops because they are too busy. This signals to the rest of the organization that a positive culture is in fact a much lower priority than they claimed. As president of the Medical Center, Voigt personally kicked off every workshop. He made sure to follow each round of data collection findings to determine what was working and whether to continue. He affirmed happiness as a priority, which made the topic more salient in the minds of his staff. This is the first step for leaders who want to create positive mindset in the midst of setback: show up and model that mindset yourself.
Help employees connect before asking them to change
People don’t typically make positive changes alone or in isolation. A positive mindset at work is often a collective exercise because the behaviors and attitudes are reinforced when a group does it together. At Genesis, the emphasis in the workshops was on developing positive habits, brainstorming new work routines, and discussing culture together in groups. This allowed participants to take ownership over the new mindsets, routines, and ways of working. They were creating new social scripts in real time and connecting these changes to purpose, verbalizing the significant impact their happiness and positivity can have on their patients. It’s imperative that leaders help people feel connected first and then deputize them to make positive change.
Make changes part of the routine way of doing work
As a leader, don’t just tell people “don’t worry, be happy”; work with them to create patterns that reinforce the positive. It’s too hard in the midst of stress to try to invent new ways to be positive, so creating regular patterns as a department can help sustain the positive without having to call on new brain resources. It can be as simple as routinizing celebration. For example, the endoscopy department, which was known to be toxic with a 35% vacancy rate, now has regularly scheduled potluck lunches — and a 0% vacancy rate over six months. Some departments’ leaders set the routine of starting all their staff meetings with each person saying one thing they’re grateful for. Some have areas where people can post thank yous or pictures of successes so that any staff or patient walking into that department is given a dose of visual positivity.
Track outcomes to make the changes sustainable
If there was no perceived change, or if there was no data justifying the approach, the culture change would not take root as readily. If we don’t test what works, we lack the motivation to keep that change permanent or top of mind. Positive interventions in particular get thrown by the wayside in challenging times unless you have a clearly established connection between the energy required to continue the positive change and the desired outcomes. In the end by doing a rolled out, staggered approach, other teams heard about the intervention and the results and were actually demanding the positive intervention for their teams.
All of these changes weren’t just good for the hospital staff; they benefited patients too. Patient experience rates nearly doubled within a 12-month period. Following the intervention, Genesis Medical Center-Davenport achieved profitability again and exceeded their operating budget by 35% during the first part of 2019, going from an operating loss of $2M to a profit of $8M. The medical center was recognized in 2019 by Press Ganey as one of nation’s most improved medical centers for performance and six months into the fiscal year increased total operating revenue by $15 million or 8.7%, while expenses increased only $1.9 million or 1.1%. And in October 2019, it achieved a record in the history of the medical center for gross revenue, $114 million. All of this was happening when so much of the medical industry was financially contracting.
Even in the face of dire circumstances, you can create a positive mindset at your company — one that will help your people and your customers. When is the best time to start talking about positivity at work? Maybe right now.