“Which do you think comes first? Success or happiness?” That was the question I posed to a group of student athletes at UC Berkeley. I was there to talk about using humor for mental health, an important topic for all students, particularly those in high-stress situations.
There were a lot of mumbles and then a booming voice from one of the basketball players in the back. “I think it’s success. Once you get something, it makes you happy.”
It’s a common belief, that once we achieve a certain goal or reach a certain status, we’ll be happier. If only we got that raise, or landed that job, or had that car, or this, that, or another thing, we’d be content. But that’s not how happiness works. Happiness is not a result: it’s a way of being.
The truth is happiness precedes success. Those who can find joy in the work they do will be more successful. As Shawn Achor shares in his book, The Happiness Advantage, people who are happy at work see an increase in sales, are more creative, and are 39 percent more likely to live to the age of 94.
So how do you be happier?
Your Happiness Setpoint
In positive psychology, there’s a concept known as hedonic adaptation. The idea is that we all have a base happiness setpoint, where our general demeanor returns, regardless of what happens to us.
When we experience something negative, it will lower our mood for a period of time, but we will eventually return to our base. This is called resilience. The same is true for when we experience something positive. We will be happier for a period of time, but we will eventually return to our base. It’s why success doesn’t lead to long-term happiness—when we get that raise, job, or car, we will be happier for a bit. And then we’ll adjust to the new norm and the positive effect wears off.
Research suggests that 50 percent of our happiness setpoint is determined by our genes. That we can’t change. Ten percent of our happiness is determined by what happens to us. The remaining 40 percent is determined by how we respond to what happens to us. Meaning: we are in control of that 40 percent.
Research has shown that there are three primary ways to raise that 40 percent of happiness that we control:
1. Increase Your Gratitude
Being grateful helps remind you of the positive things in your life while also improving your relationships with other people. The key to know here is that the bar doesn’t have to be high in terms of what you are grateful for.
Studies have found that writing down the things you are grateful for at the end of each day, can increase the number of positive emotions you feel and improve your overall mental health.
2. Find Happy People
Which do you think would make you happier: receiving a $4,500 pay raise or a stranger being happy? You’re a bit a torn, aren’t you? The obvious answer seems to be the money but then you’re thinking, He wouldn’t be asking this question if it were the money.
A team at Harvard Medical School recently analyzed more than 5,000 people and more than 50,000 of their social connections. They found that if a friend of a friend of a friend (a.k.a. someone you’ve never met) was happy, you were 6 percent more likely to be happy. That’s triple the 2 percent chance of being happier because of a $4,500 pay rise. And the closer the connection, the bigger the effect. If it’s a friend of a friend who’s happy, the odds jump to 10 percent, and if it’s a direct friend, 15 percent.
Whether at work or home, surround yourself with people who are positive and make you happy.
3. Use Humor
The third way to increase happiness is by using humor. In a longitudinal study done at Harvard, researchers found humor was one of the healthiest adaptations to being happy in life.
When it comes to using humor at work, it’s not about making the workplace funny but about making the workplace more fun. This means opting for positive, inclusive humor rather than sarcastic or aggressive jokes. One easy way to do that is to think: one smile per hour. What is one thing you can do each hour of the day to bring a smile to your face, or the face of someone else.
For example, if you’re giving a long presentation, add a few images to your slides that will make people smile; if you’re sending emails, add a joke at the bottom to thank people for reading; if you’re sitting in traffic, listen to a comedy podcast to relieve stress and show up more present for your family when you get home.
Success and Happiness at Work
By finding ways to enjoy your work–or in the case of the student athletes, your classes and practices–not only will you boost your happiness, but you’ll also increase your success. To get started in your pursuit, practice finding things to be grateful for everyday, surround yourself with positive people, and use humor in the workplace.