In The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success, Emma Seppälä, science director of Stanford’s Center for Compassionate Altruism Research in Education, challenges the idea that success requires stress.
In a conversation with Knowledge at Wharton, Seppälä identifies some success myths and talks about ways that calmness can improve productivity and performance.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: You start The Happiness Track with a story about an internship that gave you a view into two very different ways of working and of viewing success. Please tell us about that experience and what you learned.
Emma Seppälä: I worked for a major international newspaper out of Paris, France. My role was to communicate between the editors, who were on the second floor, and mostly American, and then the press people, who were in the basement and were mostly French, blue-collar workers. It was so interesting to notice the difference. Both groups were working toward the same goal of getting a newspaper out by the following morning. Yet, there were two very different approaches toward that goal. On the second floor, people sat hunched over their computers, eating over their keyboards, not talking to each other. It was a very tense atmosphere. It felt a little unhealthy, even, in terms of just the lack of communication and just the general mood you could feel.
Then, whenever I would go down to the press section, people were outright festive. There was food laid out. People were just welcoming me loudly into the room. Now, of course, you’re looking at two different cultures. Upstairs were more Americans, downstairs, more French people. You’re looking at white collar versus blue collar. But overall, what this experience shows is that people can be working toward the same goal and yet have two very different approaches.
The book is not about how French people do better than Americans in any way. No, not at all. But we have the misconception that, in order to be successful, we have to postpone our happiness. But if you really look at the data, which is what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years, you see that if we prioritize our well-being, we actually end up being more productive, performing better, having better relationships with others, which translates into far better outcomes.
“We have the misconception that, in order to be successful, we have to postpone our happiness. But if you really look at the data… if we prioritize our well-being, we actually end up being more productive, performing better, having better relationships with others.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Can you tell us how you would define happiness and a little more about the benefits of it?
Seppälä: Happiness is often defined in one of two ways. Most people think of happiness in terms of hedonic happiness. In other words, the pleasurable experiences of life, and also, achievements, accomplishments, anything that gives you those brief highs. What differentiates this kind of happiness is that it is brief. You’ll find that, whether it’s a pleasurable experience you’re choosing, it could come from food, could come from sex, could come from a bonus paycheck, or it could come from some achievement, or even some instant of fame or recognition in some way. You get this boost. But it’s very short lived.
There’s another form of happiness which is much, much longer lasting. I would even call it a sense of fulfillment. That is a sense of happiness derived out of a sense of purpose, social connection in positive relationships with other people and even a sense of doing something for a greater good, something beyond our own self. The way that this applies to the workplace is that we see, for example, that leaders and employees who are more supportive of others around them, in direct contrast to this theory that we have that we have to look out for number one, they end up performing better, they end up having better relationships, they end up being more charismatic, more liked. Also, their health improves, and even their longevity. There’s a lot to be said for this second type of happiness that we often don’t hear about.
Knowledge at Wharton: One of the success myths you talk about is the tendency for so many of us to be in overdrive and to equate stress with success. You argue that stress management doesn’t work, and recommend tapping into our natural resilience. How have you seen this be effective in your work with veterans? And how can it help and work for others?
Seppälä: We believe that we can’t have success without stress. Many of us even count on that adrenaline that comes from over-caffeinating ourselves, over-scheduling ourselves, waiting until the last minute to get things done, because we believe that will make us more productive. But if you really look at the data, what long-term stress does, and we’ve probably all heard this so much, is that it really impairs not only our physical health but even our cognitive faculties, like our attention and memory, not to mention our emotional intelligence, our ability to communicate with other people in effective ways.
Yet, we don’t know what to do, because all of these responsibilities are coming at us, workplace demands, personal demands. It’s very easy to feel stressed. Again, short term stress is great; it does help you get through a deadline. But that chronic, long-term stress, research overwhelmingly shows, is negative for us. So what can we do? We can’t change the demands coming our way. But what we can do is change our own internal resilience and our ability to cope with those demands. So we’ve learned how to kick-start our drive system, our stress response, our fight or flight response. We’re very good at that.
In fact, we’re so good at it that we often have a hard time shutting it off, which is why we come home at night and sometimes people will choose to have a drink just to settle down. Or they’ll need sleeping medications, which many people need, just to sleep. We’ve forgotten how to tap into the other side of our nervous system, which is the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-digest nervous system, the restorative nervous system. And I worked with some of the arguably most stressed individuals in our society, which were veterans coming back from war in Iraq and Afghanistan. They live in a quasi-permanent state of stress from the anxiety that is a direct result of their experiences.
We did a breathing-based intervention. What’s so interesting about breathing, as simplistic as it can sound, is that it’s a direct route to that calming part of your nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system. We found that, in a very sort period of time, the veterans were able to sleep again. They were able to live their lives again, rather than being in a constant state of anxiety. If they can do it, so can we. Breathing is such a simple way to calm ourselves down, yet it gives us a way to tap back into a very natural way to restore ourselves, to recoup our energy, and to really perform at our best.
“We believe that we can’t have success without stress. … But if you really look at the data,… it really impairs not only our physical health but even our cognitive faculties.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Emma, would you be willing to lead us in a breathing exercise?
Seppälä: Sure. We know that our breath changes with our emotions. If you’re feeling stressed, anxious, angry, your breath will be shorter, it will be faster. Similarly, when you’re more relaxed, when you’re happier, you’ll breathe more deeply. What we know is, on the inhale, our heart rate accelerates. When we exhale, it decelerates. So what we want to do is lengthen our exhales. So you want to take long, deep breaths, and you want to lengthen that exhale.
I can lead you in one right now. If you want to just take a long, deep breath in, for a count of one, two, three, four, and just hold the breath for a couple of seconds. Then let’s exhale for a count of eight: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. You can breathe in this way.
The nice thing is you can do this in a board meeting, you can do this at your desk, you can do this on your commute. Just lengthening and deepening your exhales will really help to start to calm your nervous system down. There’s so much more to learn about the breath, but this is a very good introductory exercise.
Knowledge at Wharton: You talk a lot about managing energy, as well, to increase well-being. What depletes our energy? And what can help to restore it?
Seppälä: A number of things deplete our energy. One of them is our adrenaline-fueled life. So as we’re constantly depending on adrenaline to get through the day, we’re also exhausting ourselves very quickly because that stress response taxes so many systems in our body, from our immune system to our cognitive skills and many other parts of our body. So what we should start to think about is introducing more calmness into our life. This is not a very popular word, to be calm, especially in the United States. If you ask Americans how they define happiness, they will define it in terms of very high-intensity emotions like excitement and enthusiasm, elation, thrills.
We have this idea of work hard, play hard. This idea that there’s always intensity. When you’re working, you’re highly stressed, and when you’re playing, you’re highly excited and thrilled. That’s all well and good. But in terms of our energy, these are very depleting. High-intensity is very depleting. It actually activates the stress response. Whether you’re highly excited or highly stressed, you’re activating that stress response in the body.
One thing we can start to make more time for is calming activities. If you ask individuals in East Asian countries how to define happiness, they define it with words like “serenity,” “peacefulness,” very low-intensity words….
“If we learn to introduce more calmness into our day or into our schedule, we’ll find that we manage our energy better and that we’ll have more energy in the tank when we need it most.”
If we learn to introduce more calmness into our day or into our schedule, we’ll find that we manage our energy better and that we’ll have more energy in the tank when we need it most. One exercise that researchers have found is very helpful is to alternate throughout the day high-intensity activities with lower-intensity activities. So maybe your very intellectually demanding activity, you have to write an article or present a Power Point presentation, or something of that sort, and then balance that with more low-intensity activities, whether that’s entering data, cleaning out your desk, going through mail, et cetera. That helps give you a little bit of that boost of energy when you need it.
At the same time, it also helps you be more creative. Because when we’re constantly focused, we don’t tap into our natural creative ability. That’s another mistake that we make. We believe that in order to be creative we have to constantly be focusing on our field. Yet, creativity emerges — ah-ha moments, eureka moments emerge — when our mind is more in a relaxed state, perhaps doing a more low-intensity activity that requires less focus.