Everything You Know About Being Successful Is Wrong

“Research shows that the kind of happiness that does lead to long-lasting fulfillment is the kind of happiness that’s derived from positive social relationships with other people,” says Dr. Emma Seppala, the Science Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. “A life of meaning, a life of purpose, a life characterized by altruism, something greater than oneself.”

A life, in other words, that can feel pretty difficult to create in today’s corporate culture, which prizes achievement and productivity. But maybe there’s another way to live and work. Seppala’s new book, The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success, examines research on happiness, and makes the case that finding fulfillment builds success, not the other way around.


(Photo Credit: Daniela Cuevas/Unsplash)

Here are a few things you can do to stop fixating on your to-do list, and start creating a sense of calm, plus build the personal relationships that will make you successful both at work and outside the office.

1. Practice self-compassion.

“There’s this idea out there that in order to be successful, self-criticism’s really important, [that] self-criticism leads to self-improvement. …That’s something that is actually completely false,” she says. “Self-criticism is basically akin to self-sabotage in terms of its impact on your well-being and especially in terms of impact on your resilience in the face of challenge and failure.”

By comparison, self-compassion can sound “very soft as a term, but there’s a lot of hard data to back it up.” The idea is to treat yourself like a friend, instead of constantly finding fault.

“I give the example of running a marathon,” she says. “Let’s say you’re running a marathon and you trip and fall. Someone on the sidelines says, ‘Oh my god, you’re such a loser, why are you even doing this, you’re totally not a runner.’ Versus, you trip and fall and someone says, ‘Everybody falls! It’s so normal. Don’t even worry about it. Keep going, you’re doing great.’ Can you imagine the emotional impact of both of those things?”

Self-compassion helps us realize that everyone makes mistakes, and resist the urge to catastrophize and blow errors out of proportion. By saying supportive things to ourselves instead of negative ones, we help ourselves move forward.

2. Be good to others.

In The Happiness Track, Seppala talks about the example of a manager who started working at Bear Stearns and discovered that the environment was so dog-eat-dog, his closest colleagues wouldn’t even talk to each other in the hallway. It was standard operating procedure to steal each other’s clients and otherwise treat each other poorly – especially those unfortunate folks who were still low on the corporate ladder.

“But he was this nice Midwestern guy, and just a really kind person, and that’s just not how he operated. So he couldn’t do anything about the people at his level, but he sure could treat the people who worked for him the way he wanted and he treated them well. He didn’t abuse them like the others; he didn’t overwork them like the others did.”

As a result, everyone wanted to work for him, and his team started winning the biggest deals in the company. Other managers took note, asking him what he was doing differently – but the only difference is that he was treating his people with respect, training them, mentoring them, and not taking advantage.

The bottom line is that you often can’t change how your boss behaves, or even alter your nearest teammates’ behavior directly, but you might be able to change the corporate culture from the inside out, simply by treating people well. Research shows that kind, positive, supportive people impact three degrees of separation around themselves.

“Sometimes, we think we don’t have a big impact but actually we have a much bigger impact than we think we do, and we can actually influence a whole culture with our behavior,” she says.

3. Take time off.

Even though the U.S. has less vacation time than almost any other country, most people don’t take all their vacation days – and when they do, they’re often checking email, answering phone calls, or otherwise working remotely part of the time.

“There are reasons for this,” she says. “The U.S. is driven by the protestant work ethic, this idea that you have to prove yourself in the eyes of God in order to reach salvation. That was a very big influence on American cultural values. The other is that we are an immigrant culture and our forefathers had to really prove themselves. They had to be so industrious. And that’s why we’re so industrious, so productive, such an amazing country, but the other side of that is that we don’t know how to stop and we’re paying the price for it.”

According to Seppala, workaholics get a bigger boost of dopamine in the brain when they get something done or achieve a goal, but that this sets up an “eternal chase, because those boosts of dopamine released in the brain, they don’t last.” No reward, whether financial or status-related, is ever enough, and they’re left hungry for that gratification.

“We’re constantly focused on the future all the time,” Seppala says. “Always focusing on the future not only raises your anxiety, it makes you less productive in the moment, and it also reduces your charisma … [which is] the ability to be 100 percent in the present moment with another person.”

Staying on the treadmill of work impacts social relationships with co-workers, friends, and family, which in turn leads to less productivity, poor focus, and ultimately burnout. To escape, workaholics have to consciously take a step back, set limits on their work hours, and train themselves in the habit of taking restorative time off.

4. Breathe.

A study by Pierre Philippot, cited on Seppala’s blog, found that breathing patterns and emotional states are related, and not just in the obvious way. While feeling anxious can affect your breathing, altering your breathing pattern to mimic one that is associated with calm – i.e. slowly and fully, instead of short, shallow breaths – can actually trigger that calmer emotional state.

Simple techniques like these can help us feel more relaxed, which in turn helps us focus and be more productive.

5. Alternate high- and low-focus tasks.

For maximum productivity, Seppala suggests alternating highly focused tasks, like preparing presentations, with lower focused ones, like organizing your workspace or entering data. You can’t work at the maximum level every second of the day, and mixing up the intensity of your tasks will enable you to regenerate energy and pay attention to the most crucial work when it’s time.

Plus, by getting all those little things out of the way, you’ll be more efficient and less distracted when it comes time to focus on the big things, whether it’s preparing a presentation or taking a day off with your family.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you learned how to stop focusing on the future at the expense of the present – or do you think that’s impossible in today’s corporate environment? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.