Principle #22 – Happiness in 3 Parts

Happiness is about having 3 Things:

-Something to Do
-Something to Look Forward to
-Someone to Love

It might seem unorthodox to include Happiness as part of a Leadership Manifesto, but here is my experience: happy, optimistic, positive leaders have more long-term sustainable success than their opposites. As well as the responsibility for setting direction and expectations, the leader’s role is to create the right impact and energy so people can rise to the occasion. A happy disposition is far more likely to create that environment than a miserable one. Leaders can either create energy in their team members or destroy it; they either radiate energy or they drain it. They can light up a room either when they walk into it, or walk out of it.

In terms of impact, the single biggest influence on the performance of any team is how the leader shows up. And while a happy, positive leader alone doesn’t guarantee success, it does create a fertile soil in which a team’s enterprise is more likely to flourish. Moreover, I’ve met very few sustainably successful miserable leaders.

Even beyond the impact on your team and those around you – from the angle of self-care – if you are happier then you are far more likely to be positive, confident, bold, creative and energised – all of which only helps with your cause.

Which begs the question: what is happiness?

Happiness is different to pleasure. Pleasure derives typically from the material (new car, clothes, accessories) or the sensual physical (sex, food). What characterises pleasure is that you get a spike in joy, and then it dissipates. The wrong-headed approach to happiness is to believe that when I get the car, job, apartment, partner (you fill in the blank!) – THEN I’ll be happy. This is like eternally pursuing a non-existent crock of gold at the end of the rainbow. People believe happiness is to be found outside themselves, when in fact the power to be happy rests within. Happiness is an inside job.

Rick is a northern UK entrepreneur I worked with who built up a successful packaging business. After many years (he left school at 14), and much stress and effort, he sold his business for an eight figure sum. He followed the dream of “when I sell up, then I’ll be happy”. He paid the price along the way for the juicy reward at the end. After an absence of 2 years I met Rick once again. Over breakfast in London I asked “So, how’s retirement?” With a tired, resigned expression he replied “If I never see a 7 star hotel or a white sandy beach ever again, it won’t be a minute too soon.”

People pursue pleasure, expecting happiness, and are forever disappointed when it doesn’t last. Our consumerist society only further encourages and perpetuates it. That way, happiness itself has a built-in obsolescence: people are kept on the never-ending treadmill striving for more, better, slimmer, richer. Perhaps Thich Nhat Hanh summarised it best “There is no way to Happiness. Happiness is the way.”

The Happiness triumvirate is made up of components that individually help sustain our well-being and contentment. Individually they are powerful on their own. Collectively they are even better.

Something to Do
The only moment you ever have in your life is the present moment. Past and future exist only in our minds – in that sense they are counterfeit – only the present is legal tender currency. As Chopra describes it “The past is history, the future is a mystery. This moment is a gift, which is why we call it the present”

“Something to Do” doesn’t mean just anything, but rather something that has meaning for us where we can be fully present. Whether it’s solving a problem, learning a skill, playing an instrument or walking in nature – being totally immersed in something creates a mental state of Flow. This Flow state is described by athletes as being “in the zone”, musicians call it being “in the groove” but, whatever the label, the experience is proven to have a radically uplifting effect on both performance and our mental health. In fact, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the seminal work on happiness entitled Flow found that, comparatively, the flow state outperforms health, wealth and success as a generator of happiness. One of the curious consequences of the lockdown was how people discovered many “things to do” (hiking, cooking, DIY or calligraphy) which enabled them to not just survive, but to thrive – in spite of the severity of the situation around us.

Something to look forward to
One of the most negative impacts of lockdown by contrast was that the ability to revel in the anticipation of a future event was curtailed by necessity. It’s long been established that anticipation is a key stage of happiness. Research is pretty clear that feelings are stronger when we think about future events than when we relive positive experiences from our past. Moreover, countless studies have clearly established that happiness levels anticipating an event – anything from a child waiting for Santa to planning and exciting holiday – exceed the levels of the actual event itself. Fifty per cent of traveller happiness occurs on the run-up to the holiday (versus 35 per cent looking back and just 15 per cent on the actual trip). Having something in the future to look forward to helps us better bear any mundanity or misery we might be experiencing in the present. It brings hope. So whether it’s ticking something off your bucket list, reuniting with a friend, or just looking forward to a coffee break at 11, anticipation only adds to our overall contentment.

Someone to Love
One of the harshest consequences for many during the pandemic has been the separation people have endured from their loved ones. Love has been consistently identified in studies over the decades as one of the most accurate predictors of happiness. A Harvard study conducted since the 1930s – famous as one of the longest-running studies of all time – set out to understand the source of happiness over a whole lifetime. It tracked the lives of 268 graduates from Harvard right up until the present day (for those still alive). By 2009 George Vaillant, who directed the study for over 40 years, concluded that what contributes to health and happiness in later life includes exercise, moderate drinking and staying mentally active. However, all other attributes pale in significance when compared to Love: meaning a stable, long-term romantic partnership. This does not mean the high-octane, dizzy fizz of falling in love (which fizzles out in time), it instead pinpoints what psychologists describe as “companionate love” – a more stable affection based on mutual understanding and commitment. Positive social interactions literally produce chemical endorphins in the brain that reduce anxiety and depression, increase our well-being and make us feel happy and good about ourselves and life. Armed with the wisdom of many lifetime’s experience, it appears that love does actually conquer all.