Want to Succeed? Stop Trying to Be Happy All the Time

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In Real Leaders Don't Follow, author Steve Tobak explains how real entrepreneurs can start, build, and run successful companies in highly competitive global markets. He provides unique insights from an insider perspective to help you make better-informed business and leadership decisions. In this edited excerpt, Tobak explains why it's better to address your problems head on rather than plaster a smile on your face and ignore them.

If you buy into all the popular hype, emotional intelligence improves just about everything from leadership performance and business results to work stress and personal happiness. But much of that is a load of pseudoscientific nonsense that’s been largely disproven.

As the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business professor Adam Grant explains at length in a 2014 article in The Atlantic, comprehensive published studies have shown no significant correlation between emotional intelligence and performance for the vast majority of job functions. The sole metric—emotional quotient (EQ)—is based on self-reporting and self-testing that’s neither objective nor scientific. It’s fatally flawed and in no way predictive of leadership performance or business success.

Besides, there is no one-size-fits-all model or set of characteristics for executives and business leaders. Even if reading a book, taking a test, going to a seminar, or getting some coaching made you more self-aware, it wouldn’t necessarily lead to behavioral change. That can take years of hard work and reinforcement. To suggest otherwise is utopian nonsense.

In reality, a leader’s ability to manipulate and control their own emotions and the emotions of others has a significant dark side that’s associated with narcissistic or psychopathic behavior. Suffice to say there’s a lot more to this concept than meets the eye, and it’s certainly not the panacea it’s been made out to be. And yet emotional intelligence has somehow become the latest leadership fad du jour. How did that happen?

Well, this is America, where popular spells opportunity and opportunity spells money. Thousands of self-interested opportunists have taken advantage of the hype surrounding emotional intelligence, positive psychology, and other fads to enrich themselves by pushing books, seminars, and other garbage.

I recently came across a couple of psychologists-turned-consultants who had written a book and a bunch of popular articles spewing enough feel-good nonsense on emotional intelligence to make Sigmund Freud jump out of his grave and beg for Prozac. Their Ph.D.s came from the California School of Professional Psychology. Never heard of it? Join the club.

According to U.S. News, as of 2013, none of this school's campuses ranked among the 200-plus psychology graduate schools in North America, and their mean exam scores also rank among the lowest in the nation. And yet the school is fully accredited and turns out more psychologists than all the graduate schools in California combined. Half the state’s practicing psychologists got their degrees there.

Today the nation is flooded with executive coaches, life coaches, speakers, and consultants with bestselling books, blogs, seminars, training programs, and certificates from schools like that. This brings us to the latest popular and surprisingly destructive craze: happiness coaches. Sorry to be a buzz kill, but you can’t coach happiness. Reality works through cause and effect. Actions lead to consequences. And happiness is not an action; it’s a consequence. It’s not a cause; it’s an effect.

Look at it this way. Each of us is a complex creature with unique characteristics and a lifetime of experience that influences our behavior and decisions. How we feel at any given moment—happy, sad, surprised, afraid—is a consequence of that. It’s the result of a lifetime of factors. You can’t directly manipulate them, and you shouldn’t even if you could. It’s important to pay attention to what your emotions are telling you.

Your feelings provide important information about what’s going on inside and around you. They’re like signposts on your journey through life. Sadness and fear aren't bad emotions, any more than happiness and joy are good ones. They all provide critical information. And although they’re sometimes beneath the surface, they matter just as much as conscious thought, if not more.

Listening to your feelings is called self-awareness. Obviously, there are times when you need to control your emotions, but constantly manipulating them or pretending they’re different than they really are isn't a good idea.

Look, everyone has problems. Everyone confronts personal challenges and professional hurdles. Everyone faces pain and tragedy. But sweeping real issues under a rug of disingenuous positive thinking keeps you from accurately assessing situations, making smart decisions, and taking effective actions. It stops you from facing your problems and dealing with them. Simply put, it’s delusional.

I can say pretty much the same thing about our culture’s obsession with motivational speakers and inspirational stories and quotations. Inspiration doesn’t come from outside you. It comes from inside. It comes from your emotions, your passion. That’s what drives you. That’s what inspires you. If your work doesn’t inspire you, if you constantly have to be pumped up by what others say and write, that probably means you haven’t yet found a career that resonates with you. Keep looking. You’ll find it someday. But don’t sweep those dissatisfied feelings under a rug of happy thoughts.

If you want to make the best of your life, here’s how you do it: Be aware of what’s going on inside and around you. Face that reality, and deal with it as openly and honestly as you can. Make decisions. Take action. Rinse and repeat. If you do that, you have a better chance of waking up happy tomorrow.

Adversity. Friction. Stress. Competition. It’s tough stuff, no doubt. But it’s part of all our lives. Nobody has it easy. And if they do, they’re not likely to become highly successful entrepreneurs and business leaders.

Look, we’re all flesh-and-blood humans. We all laugh and cry. There is no happiness without sadness. No pleasure without pain. No victory without defeat. No success without failure. No life without death. There is a yin and yang, a natural balance to all living things.

Think about it: Without problems, there would be no innovative solutions. Together, they build confidence and character. They create strong, self-reliant individuals with the courage to take big risks, tackle tough challenges, and accomplish great things. They produce real entrepreneurs.