3 Surprising Insights About Success and Happiness
The path to a healthy, successful, and meaningful life may not be what we expect
Sometimes, findings from the research on well-being seem a bit obvious: Gratitude will make you happier; mindfulness reduces your stress; and it feels good to be kind.
But the findings of other studies are much more counterintuitive. This kind of research challenges how we think the world works. If we’re open to it, it can drastically change our day-to-day lives and our communities.
At the International Positive Psychology Association’s 5th World Congress—a four-day conference held in 2017—I heard three insights that challenged my assumptions. They offered new ways to think about the things we want most in life—including health, success, and happiness.
1. You Don’t Have to Be Charismatic to Succeed
What drives high performance at work?
In the past, business researchers had focused on how much influence or information employees managed to amass within their organization. They visualized complex networks of interconnections, with the most influential and knowledgeable workers at the center.
But Kim Cameron, a University of Michigan professor and a pioneer in the field of positive organizational psychology, tried a new kind of mapping: He plotted employees by their “relational energy.” Relational energy is how much your interactions with others motivate, invigorate, and energize them (rather than draining or exhausting them: Something we’ve all experienced).
The result? The relational energy network predicted performance four times better than networks based on influence or information. In other words, having a positive and energizing impact on others seems much more important to how much you achieve at work than getting people to do what you want or hoarding secrets. And when a leader is more positively energizing, her employees perform better, are more satisfied and engaged with their jobs, and have higher well-being at home.
Cameron’s research has found that positive energizers tend to be trustworthy, grateful, humble, authentic, and forgiving. They’re also good problem solvers with high standards. Accordingly, relational energy isn’t a form of natural charisma or attractiveness. It’s something that can be cultivated.
2. We Stink at Motivating People to Be Healthy
How do we encourage others to take care of their health?
If you’re the government, a workplace wellness program, or a well-meaning spouse, you might try to convince your target that they’re exercising too little and stressing out too much. The media is particularly fond of framing stories this way.
But according to Stanford University professor Alia Crum, these messages may have the exact opposite effect. Her research has found that what we believe—our mindset, in other words—can actually have physical effects on our bodies.
In a series of nearly unbelievable studies, she found that stress creates an unhealthier physical response when we believe that stress is bad for us; how we think our exercise levels compare to those of others affects our risk of death beyond our actual level of activity; the same drink affects our hunger hormones differently depending on whether we believe it’s healthy or indulgent; and hotel maids improve their weight and blood pressure after simply learning that their work involves exercise.
In other words, telling people just how unhealthy their lifestyles are could help create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So, what’s the alternative? Rather than focusing on the harm in unhealthy behavior, Crum suggests making healthy behaviors seem more appealing. In one forthcoming study, she found that cafeteria-goers ate more vegetables when they were given enticing names: “twisted citrus-glazed carrots” rather than “carrots with sugar-free citrus dressing.”
In other words, rather than scaring people with statistics, we might do better telling them about the joys of a sunset run by the lake, a fresh salad from the farmer’s market, or a heart-warming loving-kindness meditation.
3. Your Life May Be More Meaningful Than You Think
Are you searching for meaning in your life?
Most of us don’t have to look too far, argued University of Missouri professor Laura King. In a passionate and thought-provoking talk, she cited research showing that little things can increase our sense of meaning: seeing images of trees that represent the passing of the seasons; being reminded of morning-related words (pancakes, bacon, sunrise) in the morning; or having more routine in our lives.
There’s no crisis of meaning in the world, she said. Meaning isn’t reserved for special, transcendent moments; it’s part and parcel of our lives, if we only open our eyes to it.
“People don’t need to know how to make their lives meaningful. They need to know that they already are,” King said.
And when we believe in the meaningfulness of our lives, we unlock the benefits of more positive feelings and better relationships.
Her research raised many questions for attendees: Is this kind of meaning the same as the deep meaning that comes from having a purpose or caring for others? What about people living in chaotic, dangerous environments whose lives really don’t make sense?
Despite these questions, the notion that most of our lives already have structure, predictability, and meaning is a provocative one.
The Greater Good Science Center was an exhibitor at the 5th World Congress on Positive Psychology.
By Kira M. Newman
Kira M. Newman is the managing editor of Greater Good. Her work has been published in outlets including The Washington Post, Mindful magazine, Social Media Monthly, and Tech.co, and she is the co-editor of The Gratitude Project. This article was originally published on the Greater Good online magazine.
The Epoch Times is the fastest-growing independent news media in America. We are nonpartisan and dedicated to truthful reporting.
We are free from the influence of any government, corporation, or political party—this is what makes us different from other media organizations. Our goal is to bring our readers accurate information so they can form their own opinions about the most significant topics of our time.
We don’t follow the unhealthy trend of agenda-driven journalism prevalent in today’s media environment. Instead, we use our principles of Truth and Tradition as our guiding light. We highlight in our reporting the best of humanity, the valuable lessons of history, and traditions that are beneficial for society.
The Epoch Times was founded in the United States in the year 2000 in response to communist repression and censorship in China. Our founders, Chinese-Americans who themselves had fled communism, sought to create an independent media to bring the world uncensored and truthful information.
The Epoch Times has received numerous awards for our reporting and design, including from the New York Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Society for News Design.
The Epoch Times’ media network currently covers 21 languages and 33 countries.