The ‘Secret’ to Happiness is Not a Secret

I recently watched again one of my favorite Ted talks called ‘The Happy Secret to Better Work’ and while the very funny speaker was talking about the science of happiness related to what we now know about increasing work and educational outcomes, the points made span every aspect of life.  It’s worth 12.5 minutes of your time and you will laugh.  I’m sharing some of the information and my own spin on what we can do with it.   Although the speaker uses the word ‘happiness’ I think of what he is talking about as more than the changeable emotion called happiness.  It is instead the state of contentment, flow, peace, and even joy. 

Positive psychology research consistently shows that when we feel more positive, our brains (and therefore our physical and mental health) perform better then when we are stressed, negative or even just neutral.  We have more productivity, creativity, energy, resiliency in the face of challenges, and even more access to our intelligence.  Playing, finding the funny, laughing and finding the positive increases these states and changes the actual chemistry in our brains.

So, guess what happens to your brain when you bathe it in news which is almost exclusively negative or tv or video or other media that is negative, threatening or overstimulating?  Our brain starts to believe that’s an accurate representation of the negative to positive ratio in the world.  I have noticed over the years that even TV shows and other media that constantly show drama about affairs, backstabbing, bullying, substance abuse and violence has started to alter how young people see the world and it affects their behavior, physical and mental health.  It’s not reality that shapes us but the lens through which our brain perceives the world that shapes our reality. 

Our external world, what happens to and around us, only predicts 10% of our long-term happiness according to research on the science of happiness.  The other 90% of long-term happiness is predicted by how your brain processes the world.  We can change this 90%.  That’s huge!   

It really comes down to the old neurobiology saying of ‘What fires together, wires together.’  If we expose ourselves to constant ‘evidence’ the world is negative, we believe it and perceive it in our bodies and brains that way and we act accordingly, which causes more negative and self-fulfilling prophecies. 

As far as what is known in the work world from this research, 75% of job success is predicted by our optimism levels, our social supports, and our ability to see stress as a challenge instead of a threat.  Only 25% of work success is based on our intelligence.  It is similar for educational outcomes.  The ability to persevere is worth more than all the intelligence in the world.  The long-term research on resiliency is consistent with these findings also.

So, our typical model of ‘If I work harder, I’ll be more successful, then I’ll be happier’ doesn’t work.  Every time you have a success, then the goal posts move further away.  The brain never gets to be IN happiness for long if we are always looking beyond the horizon to the next goal, the next success, or how to be better, yet again.  Unfortunately, this model is inherent in our cultural concepts of parenting, management, and motivating our own behavior. 

Brains actually work in the opposite.  If you can increase your positivity in the PRESENT moment, the brain performs significantly better—increasing creativity, energy, productivity, resiliency and having less burnout and a host of other advantages.  Even though this research was looking specifically at work and educational outcomes, it applies to every aspect of life.  According to this research, for example, doctors are 19% faster and more accurate at coming up with correct diagnoses when in a positive instead of in a negative, stressed or even just neutral state.  When it comes to health, those increases could be lifesaving!

I often work with folks to flip the script.  Often, they come in with the idea that ‘What I am/get X, I’ll be happier.’  We flip that script to ‘When I’m happier, I’ll be/get X’ and it works!  Does resistance come up in you when you hear this?  It’s so culturally programmed for us to work, strive, struggle only THEN will you be happy.  But you won’t.  Most of us are just programmed to move the goal posts.

Here’s some ideas for how to flip the script.  Increasing dopamine in the brain helps you feel happier and turns on all the learning centers in the brain.  Numerous studies found that making small changes over time can rewire your brain toward more positive states consistently.  Each of these things, done for a 2 minute span of time a day for 21 days in a row can create long term improvements and increases in our available dopamine. 

Here they are and if you’ve read my musings before, these may not be new:

  • Writing down 3 things at the end of the day that you are grateful for in that day.  Your brain starts to scan the world for the positive instead of the negative.
  • Journaling about a positive experience you’ve had over the last day which allows you to embody and embed this experience over again into the body, mind and spirit.
  • Exercise-which bathes the brain in feel good chemicals and can be a more powerful cure for depression than medication.
  • Meditation allows the brain to slow down and focus and not continue the exhausting lie of multi-tasking.  Even something simple like washing the dishes can be a 2 minute or more meditation.
  • A random act of kindness, which can be very small like giving someone a compliment, noticing and thanking them for something. 

So instead of having yet another set of resolutions this year to be better, smarter, faster, stronger, etc., what would it be like to just focus on something today that will help you feel more positive right NOW and consider doing this for 21 days as a curiosity experiment?  Pick one of the above or come up with your own way to play, have fun or experience small or large joys and let yourself be really IN it for a while.  If you want, you can do it even more than the 2 minutes the research showed was enough to create change.  What fun would that be? 

Sometimes this is a much harder task for some because of the way our brains have been shaped by many years of being bathed in negative experiences, thoughts or perceptions.  It not your fault if this is a struggle for you because is largely created by our culture and our family of origin experiences of secure or insecure attachments.  You’re are worth making this change!  Reach out for help with this to start.  Everyone deserves a coach, helper, counselor or loved one to support them. 

I can be reached at or through my website at .  Here’s to playing as the way toward success and lasting joy!


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