Three Surprising Insights about Success and Happiness
The path to a healthy, successful, and meaningful life may not be what we expect.
By Kira M. Newman
Sometimes, findings from the research on well-being seem a bit obvious: Gratitude will make you happier; mindfulness reduces your stress; 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 earlier this month with more than 1,300 attendees—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 focused on how much influence or information employees managed to amass in 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 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 is not 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 are 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 as intended. 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 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.
On the flipside, King found that our sense of meaning is pretty resilient to adversity. For example, even the recent U.S. election wasn’t enough to decrease liberals’ sense of meaning in life (though it did create other negative feelings).
There is no crisis of meaning in the world, she argued. Meaning isn’t reserved for special, transcendent moments; it’s part and parcel of our lives, if only we 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.