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Don’t Postpone Happiness in the Name of Success

Happiness Health
Don’t Postpone Happiness in the Name of Success


  • Why happiness and success are the ultimate package deal
  • How a Marine saved his own life with his breath
  • What being calm—instead of excitable—can do for your career

Emma Seppälä is the Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism, the Co-Director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project at Yale University, and the author of The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success. She joined Eric Zimmer, the co-creator and host of The One You Feed, a podcast about creating a life worth living, to talk about humanity’s innate goodness, why you can’t postpone happiness for success, and how to reduce stress simply by breathing.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to Emma and Eric’s full conversation, click here.

Eric: I’d like to start with a parable. There’s a grandfather talking with his grandson and he says, “In life there are two wolves inside of us that are always at battle. One is a good wolf, which represents things like kindness and bravery and love. The other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed and hatred and fear.” The grandson stops and thinks about it for a second, and he looks up at his grandfather and says, “Well Grandfather, which one wins?” The grandfather says, “The one you feed.” I’d like to start off by asking you what that parable means to you in your life and in the work that you do.

Emma: The one you feed is stronger in the sense that [it is made stronger by] the people you surround yourself with, the values of the people around you, the values you’ve learned, and the attention you put towards fostering traits like compassion [and] kindness in yourself. At the same time, I think that we’re naturally kind and compassionate. That’s our natural instinct. It just gets overshadowed sometimes.

We see that children naturally act altruistically and that adults do too. When you don’t give people a lot of time to think, they are more likely to do the kind act, the fair act. Certain things, like stress, do push us towards acting according to the more negative wolf. When we’re under a lot of stress, we don’t necessarily have the bandwidth to act according to our best selves. But, at our core, we are good and the research points to that.

“At our core, we are good and the research points to that.”

Eric: I think it’s easy to be good when things are going good. It’s when things get challenging that it becomes harder.

Emma: That’s why activities that foster calmness and contemplation, like meditation and taking walks in nature, can really help to reset your nervous system so that you act according to your best self, that natural tendency we all have.

Eric: Your book is called The Happiness Track, and the subtitle is, “How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success.” You’re not just writing this from a “here’s how to be happy” perspective but also from a perspective of “in order to be successful, it sure helps to be happy.” Can you talk about that connection for a minute?

Emma: I’ll start with a story of one of the Stanford undergraduates participating in a class on the science of happiness that my colleague and I founded. The student said she had to drop out of the class. When my fellow instructor asked why, the student said, “Because it goes against everything I’ve ever learned. My parents told me I have to be very successful. When I asked them how to be very successful, they said you have to work very, very hard. When I asked them how I know I’m working hard enough, they said ‘When you’re suffering.’” It may seem like a shocking story, but really it is something that is all around us.

“This theory of success, the idea that in order to be successful you have to postpone or sacrifice your happiness, is simply false.”

We have a sense that if there’s “no pain, there’s no gain.” If you don’t work yourself into the ground, you’re just not going to compete as well. You’re not going to come out first. But if you look at the data, we have it all wrong. This is a false theory, and this is why we’re seeing 50% burnout across all industries. 75% of the American workforce is disengaged at work. 80% of doctors visits are attributed to stress.

There is something going on. There’s a pain point that we all feel, that we’ve all seen, if not in ourselves then in people around us. This theory of success, the idea that in order to be successful you have to postpone or sacrifice your happiness, is simply false. It’s not working. When I looked at the data, I saw again and again that if you do things to take care of yourself and the people around you, you are more creative, more productive. You’re more focused, more charismatic, and more successful in the long run, more innovative in your thinking, more influential.


Eric: You talk about six major false theories that are behind our current notions of success. The things that we think are important to be successful aren’t true. Let’s talk about what a couple of those are.

Emma: An obvious one is the idea that you can’t have success without stress. We fuel ourselves with stress. We over-schedule ourselves. We wait till the last minute to get things done. We fuel up with caffeine or energy drinks. We have bought into this idea that the only way we can be productive is thanks to adrenaline coursing through our veins and then we wonder why we’re so exhausted by 2:00 PM, why we fall on the couch when we get home after work, why we have sleep problems.

It’s because we’re constantly tapping into this fight-or-flight system. The idea that stress is bad for you is nothing new, but we have still bought into the fact that we need it. We’ve become addicted to adrenaline, but that’s why we’re burning out. If you look in the animal world, we’re only supposed to feel stressed a few minutes in our lives. A psychologist at Stanford wrote a book called, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers; the idea is that our stress response is only meant to be for fight or flight, not all day, constantly.

We’re using up so much energy, and then we wonder why we don’t have energy, and then we just keep fueling up. The problem also is that when we’re constantly in this high-adrenaline mode, we’re unable to focus. We lose our ability to make good decisions. Our emotional intelligence drops. We’re not able to communicate as easily with other people.

“If you do things to take care of yourself and the people around you, you are more creative, more productive. You’re more focused, more charismatic, and more successful in the long run, more innovative in your thinking, more influential.”

If you take time to do things like meditation or whatever it is that calms you down, you’ll see that your attention is broader. Your memory improves. You’re able to connect better with other people. You’re actually more powerful.

Think about who’s more powerful when they arrive at the negotiation table, for example. The person who is super anxious? Or the other person who is calm, centered, and could just walk away and be fine? Clearly it’s the calm one, and yet calmness is not a “sexy” feeling. We’re always talking about, “I’m so excited to see you.” We don’t say, “I’m so calm to see you.”

In the United States in particular, we value high intensity. So, when we think of happiness, we think of high-intensity emotions like excitement and thrill, but what we’re buying into is a life of high intensity all the time, and then we’re wondering why we’re exhausted. We’re also wondering why there’s such high anxiety levels when we’re constantly doing it to ourselves.

That’s one of the theories. Another theory is this idea that we have to be so focused on our niche all the time, so focused on our field. [Saying things like] “I need to be number one in my field. I need to know everything” in order to be innovative, in order to be creative. The number one attribute that CEOs look for in the incoming workforce is creativity, above everything else, above integrity, above work ethic, everything.

We are constantly so focused on our field, always thinking about the next thing on our to-do list, but as a consequence we actually prevent ourselves from getting into a creative mindset. If you look at the data, our brain is most likely to come up with a breakthrough solution when we’re idle, when we’re in the shower, or in that moment right before sleep, or when we’re maybe in the car just zoning out listening to music. There’s a reason for that.

When we’re in an idle situation, our brain is actually in active problem-solving mode, so you’ll probably notice that you’ll find the solution to something you’ve been pondering on forever in a moment you least expect it. The idea is that you need to take time off. You need to take time to be idle, and if you think about it, you could go all day long, never, ever accessing that creative mindset, because people roll over in bed and check their email, and then if you wait in line, people are checking their emails. We know from research that when you take time off of work in the evenings, on the weekends, you come back much more engaged and energized.

“Our stress response is only meant to be for fight or flight, not all day, constantly.”

Eric: You talk a lot about managing your energy. Share a little bit about what that means.

Emma: One thing that you might want to do is to alternate high and low intensity tasks in your day. For example, if you have a presentation to prepare that requires a high-intensity focus, do that for the first hour at work, but the second hour, do things that allow your mind to wander, like cleaning out your desk, entering data, something less intense. Then you can go back to an intense activity. Sandwiching high and low intensity activities not only helps you restore and manage your energy, but also will help you be more creative.

We live in a time when we’re taking in more information than ever before. A 2009 study showed that we take in 35,000 gigabytes of information every day, which is enough to crash a computer in a couple of weeks. We’ve come to a point where we absolutely have to unplug in order to create some balance. Our ancestors, even our parents did not consume this much information, and we haven’t yet found a balance because it has happened so fast. I think that’s why a lot of people are finding meditation to be so revolutionary in our culture where we are such doers, just sitting and doing nothing for a few minutes is actually balancing us out and there’s so much research showing the many benefits.

Eric: You talk about how animals and children have a lot of natural resilience, and yet as adults, we don’t show that in the same way.

“In the United States in particular, we value high intensity. So, when we think of happiness, we think of high-intensity emotions like excitement and thrill, but what we’re buying into is a life of high intensity all the time, and then we’re wondering why we’re exhausted.”

Emma: We can see in children and in animals when they get upset or stressed, they’re over it in a couple of minutes. As soon as the stressor is gone, they’ve moved on, and they’re doing just fine. After being in fight or flight mode, our body immediately goes back to a parasympathetic mode, from sympathetic to parasympathetic, which means from fight or flight [mode] to rest and digest [mode], where the body can repair itself, restore all of the resources it’s lost during the fight or flight moment, so that it can be strong and resilient in the face of another stressor.

That’s why it’s so important for us to make that time in our life when we can go into that parasympathetic calming state. It’s essential to manage our energy that way. A very important way that you can do that is actually through your breath. That sounds so simplistic, but it’s not at all. It is powerful. I’ve done research with some of the most stressed individuals in our society, veterans returning from combat with trauma.

Their nervous systems have been turned into fight or flight mode and haven’t been able to shut off. They have trouble sleeping. They’re always anxious. They’re extremely jumpy in very normal, non-dangerous situations. They can’t function normally. Their cognitive skills decline because their body is so taxed, their mind is so taxed from whatever experience it was that led to the trauma and that doesn’t allow them to live in the present moment and to move on with their lives.

In one week of doing some breathing exercises with them and learning a yoga-based breathing exercise called Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) breathing, they were able to come back to themselves. They were able to sleep again. Their anxiety normalized and they’ve moved on with their lives. They have relationships, jobs, they finish school.

Just with your breath you can change the state of your mind. This is very powerful. In [changing] your breathing, you can change how you feel. That’s, to me, revolutionary because when you have peace of mind, when you have presence of mind, you have everything. Do you want me to share a story with your about how powerful breathing is?

Don’t Postpone Happiness In The Name of Success

Eric: Sure, and then maybe you could share how to do some of this breathing.

Emma: I’ll share the story of a friend of ours who was an officer in the Marine Corps and in charge of the last vehicle on a convoy going across Afghanistan. Every other vehicle passed safely, but his hit an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). There was a huge explosion and when he looked down, his legs were mostly severed below the knee. At that moment of shock, he remembered a breathing exercise in a book for officers for very difficult moments.

That exercise involved breathing in for a count of four, holding for a count of four, breathing out for a count of four, and then holding for a count of four. Thanks to the presence of mind that he had from that breathing, he was able to do his duty, which was first to check on his men, second, to give orders to call for help, and third, he looked down at his legs. He tourniquetted them himself. He propped them up, and only then, when everything was said and done, when everything was taken care of, did he fall unconscious. That story is a powerful reminder that the breath is so incredibly important when it comes to presence of mind. It could even save a life.

Eric: You described the four seconds in, hold four seconds, four seconds out, hold four seconds. I’ve heard all kinds of variations on that, seven seconds in. Do you find that doing it for a set amount of time leads to benefits?

Emma: That’s a very simple breathing technique where I breathe in for a count of four, breath out for a count of eight. You’re basically breathing out for twice as long as you’re breathing in. Doing that for a couple of minutes to start your day is terrific, but really it’s something you can do at any point. I like to meditate or do breathing exercises anytime during the day when I’m feeling my energy dip a little bit and I find it’s a healthy way to restore my energy and peace of mind and concentration. I think of the analogy of plugging in my phone to fill up my battery. There are no side effects, and you feel much better. You’re more focused. You’re just more on top of your game.

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