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The New Science of Happiness and Success

Would you like to be happier?

Would you like to be more successful?

Whenever I ask people these two questions, as I have done many times over the past 35 years, I find that virtually everyone's answers are the same; a resounding, "Yes, of course! Who wouldn't?"
If I then follow these questions up with another question, such as, "What would it take for you to be happier?" I generally receive a response like, "More money", "More peace of mind", "More time off work", or perhaps a response like, "A better relationship" or better 'job', 'salary' or 'body' etc.

The thought process behind these answers reveals a fundamental pattern which seems to be true of pretty well everyone, namely the idea that for us to be happier, we need something else, specifically more success, either in our finances, in our relationships, in our health or in any other area of our lives. This thought pattern reveals a fundamental aspect of virtually everyone's beliefs about the way life works. Namely, that more success leads to more happiness.
This basic concept, that more success) leads to more happiness seems so self-evident that we seldom question it. Indeed, we never even notice that we are thinking this way. But this attitude is what author Jack Canfield, of the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series of books, calls, "living on 'Someday Isle'.

In other words, as Canfield says, we tell ourselves, "Someday I'll have more money." Or "Someday I'll have better health." Or "Someday I'll have the right relationship." Or, "Someday I'll lose that ten pounds." The implication with this line of thinking is the same; the basic belief that "When I get the success I want I will be happy.
But is this line of thinking really true? Does more success really lead to more happiness?

"Not at all." says Shawn Achor, author of the best-selling book, "The Happiness Advantage" (Crown Publishing, New York, 2010).
Trained by some of the pioneers in the new discipline of Positive Psychology, Achor helped design and teach the famed "Happiness" course, for years the most popular course at Harvard. Since then, (according to his on-line biography), he has spoken at or worked with over a third of Fortune 100 companies and his TED talk is one of the most popular of all time, with over 13 million views.
The front flap of his book reads, "Conventional wisdom holds that if we work hard, we will be more successful, and if we are more successful, then we'll be happy. But recent discoveries in the field of positive psychology have shown that this formula is actually backward."

He explains that when we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive at work. This discovery has been borne out by rigorous research in psychology and neuroscience. It has also been proven true in the boardrooms and on the bottom lines of organizations around the globe.

This change in thinking echoes the transformation that followed the reversal of the conventional belief that the sun revolved around the earth. According to Achor, this new discovery that conventional thinking is backward and that it is happiness which leads to success and not the other way round, promises to be as earth shaking and life transforming in its impact.

However, this recent bit of scientific knowledge which is a result of recent brain scanning research, is not the only evidence that our previous ideas about the human condition are wrong that has come to light in the last couple of decades. Just as profound and potentially earth shaking is the recent discovery (also using brain imaging technology) that the structure of our brains, which was long believed to be fixed and unchangeable, is actually plastic and continually changes throughout the course of our lives.

Although some of the new ideas about our brains seem like common sense, others are a little harder to grasp. For example, the proof that when a person learns to play the piano, certain parts of the brain undergo measurable changes, seems, upon reflection, to be quite reasonable. After all, we know that the nerves which move the fingers have connections to specific areas of the brain, so the fact that these areas of the brain would grow through endless repetitive piano exercises, like a person building his biceps by lifting weights, seems eminently reasonable.
But how about feeling happy? Does practicing feeling happy produce changes in the brain as well?
In a word, writes Achor, "Yes".

Furthermore, there seems to be no limit to how far these changes can go. Numerous studies have confirmed many ways we can permanently raise our happiness baseline and adopt a more positive mindset simply by doing certain kinds of thought exercises.
And Achor is not the only author writing about this discovery. According to Sharon Begley, author of "Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain", (Ballantine Books, New York, 2007) the long held scientific dogma that the brain was forever fixed and unchangeable, implied that one's 'happiness set point', which is the level of happiness to which one returned after experiencing a deep tragedy or a great joy was as unalterable as the earth's orbit. However it now appears that our 'happiness set point' can be altered quite easily. And when we re-set it, it remains the new baseline for happiness long into the future.

Here is a key idea which most people simply miss; that an individual's personal inner world of emotions, feelings and self-talk, and her outer world of observations, experiences and conscious reasoning are linked. After all, is not the nervous system responsible for your feelings of happiness or unhappiness, optimism or pessimism, not the same nervous system which is responsible for other cognitive functions as well?
We all have noticed that when we are feeling down, our perceptions of the world are negative too. We not only feel low. We also feel that our goals and desires are less attainable. We feel that opportunities are eluding us.

We tell ourselves that life is becoming more difficult. On the other hand, when we are feeling optimistic, we not only feel more positive, we will also see more opportunities for positive results in the world. We not only feel that our dreams and goals are attainable, we can actually see more opportunities in the outer world. How many popular songs have been written on the same theme; that when we are in love, the sun seems to shine a lot more frequently.

Therefor it follows, according to Begley and Achor, that when we re-set out happiness set point, we not only recover from set-backs more quickly and perceive negative results in a more positive light, but we also feel better and more optimistic about the world in general. When our brains change, we begin to actually see more opportunities for success and satisfaction in the external world. What the findings of this new research is showing us, is that when we re-set our inner happiness set point, our outer world undergoes a positive shift too. For all of us who have harbored the desire to change the world, this new information shows us that it might actually be possible. While we might not be able to change someone else's world, we can indeed change our own.

So how do we re-set out happiness set point? It is amazingly easy. All we need to do is to practice FEELING happy for a few minutes a day on a regular basis. They say nothing succeeds like success. And nothing attracts more opportunities for success and happiness than an inner feeling of happiness and well-being.
If you want to reset your own 'happiness set-point, try this simple exercise:

1- On a sheet of paper, write down a small number (five or six is enough) of what I call, "Past Successes".

These are simply events from the past which we consider to be positive successes. And here's the thing; they don't need to be huge successes. Simple successes like getting your driver's licence, learning to bowl or baking an amazing chocolate cake are perfect. Here's the key: does remembering this past event make you to FEEL happier and more successful? If the answer is 'yes', write it down on your 'Past Successes List'.

2- Read this list over every day for five minutes. While you do this, actually FEEL the feelings of happiness and success in your body. You might want to do this exercise while listening to a favorite piece of relaxing music. As you read your list, make an effort to really FEEL the feelings in your body. As you think of other past successes (And you will.) add them to your list.

3- Repeat this exercise each day for four to six weeks. Scientific experiments have conclusively shown that over this period of time, actual, physical changes in the brain are measurable.

4- Keep a simple diary of how this exercise is affecting not only your inner world of thoughts and feelings, but also note any observations of successful events in the outer world. Expect your world to shift and it will.
Is there any limit to how far one can take this brain training exercise? According to Achor, there doesn't seem to be. As he writes, "The point is, we do not know the limits of human potential. Just as we can't know the limit for how fast a human can run or swim or how high a person can jump, we still don't know the limits of our brain's enormous potential to grow and adapt to changing circumstances. All we know is that this kind of change is possible."