I mean, really – research has shown that happiness is linked to longer life, better health, more satisfying relationships, and greater success. (These are averages. No magic. Your mileage may differ!) Happiness defined in its broadest sense can include satisfaction with life, frequent positive emotions, fewer negative emotions, and a sense of meaning or purpose.
In this broad sense, happiness contributes to success, but how? Here are three quick stories from my own life that have given me a hint how happiness might create good things in life. Perhaps you have stories that also illustrate the mechanisms at work.
Woken Up by Family
My younger son came home for Christmas this year. As can be the case with college students, he and some friends came in late one night – or at least late enough that my wife and I were asleep. And, as can also be the case with college students, they made some noise. Talking, laughing, a door slammed in the basement, a garage door going up and down a couple of times. Nothing terribly loud, but enough that it woke me up. When I woke up, I thought about how glad I was that he was doing well in college, enjoying being home and spending time with good friends. With those thoughts, I smiled and went back to sleep.
Woken Up by a Wedding
That was family; I had a similar experience related to work. Last July, I was in England helping lead a training program on resilience. My hotel had no air conditioning so I needed to sleep with the window open, which opened onto a courtyard. One night the hotel hosted a wedding in the courtyard. The talking and laughing rose from the party late into the night. I needed to be up early, and this time I thought that the experience could be upsetting. But then I thought about people being with friends, talking and laughing, and a new marriage starting. I smiled , went off to sleep, and woke up the next morning rested and ready to work.
Woken Up by a Party
Finally, a few weeks ago, I was at another training, staying in a small town motel. On a Thursday night at 3:45 a.m., I was awakened by the sound of laughing and talking near my room. It wasn’t overly loud. There was no loud music. Just folks talking and laughing in a manner consistent with a good but controlled party. This time, it crossed my mind that 3:45 was awfully late for this to be going on. But again, the sound of friendly conversation and laughter struck me as a good thing. I thought about friends being together and held on to the thought. Thus I made a choice to favor that thought to thoughts of being trespassed against. I went back to sleep and was rested the next morning.
Small Positive Shifts
Forgiveness happens to be one of my signature strengths. I am not quick to anger and generally accept a wide range of behaviors without getting offended. But, I also need a good night’s sleep, and in the past have felt angry in similar situations and the anger has made it difficult to sleep. But I’ve learned to cultivate greater satisfaction with life, more positive emotions, fewer negative emotions, and a sense of meaning. This enabled me to exercise that strength of forgiveness, roll over, get to sleep, and be ready to go the next day.
How much does that contribute to health, good relationships, or success? I don’t know, and there is probably little if any way to tell. But, it is not hard to see how small positive shifts in every day reactions — multiplied over many situations and several years — could result in stronger marriages, better business partnerships, and more effective performance that leads to success. Could it be that, cumulatively, those small events make for a big difference in our lives?
Each of us has stories of how happiness has “worked,” helping illuminate seemingly small, but very important, opportunities and achievements we might have otherwise missed. What’s your story? How has greater positivity or well-being allowed you to rise above things that might have otherwise held you back?
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Fredrickson, B. L., Tugade, M. M., Waugh, C. E., & Larkin, G. (2003). What good are positive emotions in crises?: A prospective study of resilience and emotions following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 365-376.
Fredrickson, B. L., & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13, 172-175.