A massive new study of soldiers underlines why focusing on your happiness is so valuable.
If you’re a busy entrepreneur laser focused on the success of your business, happiness might seem like, if not an afterthought, then at least a secondary concern. It’s tempting to think that once you’ve got your business humming along, then you can turn to emotional well-being.
But if that’s how you think, boy do I have a study to show you.
It’s massive (looking at nearly one million people), conducted by some of the biggest names in positive psychology, and crystal clear in its conclusions: Being happier dramatically increases your chances of success at work. So next time you’re tempted to push pursuing happiness into the future, remind yourself the latest science says happiness brings success and not the other way around.
Case closed: Happier workers are more successful workers.
The research, which recently appeared in the Journal of Happiness Studies (yes, this really exists) and was summed up by its authors in an MIT Sloan Management Review article, starts from a simple question. What comes first, success or happiness? Does being successful make you happy or does being happy make you successful?
To find out, the team–Paul Lester, Ed Diener, and Martin Seligman (who is often dubbed “the father of positive psychology“)–set out to collect a huge amount of data. To do so they looked to the world’s largest employer: the military. The researchers worked with the U.S. Army to follow nearly one million soldiers over five years, measuring both their well-being upon entering the army and their performance over time.
The results surprised even a team who has devoted much of their careers to the proposition that happiness is worth studying and promoting.
“While we expected that well-being and optimism would matter to performance, we were taken aback by just how much they mattered. We saw four times as many awards earned by the initially happiest soldiers (upper quartile) compared with those who were un- happiest initially (lower quartile)–a huge difference in performance between those groups. This gap held when we accounted for status (officers versus enlisted soldiers), gender, race, education, and other demographic characteristics,” the researchers write in the MIT article.
That matters not just for military brass but for any business leader looking to get the best out of their team. Other studies have suggested it, but now this research has confirmed it: Happy workers simply perform better, and not just a little bit better but dramatically better across a range of measures.
Citing earlier research as well as their own work, the authors explain that “happier employees are more likely to emerge as leaders, earn higher scores on performance evaluations, and tend to be better teammates.” They are also “healthier, have lower rates of absenteeism, are highly motivated to succeed, are more creative, have better relationships with peers, and are less likely to leave a company.”
Chasing happiness is both easy and hard.
That means you really, really want a happy workforce (the MIT article has specific suggestions). It’s also probably worth putting in some effort to make yourself as happy as you can be. But becoming happier isn’t straightforward.
First off, studies consistently show that a significant chunk of how happy you are is determined by your genes. Some people are just wired for gloom and others for smiles. But even maximizing whatever happiness potential you were born with is complicated.
How do you define happiness? This is an issue that’s been discussed from the ancient Greeks to today with the general conclusion being that “happiness,” as we generally use the word, actually consists of a patchwork of different concepts. How much pleasure you experience, how much pain you endure, how satisfied you are with your life overall, and even how rich and varied your experiences are all go into determining how happy you are. And sometimes the pursuit of these different components are at odds with each other. Doing a startup could make your life satisfaction skyrocket, but you’re almost certainly in for a lot of short-term misery.
Finding happiness means finding the right balance of factors for you. It also means understanding that an obsessive focus on happiness as a goal can actually just make you more conscious of all the ways you fall short of joy, reducing your well-being. Sometimes you need to sneak up on happiness like how you would stalk a skittish animal.
All of which might make chasing happiness sound like mission impossible. It is more complicated than it might first appear, but don’t be too discouraged. The details may be complex but the basics are simple.
An absolute mountain of research agrees that everyday interventions like moving more, getting out in nature, being of service to others, making time for friends and hobbies, and practicing gratitude will reliably increase your well-being. Think of figuring out the big philosophical questions of happiness as icing on that cake.
So while you ponder the finer points of happiness, why not start with these simple interventions? The science is now pretty definitive: Being happier will make you more successful.