Happiness is an inside job


Do you get weary and irritated at all of the attention paid to happiness these days? Research studies, blog posts, TED talks, and even entire nations studying “gross national happiness”. Bah, humbug. What does happiness have to do with leadership anyway?

A lot it seems, despite my feeling peeved when yet another psychologist throws their hat in the happiness ring. Expecting your success at work to make you happy is the wrong way to think about this, according to Shawn Achor, CEO of Good Think Inc. (his TED talk is very entertaining; take a look). Shawn claims that 90% of your happiness is predicted by how you process your work internally (the other 10% comes from your external world).

According to Shawn, studies indicate that people who are happy are: 37% more successful at sales, 3 times more creative, 31% more productive, and 10 times more engaged. Those figures wake up the scientist in me. I also see evidence that my personal experience with some daily activities I do may be responsible for my own happiness. This pushes the skepticism right out of me.

Intrigued? You should be. I’ve always wondered why leaders I know with positive outlooks seemed to be more successful at work than others:

  • Mike, the leader whose organization’s sales are consistently through the roof in a very competitive market before, during and after a recession.
  • Sandra, who recently moved to work in a U.S. Fortune 100 from overseas and overcame her self-doubt to quickly establish a large creative team that won her a prestigious corporate award during the first year in her position.
  • Eric, who takes his role as a servant leader seriously, and has a constant stream of people knocking on his door wanting to work for him.

There are more of these leaders, but what they all have in common is that they have regular “practices” (even if they don’t call them that) that helps them to cut through the negative stuff (we’re all bombarded with daily) and maintain a positive attitude. Most of these practices are on lists of things that have been studied and shown to increase happiness but some aren’t (maybe they’ll make the lists later). All of these leaders are dedicated to their practices. And they still find time for work, family, community, sports, fun, and everything else that makes life good.

Here is their list:

  • Journaling
  • Eating healthy
  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • White space
  • Intentional acts of kindness
  • Gratitude
  • Spiritual/religious practice

These leaders think their practices are so important to their ability to function at their best that they block out time on a regular and frequent basis to do them. All of the practices increase dopamine, a neurotransmitter that stimulates a feeling of pleasure in the brain. That means that these highly successful leaders likely experience a regular feeling of pleasure (i.e., happiness, positivity) because they work at it.

Shopping therapy (or working harder, or finding the job of your dreams) just won’t produce sustainable happiness. It comes from inside.

So what’s your excuse? How can you NOT find time to do the things that help you to maintain a positive attitude?


I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

2 comments on “Happiness is an inside job

  1. Hi Mary Jo, Great post – I just finished watching Achor’s TED talk, thank you for sharing that link. Fantastic insight, backed with empirical data – his humor raised my happiness quotient significantly. 🙂

    Best regards,

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