Happiness and Optimism Fuel Business Success: Not the Other Way Around

Happy Works at WorkBy Kathy Poehnert, Arden Coaching Executive Coach, New York

It is a commonly held belief that when we are successful (whatever that means for us individually), happiness will arrive, and that with happiness comes the ability to have a more optimistic view of life.  After all, when we are successful, we’ll have so much more reason to be happy (or so the thinking goes).

How often have we heard ourselves or someone else utter things like:

When I make more money…

When I find my dream job…

When I finally get that promotion…

THEN I will be “happy”!

 Well, rigorous research in the fields of Neuro-plasticity and Positive Psychology tell a very different story.

It turns out that when we are more positive and optimistic, our brains are more engaged, motivated, creative, energetic and, hence, more productive at work.   (Seems to  make sense, right?  We all know that if we’re distracted, upset, negative or pessimistic, our productivity goes down!)

The problem is that we have what is called a  “Negativity Bias”. where negative thoughts and experiences tend to stick to our brains like Velcro, while our brains are more like repelling Teflon for positive thoughts and experiences.  This stems from the fact that our primitive brains were always in a state of threat… on the look-out at all times for danger and risk.   (Comes in handy when there are tigers around!)

No wonder we get so easily caught up in negative thought patterns and the negative, unhappy feelings that result, and that shut down our creativity, productivity, and performance!

 The research in this area is incredibly definitive:  when our focus is fear and stress-based, we often end up with the outcome we most fear, because our brain ignores the possibilities, opportunities, and solutions that we most need.

The good news is that we can create a positive mindset… re-program, and actually “hardwire happiness” into our brains to become more positive and thereby gain a competitive edge in business.  The old adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” has definitely been disproved by the new understanding regarding the plasticity of our brains…once thought to be fixed and unyielding after adolescence.

The research in this area is rigorous and vast, and it is not about being “Pollyanna-ish.”

Here are 3 quick ways to train your brains to be more positive:

  1.  “Take in the Good” (a.k.a. “The deliberate internalization of positive experiences” – Rick Hanson)
    • Find a positive experience (something or someone you love, something for which you are grateful, etc.)
    •  Focus on these feelings for at least 5-10 seconds
    • Absorb these feelings: let them sink into your being
  2. At the end of each day write down 3 positive experiences from that day (this causes your brain to scan the whole day and  seek out the positive, however small or large, which changes neural pathways)
  3. Re-frame negative situations: look at what appears to be a “negative” situation and ask yourself these questions:
    • How else might I look at this?
    • What opportunity does this present to me?

 While these seem simple and obvious, if you actually DO THEM, they begin to re-train your brain and counter-act the negativity bias that is just part of being human. 

 It takes FIVE positive thoughts to outweigh one negative thought: so start thinking positive…and watch what happens!


For more information on this topic, check out the following resources:

Buddha’s Brain, and Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson

The Happiness Advantage, and Before Happiness by Shawn Achor