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Gray Rule
March 2016 | VOLUME 17, NUMBER 2
Gray Rule
How Being Happier Contributes to Career Success: An Interview with Dr. Emma Seppälä
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»How Being Happier Contributes to Career Success: An Interview with Dr. Emma Seppälä
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How Being Happier Contributes to Career Success: An Interview with Dr. Emma SeppäläBy Kathy Skinner, Director of Research Services, Morrison & Foerster LLP, San Francisco, CA
Emma Seppälä, Ph.D., is Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Her areas of research include positive organizational psychology, health psychology, cultural psychology, well-being, and resilience. She consults with Fortune 500 leaders and employees on building a positive organization and the author of the upcoming book on the science of success, The Happiness Track, published by HarperOne in March 2016.

KS: Your book called The Happiness Track came out at the beginning of this year. An assertion of the book is that being happier can lead to career success, and that some of what we think of as drivers of success are actually false. Can you explain more about that?

ES: We have the misconception that in order to be successful we have to postpone our happiness, but when we look at the research we see that by taking care of ourselves and being happier and more fulfilled, we can actually be more successful. A lot of people live thinking about the future and their next goal or achievement, but research shows that being able to stay more in the present makes people more productive, makes their cognitive skills sharper, and creates better connections with others, in essence making them more charismatic and better leaders.

Another misconception is that we think that stress is essential for success so we live in a state of self-fueled overdrive and high adrenaline. Stress in small doses can help to get things done, but chronic stress is burning us out, resulting in 80 percent of doctor visits. We live in one of the busiest times in human civilization and we can’t change work and life demands, but we can train our nervous systems to be more resilient. We need to be able to turn off our sympathetic or “fight or flight” nervous system in order to enable our parasympathetic or “rest and digest” nervous system, which helps us calm down to restore our bodies, and to sleep. Breath training can help to trigger the calming reflexes of the body and it can be done at any stressful point in your day to immediately calm you.

KS: In particular, one of the false theories you mention is to “play to your strengths,” which seems like it would align with happiness. Can you provide more detail on that?

ES: There is nothing wrong with playing to your strengths, but the belief that one can only be good at what one is already good at is tied to depression and anxiety. It results in making one less likely to develop other skills and prevents the growth that comes from learning from mistakes and learning new skills.

KS: You work with a lot of technology companies and you also use social media and other technology such as meditation apps in your work. It seems that technology and social media, in particular, can be a double-edged sword in that they can foster a 24/7 work culture, as well as feelings of failure, competition, or inadequacy. How do you suggest that people use technology effectively to foster rather than reduce happiness?

ES: Regarding Facebook, scrolling through posts is linked to negative emotions, but using Facebook to share information or encourage or uplift others is beneficial. Research shows that loneliness is often correlated with a lot of social media use.

Regarding technology, in general, there need to be more boundaries created with technology in our lives. Work and family life have become completely intertwined, and it’s actually in the best interest of employers to encourage employees to create boundaries between their work and home lives because research shows that employees who take time off do better in their work. Recovery and work engagement reinforce each other. Only two out of three American employees use all of their vacation days. Taking time for reading outside of your field, diversifying your interests, and doing things that make you feel better also make you more charismatic and effective in the workplace.

KS: Using a metric called the Caliper Profile, attorneys rank higher than the average population on skepticism, autonomy, abstract reasoning, and urgency, and lower than the average population on sociability and resilience. Given these characteristics and their likely effects on the law firm workplace, are there some industries, like law, that are better or less suited to adopting principles of altruism and compassion, and are there some strategies for adopting these principles in workplaces that may be more challenging, in particular those that are highly deadline driven, like law firms?

ES: I’ve written about this a lot in the Harvard Business Review. Research suggests that it doesn’t matter how intense the environment is, your reactions can still be compassionate. If the human touch doesn’t exist in a workplace, people will burn out and leave. Small shifts in interaction and empathy make a huge difference to loyalty, commitment, and engagement. Niceness, however, shouldn’t interfere with frankness and being candid, and one can be candid without being cruel. If you ever had a mentor who cared about you, do you remember how much you would want to put out for that person? And contrast that with the person who didn’t establish that connection, who you don’t care if you ever see again.

KS: How would you address the perception that being compassionate could be damaging to career success or be a sign of weakness in an often adversarial profession like the law? What are your recommendations when one is inclined towards responding in kind to workplace slights or insulting behavior?

ES: In the book I give an example of an investment banker who, in spite of working in an overall vicious culture at his particular firm, treated his associates well and created his own culture of civility and compassion. As a result, junior people lined up to work for him and some of the best deals came his way. You do what you can to create the culture that you want to be in. It’s fine to be self-interested and consider how this benefits you. Anger is bad for your health, so to the extent that you don’t engage in it, you are helping yourself.

KS: How do you suggest people respond to bullying or toxic bosses? Should they get out in order to preserve their own health, or are there strategies that you recommend?

ES: My Harvard Business Review articles also discuss this. You should not stay in a toxic environment that puts your health at risk. But even if you cannot change your environment, you still have the ability to build resilience from within. Make sure that you have the ability to contribute to other’s lives with kindness and compassion, in part because that will be in your self-interest. The secret of happiness is to make others happy no matter what the environment.

Additional Resources

Emma Seppälä. “To Motivate Employees, Do 3 Things Well,” Harvard Business Review, January 4, 2016.

Emma Seppälä. “How Meditation Benefits CEOs,” Harvard Business Review, December 14, 2015.

Emma Seppälä. “Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive,” Harvard Business Review, December 1, 2015.

Emma Seppälä. “If You Can’t Take a Vacation, Get the Most Out of Minibreaks,” Harvard Business Review, July 14, 2015.

Emma Seppälä. “Why Compassion Is a Better Managerial Tactic than Toughness,” Harvard Business Review, May 7, 2015.

Emma Seppälä. “Positive Teams Are More Productive,” Harvard Business Review, March 18, 2015.

Emma Seppälä. “What Bosses Gain by Being Vulnerable,” Harvard Business Review, December 11, 2014.

Emma Seppälä. “The Hard Data on Being a Nice Boss,” Harvard Business Review, November 24, 2014.

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