A Happy Mind: The Birthplace of Your Finest Work
This is the third of a six-part series discussing the mental qualities required from a new generation of innovators
Happiness can mean many different things depending on who you’re talking to. The common understanding, despite the highly personal experience of it, is that happiness is a positive emotion characterized by: satisfaction, hope, joy, optimism, gratitude and resilience. Human life is occupied by the relentless pursuit of objects, experiences and relationships that provide us with these, whether we know it or not.
This seemingly benevolent desire comes loaded with consequences. Humans are imitation machines. All we can possibly know and learn from is our environment. Our desires and actions stem from the constant act of observation and imitation of our surroundings, according to historian and philosopher, René Girard. As social animals, we have a tendency to look outwards for the meaning of a fulfilling life, putting our sense of wellbeing in the hands of societal constructs. To fully understand the magnitude of this, we would have to consider the economic structures within which we function and create these relative judgements from.
The industrial revolution was a pivotal point in our history, giving us all the conveniences we enjoy today. At the dawn of this breakthrough period, our lawmakers and leaders saw two primary challenges that could throw a wrench in this budding system: oversupply and shortage of labor. We had to man our factories with competent employees — people that could learn and follow instructions consistently. Next, we had to breed a culture of consumerism to keep this engine running.
This resulting cycle of production and consumption circulated wealth, creating a civilization with an unprecedented quality of life. Today, obesity kills more people than hunger. The chances of dying at the hands of another human have never been lower in the history of mankind. We have everything to experience the full spectrum of life’s possibilities, yet we cannot seem to truly thrive.
Treating society as either consumers or producers has its consequences. In an effort to stimulate consumption we are bombarded with messages communicating that we can never truly be or have enough. Happiness or self fulfillment is just a purchase away, seems to be the mantra. As any compulsive shopper will tell you, the resulting feeling of wellbeing erodes just as quickly as it arose.
These same consumers are also the economy’s ‘human resources’ — a telling phrase. We have bred generations to believe that hard work at the expense of everything else in life is the only way to be truly productive. My work as an investment manager targeting African tech startups allows me to spend the majority of my working hours meeting entrepreneurs. They’re building tools that can radically transform the way humans live. Amongst these passionate innovators you can’t help but feel inspired by their drive, however, it is amongst this group that the attitude of ‘producing at all costs’ is most prevalent. The media is covered with stories of modern day heroes like Elon Musk who spend countless hours working, with less than healthy sleep time and, when you do the math, very little time for family or community. So it is no surprise that we hold such routines as the holy grail for optimal performance. Productivity comes from self sacrifice it seems.
To get an understanding of the price we’re paying for such a system of dissatisfaction, let’s look at how humans are faring from within. Statistics show that there are 322 million people worldwide suffering from depression and 264 million with anxiety disorders. From 2005 to 2015, we have seen an 18% and 15% rise in both conditions respectively. Correlating these numbers to the concurrent rise in human life span, safety and access to essential goods shows that we as a civilization have a blind spot.
Any remedy to this mental health crisis must continue to keep productivity and sustainable development as a top priority. Throwing out what created better living conditions would be counterproductive, and herein lies the good news.
By directly addressing the causes of our mental health problems, we can create an environment for optimal human performance. Happiness is not a consequence but rather a cause of producing and acquiring more. In other words, by prioritizing a healthy state of mind, we become more creative and therefore stand a better chance of acquiring or producing the things we need most.
The relatively new field of Positive Psychology has findings to back this:
- The positive emotions in 272 employees were measured and their job performance was tracked for eighteen months. Those who were happier at the beginning went on to receive better evaluations and higher pay eighteen months later, even after controlling for other factors.
- Happier college freshmen earned higher salaries sixteen years later, with no initial wealth advantage
- Children put into a good mood choose higher goals for themselves and perform better on cognitive tasks
- In the US military academy, the amounts of hope in service members predicts who will stay in the service, and zest adds meaning to a job, rather than approaching it as just a task at hand.
In general, happy workers are more productive: they perform better in managerial positions, deliver higher sales results, and receiver better evaluations, resulting in higher pay.
When discussing productivity and wellbeing, one cannot ignore the importance of physical health:
- Autobiographical journal entries written by Catholic nuns in their early twenties were studied. Researchers found that nuns who expressed more positive emotions in their writing lived longer than those who showed more negative or neutral outlooks. Specifically, 90% of the most cheerful quartile of nuns were alive at age eighty-five compared to only 34% of the least cheerful quartile.
- 2282 Mexican-Americans aged sixty five and older were followed over the course of two years. Those who experienced more positive emotions lived longer and suffered from less disability. After controlling for age, income, education, weight, smoking, drinking, and disease, the researchers found that happy people were half as likely to die, and half as likely to become disabled.
Positive emotions can deliver a higher quality of life while improving the duration of it.
Martin Seligman is a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology and it is his research that I have used for this article (the original findings are in the sources section below). His team divided happiness into three distinct areas: pleasure, engagement and meaning. Pursuing any of these three contributes to a satisfying life, and experiencing all three leads to what they call “the full life”.
These are two simple and proven exercises that anyone can do to make this shift:
- Utilize your strengths in new ways: Researchers mentioned in this article created a survey designed to reveal an individual’s top core strengths. Studies find that practicing one or a few of these daily can boost mental wellbeing and provide all the positive characteristics associated with better performance. Anyone can take the VIA strengths checker to get started immediately.
- Practice gratitude: Dedicating yourself to a routine of listing the 3–5 things you’re most grateful for that day or week will set your mind up for focusing on life’s positives. This exercise has been proven over and over again to induce happiness, positivity and improved physical health. Maintaining a routine of journaling a gratitude list can be transformational, and be sure to also focus on the smaller things in life!
Improving our experience of life is amongst the worthiest of goals. As a civilization, we have made giant strides in serving the needs of our people, raising the standards of human achievement to unprecedented levels. This can be credited to our industrial system that creates value from the complementary loop of production and consumption — with humans at the center of it. In order for such a cycle to work, we’ve indoctrinated our societies to believe that happiness comes from attaining and becoming more, and in order to achieve this we must produce more value from our time. And this can only come through self sacrifice.
Majority of humans have fit into a system that makes them units of production. A cog in the machine that breeds dissatisfaction in exchange for productivity and consumerism. We have erroneously placed human wellbeing as an afterthought. The modern human has little clarity on not just what happiness is but how it arises.
In order to continue and even surpass our current standards of human functioning, we must reverse this mental model and look at the vast research from the field of Positive Psychology. Humans produce better results when happiness and a sense of wellbeing is treated as an ingredient for optimal performance.
Happiness is not just a result arising from favorable circumstances; it is also a big part of why these events occur in the first place. Prioritizing the time you spend on activities that give positive and fulfilling emotions will result in the life you desire most.
For further reading: