Put Happiness into Action

by davidjoud on June 16, 2014

The King of Bhutan, the last Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, has decided that the best way to foster economic development in his country is to shift the focus from GDP (Gross Domestic Product) to GDH: Gross Domestic Happiness.

While most people in this tiny country between India and China are subsistence farmers, they enjoy food, shelter and universal health care. They refuse to make money from commercial ventures that could compromise their nation’s health, environment and egalitarian principles.

So, how does an entire country—or even one individual—raise happiness levels?

Many people find this question baffling. We know we must devote considerable time and effort to master a sport, hone our professional skills or successfully rear a child. But when we try to exert control over our emotional or mental lives, we’re frequently stymied.

Is it possible to take specific action steps to become happier? Do we find ourselves pouring effort into improving our circumstances, only to find that we’re not that much happier after all?

With sports, there’s a correlation between practice and mastery. The same applies to attaining greater happiness.

To become happier, you must apply effort and commitment every day of your life. It’s hard work, but it’s the most rewarding assignment you’ll ever undertake.

Why Work to Be Happy?

Researchers who study happiness have found compelling reasons to achieve it. Happier people are:

  • More sociable
  • More energetic
  • More charitable and cooperative
  • Better liked by others
  • More flexible and innovative
  • More productive at work
  • Better leaders
  • Better negotiators
  • More resilient when faced with hardships
  • Higher earners
  • Physically healthier (stronger immune systems)
  • Likely to live longer

Happiness bolsters self-confidence and self-esteem. We come to believe in ourselves as worthy human beings, deserving of respect — a mindset that facilitates positive behaviors and outcomes.

As we become happier, we benefit not only ourselves, but also our partners, families, communities and society at large.

If you’re unhappy today, you’ll be unhappy tomorrow — unless you take action. While genetic predispositions dictate some of our happiness quotient, each of us is responsible for 40 percent. You can improve your level through intentional activities. As you begin to appreciate how your behaviors affect your emotional and mental states, happiness can literally become a habit.

Thus, it’s possible to remake yourself into a happier person. Happiness, more than anything, is a state of mind — a way to perceive and approach the world. When you choose activities that boost happiness, you’re effectively managing your emotional well-being.

Two Happiness Activities

Recent findings in happiness research reveal that our grandmothers were right all along. It’s important for us to:

  1. Express gratitude
  2. Cultivate optimism

When expressing gratitude, you improve positive feelings and behaviors in almost every situation. Gratitude is the antidote to negative emotions, neutralizing anger, envy, avarice, worry and anxiety. It helps stave off the boredom associated with taking things for granted.

Expressions of gratitude are causally linked to mental and physical health rewards. Your goal is to turn gratitude into a habit. Start by regularly writing down gratitude statements and keeping a gratitude list—two activities that greatly improve your chance of adopting this vital habit.

Exercises to Boost Optimism

Cultivating optimism shares similarities with expressing gratitude. Both exercises require you to  focus on the positive aspects of any given situation. Optimistic people celebrate the past and present, while also anticipating a fulfilling future.

Each of us may define optimism a bit differently. You may be optimistic in one context, yet pessimistic in another. Some researchers define optimism as a global expectation of a positive future.

Other experts describe optimism as the way we explain outcomes. When faced with a negative event, a pessimist will view it as internal, permanent and universal (i.e., “This always happens to me; it’s my fault”). In contrast, an optimist attributes the event to something external, transient and specific (i.e., “This isn’t my fault; it’s a temporary glitch”).

Your Best Possible Selves

Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky offers the following exercise, called “Your Best Possible Selves,” in The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want (Penguin Books, 2007): For 20 minutes, write a narrative description of your best possible future selves in multiple life domains.

Channeling your thoughts in this direction will boost your mood and motivation. Highly structured, systematic and rule-bound, the exercise prompts you to organize, integrate and analyze your thoughts in ways that fantasizing doesn’t allow. Writing about your dreams provides clarity and a renewed sense of control.

You must regularly engage in this activity to develop optimistic thinking habits. As with sports and career mastery, optimism requires practice and persistence.

Being optimistic involves a choice about how you see the world. It doesn’t mean denying the negative or avoiding unfavorable information. Pragmatic optimists are just as likely to be vigilant about risks and threats.

They’re also keenly aware that positive outcomes depend on the wholeheartedness of their efforts. They don’t wait around for good things to happen.

If you’re struggling with dissatisfaction, pessimism or an inability to feel grateful, consider working with a professional coach.

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“Human beings are the most highly social species on this planet. When we succeed in connecting deeply with others — heart to heart and head to head — trust is at its all-time high, and people work in concert in extraordinary ways.” ~ Judith E. Glaser, Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust & Get Extraordinary Results (Bibliomotion, Inc., 2013)

Scientists are discovering how conversations cause a rapid cascade of neurochemicals in the brain, laying the foundation for trust or distrust.

To remain competitive, leaders must understand the powerful conversational rituals that prime the brain for trust, partnership and mutual success.

Conversations are more than a vehicle for sharing information. As social beings, our interactions involve words that trigger powerful physical and emotional responses. Our words can facilitate healthy, trusting conversations — or cause others to shut down with fear, caution and worry.

When you promote shared understanding through conversations, you can unleash others’ full potential. As Glaser explains:

“The premise of Conversational Intelligence is: To get to the next level of greatness depends on the quality of our culture, which depends on the quality of our relationships, which depends on the quality of our conversations. Everything happens through conversations!”

Our minds toggle through a series of questions to determine the kind of engagement we’ll have with each other.

5 Subconscious Questions

Even before we open our mouths, we size up other people and determine whether we can trust them. In a fraction of a second, you sense whether you need to:

  1. Protect: Do I need to be on guard — and how?
  2. Connect: Can I trust this person?
  3. Belong: Where do I belong? Do I fit in?
  4. Be Strong: What do I need to be successful?
  5. Partner: How do I create value with others?

This process takes place between the brain’s primitive emotional centers and the neocortex, its seat of reason and judgment.

Bad conversations trigger our distrust network; good conversations trigger our trust network. This influences what we say, as well as how and why we say it. Our trust and distrust networks shape each conversation’s outcome.

Leadership Conversations

If you project positive intentions, your employees will likely respond to questions positively and feel more confident about taking risks and accomplishing tasks.

When you offer support and praise, employees believe you trust them and will go the extra mile. Positive conversations obviate worries about belonging.

Feel-good conversations trigger higher levels of dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins and other chemicals that provide a sense of well-being and drive our state of mind. They foster trusting relationships and influence our response to our coworkers and organizational demands.

Conflict and Conversations

Negative conversations can occur despite our best intentions. Others internalize messages based on what they think we said—not our actual words. As Glaser notes:

“Unhealthy conversations are at the root of distrust, deceit, betrayal and avoidance—which leads to lower productivity and innovation, and ultimately, lower success.”

When you want to win and subsequently fight hard, you may go into overdrive as you persuade others to adopt your point of view. You push instead of attempting to pull others in your desired direction.

If you try to win at all costs, your conversations will trigger others’ primitive fight-or-flight response. Your conversation partner’s brain will effectively shut down, and he’ll no longer be open to influence. Your conversation will hit a dead end.

Open interactions require you to be perceived as friend, not foe.

3 Conversation Levels 

Leaders commonly rely on two types of conversations: telling and selling.

When telling, they try to clearly specify what employees need to do. When selling, they try to persuade them with reasons for doing it. Unfortunately, some leaders resort to yelling or repeating themselves, and they wonder why they never get the results they want.

Employees may understand “what” to do and even “why” they should do it. But they’ll never fully engage unless they’re part of meaningful conversations that encourage connection, sharing and discovery. When we respect others’ worldviews (especially when they differ from our own), we create a space for better conversations and allow new ideas to emerge.

The following table offers a graphic representation of Glaser’s identified conversation levels:

LEVEL I – Transactional

How we exchange data and information

LEVEL II – PositionalHow we work with power and influence

LEVEL III – Transformational

How we co-create the future for mutual success

  • Tell
  • Advocate
  • Share
  • Ask
  • Inquire
  • Discover

Need to protect

  • Build consensus
  • Contract
  • Compromise
  • Join
Low trust Wait and see Partner
Conditional trust High Trust


Too often, we get stuck in Level II conversations because we’re addicted to being right. We fail to realize the negative impact this has on others. We may start out with an exchange of ideas, but we then become trapped in a power dance. It can be hard to let go of the need to win, but it’s critical to take this step to avoid interactions that are merely a contest of wills.

Only when we participate in Level III conversations can we transform ourselves and our conversation partners by sharing thoughts, ideas and belief systems. When we’re mindful of our intentions and notice the impact our words have on others, we begin to live in Level III. We realize that:

  • We shape the meanings our words have on others.
  • We need to validate our words’ true meanings.
  • Breakdowns occur when others interpret our words in unanticipated ways.
  • Breakdowns occur when we try to persuade others that our meanings are the right ones.
  • Breakthroughs occur when we take time to share and discover.
  • Breakthroughs occur when we co-create and partner to create a shared reality.

Reality Gaps

Conflicts commonly arise when there’s a reality gap (an opposing interpretation of reality). They trigger an array of fears that activate our distrust network. We begin to process reality through a fear-based (vs. trust-based) lens. We start to make stuff up.

When we talk past one another, we are conversationally blind. We become focused on making a point and persuading others we’re right. Winning becomes the goal instead of co-creating a shared solution.

In some studies, executives were found to use statements 85 percent of the time, asking questions only 15 percent of the time. Even their questions often turned out to be statements in disguise.

One’s conversational ability isn’t necessarily innate, but you can improve upon it. Conversation partners must agree to share thoughts, ideas and beliefs to co-create a shared sense of mutual reality.

Conversational Blind Spots

It’s all too easy for us to retreat into our biases, assumptions and conversational blind spots. This invariably leads to misunderstandings, miscommunications, conflicts and negative relationships.

Five common conversational blind spots plague us.

Blind Spot #1: False Assumptions

When we assume others see what we see, feel what we feel and think what we think, we’re operating with blinders on. If you’re engrossed in your own point of view, you can’t connect with another’s perspective.

Sensitive people pick up on others’ lack of connectivity, and they’ll push harder to persuade others that they’re right. Their payoff is a burst of dopamine that may feel great, but it leaves their conversation partners in the dust.

Blind Spot #2: Underestimating Emotions

Words can trigger strong emotions: trust, distrust, excitement and fear. When this happens, we may misinterpret reality. If we feel threatened, we move into protective behaviors and fail to realize we’re doing so. When we’re afraid, the brain releases chemicals that shut down its logic centers.

Blind Spot #3: Lack of Empathy

Fear prevents us from empathizing with others. We become insensitive to others’ perspectives and cannot hear important parts of the conversation. When we’re able to listen deeply, without judgment, we can feel what others are feeling.

Blind Spot #4: Making Our Own Meaning

We assume that we remember what others say. In truth, we actually remember our responses to what others say. Research shows that:

  1. We drop out of conversations every 12–18 seconds to process what others are saying.
  2. A chemical process within the brain seizes on our responses to others’ words — and these responses form the basis of memory.

Blind Spot #5: Assuming Shared Meaning

We assume that the person speaking creates the message’s meaning. In truth, the listener decodes the message and assigns meaning to it. As a listener, you run a speaker’s words through your personal vault of memories and experiences and attempt to make sense of the conversation.

Two conversation partners can’t be sure they’re on the same page until they take the time to validate a shared meaning.

Improve Your Conversations

You can take several basic steps to enhance the quality of your conversations:

  • Slow down. A conversation is not a race.
  • Breathe deeply. Take appropriate pauses. Allow time to process conversations.
  • Check your emotions.
  • Ask discovery questions.
  • Validate shared goals and meanings.

If you’re like many leaders, you tend to march forward at a breakneck pace to achieve goals and objectives — a pattern that prevents you from seeing the impact your conversations have on others. You may forget that your words are rarely neutral and have histories informed by years of use. Every experience you have adds a new layer of meaning to your conversations.

It’s crucial to work on managing any underlying feelings of rejection and protection. Only then can you harness your ability to reach out to others and achieve mutual understanding

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