Scientific research suggests that success does not lead to happiness but that the opposite is true. Happiness has a profound effect on brain function and significantly increases individual performance, leading to greater success. If you focus on boosting your personal well-being, you will be a better leader and communicator to the benefit of your company, your Toastmasters club and your family and friends.
Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, was the first to promote positive psychology as a field of scientific study while serving as president of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1998.
This approach to psychology challenged what Seligman refers to as “the disease model” and focuses not on what’s wrong with people but instead on what’s right with them.
“Ninety percent of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world but by the way your brain processes the world.”—Shawn Achor
“Psychology should be just as concerned with human strength as it is with weakness,” Seligman says in a 2004 TED Talk, adding that researchers are developing measures of “what makes life worth living” and “different forms of happiness.”
Shawn Achor, a leader in the field of positive psychology and founder of GoodThink Inc. and the Institute for Applied Positive Research, has found that increased happiness leads to “a 23 percent reduction in stress, 39 percent improvement in health and 31 percent improvement in productivity.”
Achor writes in a 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review that “because success is a moving target—as soon as you hit your target, you raise it again—the happiness that results from success is fleeting.” He argues that people who already have a positive mindset perform better due to a “happiness advantage” where “every business outcome shows improvement when the brain is positive.”
Specifically, Achor found that happiness leads to increased cognitive function, improved problem-solving ability, increased memory and retention, higher accuracy and greater creativity. All of these things give happy people a significant advantage, allowing them to perform at their peak. Imagine how keeping your brain in positive mode could affect your next speech or conversation with your friend, boss or spouse.
Because individuals ultimately determine the success of an organization, a positive mindset is important in the workplace and in Toastmasters. A holistic approach is key to experiencing sustained success. Through his work in 50 countries, including with Fortune 100 companies, Achor discovered that happy people work smarter and produce significantly better results. They stay in an organization longer and are more engaged in achieving its vision. A great way for companies to foster a positive work environment is by sponsoring a corporate club.
Jessica Ferriter, CC, ALB, is an active member of the corporate club All American Toastmasters in Columbus, Georgia, which she describes as supportive and positive. The club consistently maintains 20 members and earns President’s Distinguished Club status year after year. “It’s almost impossible to leave one of our meetings without a smile on your face,” she says.
When employees are happy, they often are more productive. Achor found that three things predicted 70 percent of job successes among his research subjects: their optimism levels, social support and “ability to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat.”
How to Be Happy
Below are four practical strategies to use in and out of Toastmasters to keep your brain in “positive mode” and create the “happiness advantage.”
1 Practice gratitude
Gratitude and thankfulness are cornerstones of every Toastmasters meeting. Skilled evaluators congratulate and encourage speakers, offering practical suggestions and support by highlighting speakers’ strengths, just as positive psychology focuses on strengths versus weaknesses.
The human brain is designed to scan the world for danger, which often means focusing first on the negatives. People are inclined to notice when things go wrong more often than when they go right. A disgruntled customer or broken equipment tends to get the attention, whereas people doing daily tasks well are often overlooked.
Leaders can shift this paradigm by “catching” people doing things right and thanking them on the spot. Immediate and specific feedback creates a nurturing environment in which people thrive, because prompt, affirmative reinforcement increases positive behavior and motivation—people do more of what they are thanked for. This is why genuine praise is one of the best parenting, relationship and management techniques available. Just think how you could use it to build trust and appreciation: “I like seeing the way you packed all your toys away so neatly today, Sam …” “Thanks so much for sorting out that recycling, honey …” “I really appreciate the effort you put into that report, Sarla …”
You can practice thankfulness at any moment by focusing on the things you’re grateful for. The more you do so, the more you train your brain to scan the world for positives. In a TEDx speech in 2011, the year he released his book The Happiness Advantage, Achor reported that “90 percent of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world but by the way your brain processes the world.”
2 Actively encourage kindness
You can rarely give a gift without getting something back yourself. As we give out “random acts of kindness,” we feel a deep level of contentment that keeps our brains in positive mode. Kind acts also deepen social connection, a key indicator of happiness.
The New Zealand College of Fitness fosters kindness by ending team meetings with each staff member awarding a gold star to a colleague, publicly explaining why that person was chosen. The gold stars go up on a large wall chart to track progress toward rewards. This one small practice creates immense positivity; staff members are more inclined to help one another and feel valued hearing direct compliments from co-workers.
The magic of Toastmasters is how clubs draw people together in a kind, supportive environment where members are appreciated and applauded for their every effort. Jim Carty, DTM, of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, serves as District 61 club growth director and values the way Toastmasters “lifts people up.” Like positivity, kindness is contagious; it breeds more of the same, creating an environment people want to be part of. Carty describes the kindness others showed him from the moment he joined the organization: “Toastmasters made me better than I was … for that I owe a lot of people.”
“Psychology should be just as concerned with human strength as it is with weakness.”—Martin Seligman
Be intentional and set yourself a goal. See how many acts of kindness you can do each week and share your stories with others. It will encourage a culture where people continue to “pay it forward,” not only making someone else’s day brighter but also boosting their own happiness.
3 Don’t forget to move
Our physiology directly affects our psychology. Frequent movement is beneficial for both bodies and brains, improving creativity, focus and efficiency. Exercise augments neurotransmitters in the brain, increasing both short- and long-term happiness.
The good news for busy people is that studies show that even short intervals of exercise can be more effective than longer periods at a lower output. Try to integrate movement throughout your day by taking regular “deskercise” breaks, even for just 60 seconds. This will not only put your brain in positive mode and leave you feeling more alert, it will also increase your productivity. Consider having standing or walking meetings, using voice recording technology to take notes. For any meeting that lasts more than 30 minutes, designate an “active advocate” to lead a 30-second movement break at various intervals.
4 Recharge in rhythm.
Learn how to tune in to internal body-clock rhythms and pay attention when it’s time to take a break—when you become distracted, tired, thirsty, hungry, fidgety or frustrated. It is possible to ignore these signals, say if you have a report deadline looming and just don’t want to stop; your body will go into fight or flight mode, pushing through with a burst of adrenaline. This is acceptable from time to time, but if you continue this practice day in and day out, you will reach a chronic state of stress, which has serious health consequences.
To refocus, create a change of state by spending a few minutes outside, standing, walking around or stretching. Your brain will be sharper, allowing you to complete your work faster and with greater accuracy, all saving time and making you happier and more productive than when you simply “push on through.”
Carty emphasizes how lunchtime Toastmasters meetings can energize participants and provide a much-needed break. “Most people recognize how invigorated they feel at the conclusion of a meeting,” he says. “These meetings launched me into an afternoon of meetings with new energy and made for a productive day.”
By fostering a thankful attitude, intentionally spreading kindness, integrating uplifting movement into your day and taking time out in rhythm with your body, you will not only increase your personal, physical and emotional well-being but also fundamentally improve your performance and experience greater success in all areas of life.