Review: The Happiness Track

How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success
Author: Emma Seppala, Ph.D

“There is a difference between self-awareness — understanding your weaknesses — and harsh self-criticism, which only adds pressure to an already stressful situation and in fact prevents you from achieving your best.” (pg. 128)

Intro

The Happiness Track is a book by the Science Director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education about what makes us really happy and why being happy is important to achieving success. You can tell she is familiar with many of the studies that have happened on compassion and altruism and how they relate to happiness. She refers constantly to them throughout the text.

“If believing that success depends on your strengths on the one hand, and your tendency to self-criticize on the other ends up sabotaging your chances of success, then how can you change your self-beliefs to make them more productive? Research suggests you should replace your belief in strengths with effort, and self-criticism with compassion.” (pg. 128–129)

Ratings

  • Likelihood of recommending a friend to read? 📚📚📚
  • Likelihood of recommending a friend to purchase? 💰
  • Positive Influence: ⭐⭐⭐
  • Time to read: 🗿🗿
  • How related to business? 🕴️🕴️
“Self-control and discipline are undeniably helpful. However, when we exert too much pressure on ourselves, we exhaust ourselves mentally and physically and become less likely to achieve our goal.” (pg. 77)

Two or Three Favorite Things

“Why are we always exhausted at the end of a workday? Why do we come home wiped out, with barely enough energy to make dinner before collapsing for the night?…in our day and age, when few of us have physically demanding jobs, we are wiping ourselves out through psychological factors. After all, the physical effort we exert in our day jobs doe not warrant the fatigue we experience when we get home” (pg. 70).

Super interesting was Emma Seppala’s section about managing our energy rather than our time. Why do we get so tired at work when we just sit at a computer all day instead of working in the fields? Seppala says it’s because three psychological factors drain us: high-intensity emotions, self-control, and high-intensity negative thoughts. High-intensity emotions can be both positive and negative. Anger, anxiety & fear are example of negative ones and being excited, elated, or ecstatic are examples of positive ones. She mentions Americans in particularly thrive on high-intensity positive emotions, it’s how we equate happiness. East Asian cultures on the other hand value low-intensity positive emotions like serenity and peacefulness. We in the West think we need those high-intensity positive emotions to succeed.

“This intensity is reflected in the language we use to discuss achievement goals: we get fired up, pumped, or amped up so that we can bowl people over, crush projects, or crank out presentations — these expressions all imply that we need to be in some kind of intense attack mode. Go get it, knock it out of the park, and muscle through.
“The problem, however, is that high-intensity emotions are physiologically taxing. Excitement, even when it is fun, involves…activation of our sympathetic (fight-or-flight) system. High-intensity positive emotions involve the same physiological arousal as high-intensity negative emotions like anxiety or anger: our heart rate increases, our sweat glands activate, and we startle easily. Because it activates the body’s stress response, excitement can deplete our system when sustained over longer periods…” (pg. 72)

She goes on to mention how high-intensity emotions are also mentally taxing and the result of high-intensity emotions is that we tire easily. Excitement is better than stress and has positive benefits but can definitely tire us over time while calmness & serenity will not tire us and can actually re-energize us.

Another section I liked (and needed personally) was about being in the present. Sometimes we overwork and are always trying to go somewhere or get something done we don’t focus on and enjoy the present. Dr. Seppala mentions why being focused on what we’re doing in the present can make us happy:

“Why does the present make us happy? Because we fully experience the things going on around us. Instead of getting caught up in a race to accomplish more things faster, we slow down and are actually with the people we are with, immersed in the ideas being discussed, and fully engaged in our projects.” (pg. 29)

She goes on to mention how we can get better at being in the present, such as learning to make eye contact with people while intently listening to what they say, truly experiencing pleasure, meditating (or praying), taking a technology fast or just focusing on breathing. They are all things that help us to slow down and to focus on what we’re doing in the moment. She also mentions that charismatic people do these thing and are good at focusing on being in the moment. We like to be around people that are there and seem to want to be around us.

One last part of the book that I liked is a part of the book that echoes the sentiments of another book I reviewed called Grit by Angela Duckworth. It talks about how if we believe in a strengths philosophy, we think we should do what we’re good at and that there are certain things we can’t really improve at. Seppala mentions that “research shows that subscribing to the idea of strengths is linked to higher levels of depression, probably in part because it leads to excessive self-criticism.

On the other hand, if you believe you can develop skills and get better at things with practice and effort, than you tend to overcome difficulties and challenges better.

“Neuroscientific data clearly demonstrates that our brains continue to grow new neuronal pathways throughout life. The brain is designed for development and to learn new things. While particular skills may come more easily, we are wired to engage, thrive, and grow in any number of areas, from playing the violin to learning to drive a stick shift, from mastering Chinese calligraphy to excelling on the Certified Public Accountant exam.
“So what determines whether we learn new skills? In large part, our beliefs. Dweck’s research shows that the big difference between those who persist in the face of failure and those who don’t is whether they believe they can develop strengths (rather than being born with them). They understand that, with persistence, they can improve at anything. As a consequence, they learn from their mistakes, are more emotionally resilient in the face of failure, and ultimately achieve more and with greater self-confidence.” (pg. 129–130)

I loved this. Beliefs make the difference. I think we all could realize a bit more the impact our beliefs have on us and our actions — thus influencing the results of our lives in a very large way.

Personal Impact

This book had a light impact on me and confirmed some things I already believed. I feel I definitely and easily recognized the positive result of calmness to high-intensity emotions and negative thoughts. Optimism has always given me energy and happiness while pessimism and self-criticism has always done the opposite. I’ve always valued and put into practice (especially when a full-time student) the ability to step back and day dream as well as intense focus. I have not always been great at putting them into practice but I understand and perhaps better understand and am committed to both — being focused in the present but to also have moments of purposeful mind-wandering to free the mind and inspire creativity.

“Research shows that there are two main modes of thought — intense focus on the present to achieve current goals, and downtime when we can daydream, let our minds wander, and come up with new ideas. While we give a lot of attention to the former, the latter is actually the secret to creativity.
“In chapter 1, I discussed the importance of being present with what you are doing and of not mind-wandering during an activity such as work or interactions with other people. In this chapter, however, I discuss the importance of a different kind of mind-wandering: purposeful mind-wandering — that is, choosing to take idle time to let your mind unfocus” (pg. 99).

Overall, this book has continued to reinforce recent messages of staying focused on the present. But what I like here is that it’s a key to being happier, not just to being more productive at work or in learning (but those are both things that if you do them better, they’ll likely make you happier as well). I’ll also be making a concerted effort to continue to serve other people, to have down time to let my mind wander, and to not harbor negative thoughts or feelings so that I can be happier as well as being in a position to do good and to have the energy to do the things that are important to me.

Final Thoughts

The book doesn’t really have a conclusion, it just sort of ends after making it’s last point, and I think the organization and presentation overall could have been a little better; but, despite that, the message is really good that a lot of people in this world could really use. I like that the focus is that doing things daily whether eliminately distractions, being positive, calm, having compassion and free time to think can make us happier, which in turn leads us to being more successful in whatever endeavor we choose. I think the book is worth reading, especially if you are non-religious, to nail down some of the main principles in life that make us happy. I say that as the book, to me, reinforces the benefits and positive consequences that my religion, and many religions, teach about being happy. This book is not religious nor discusses religion at all, yet it confirms the positive benefits of things like unselfish service to others, compassion (for yourself and others), having positive emotions and thoughts (of yourself and others) and taking time to be meditative and calm. Doing those things, whether religious or not, will bring the positive consequences the book mentions. They are things worth doing. I know because I recognize that I’m happier when I do them too, and less happy when I’m more critical, more stressed out, more selfish or self-interested in my dealings with others or when I don’t give myself time to relax and reflect and get too distracted both when I should be focused or when I should be unfocused. Applying the suggestions of Seppala in The Happiness Track will be worth it to you, I promise.

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