The Secrets to Success, Productivity and Creativity: Have Fun and Be Happy

Emma Seppala, the science director of Stanford Universitys Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, sat down with ABC News Dan Harris for "10% Happier."PlayABC News
WATCH '10% Happier': Emma Seppala and 'The Happiness Track'

Many of us believe that being successful in our careers means constantly being plugged in and sacrificing our own happiness to devote all our energy to our jobs -- as Rihanna would say, “Work, work, work, work, work, work.”

But Emma Seppälä, the science director of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, argues that the assumption is dead wrong and that in fact we can’t have real success without some degree of fun and happiness.

Seppälä, the author of "The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success," sat down with ABC News’ Dan Harris for his livestream podcast, “10% Happier,” to tackle this subject -- a central theme in Harris's own book with the same title, “10% Happier.”

Emma Seppala, the science director of Stanford Universitys Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, sat down with ABC News Dan Harris for 10% Happier.ABC News
Emma Seppala, the science director of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, sat down with ABC News' Dan Harris for "10% Happier."

Watch the full interview in the video player and download the "10% Happier" podcast on iTunes.

There are two forms of happiness, Seppälä said. One is hedonic happiness, which is short pleasure bursts of excitement we get from buying new things, eating food, “sex, drugs and rock and roll,” Seppälä said. The other is eudaimonic happiness, which comes from a sense of purpose or from service to something great than yourself, such as being a mentor to a coworker. Research shows, Seppälä said, that “the greatest predictor of happiness is positive relationships with other people and altruism.”

Seppälä argues that changing the way we approach our work and our relationships – in part by valuing calming activities as much as we value high-stress ones -- can reduce anxiety and boost creativity. It’s OK to put the phone down or walk away from the computer for a few minutes, Seppälä says, because those tiny breaks can help us keep our sanity without losing our edge. It’s what she called practicing “energy management.”

“The trap we fall into is we believe we have to live in a high-intensity mode all the time,” Seppälä said. “[But] distribute your day among high intensity and low intensity activities… managing your energy so you can have rest, it allows you to tape back into your creative energy.”

In her book, Seppälä talks about the “myths of success.” One misconception, she said, is that people believe they can’t have “success without stress.”

“There’s the sense that, ‘The only way I can be productive is if I fill my life with this hardcore adrenaline,’” Seppälä said. “I think that’s one of the reasons we’re seeing a high level of burn out because what we’re actually doing is we’re burning through our energy really, really fast and that’s why … people are completely exhausted.”

Being high stress all the time puts our bodies in a chronic state of “fight or flight” response, she continued, which can be harmful to our health, especially when we fall into the routine of drinking caffeine during the day to keep us going to then having alcohol or sleeping pills at night to slow us down. Seppälä said that cycle is like sticking a frozen pizza in the microwave and then back in the freezer, and then back to the microwave over and over again.

“Stress is great to get you through a deadline and so forth in the short term… But if you activate it chronically and all the time you’re wearing yourself out,” she said. “We need to really establish boundaries… “[And] tap back into our ability to restore ourselves so that we can be naturally energetic to keep going.”

One thing Seppälä has to take time for herself every day is a meditation routine. She practices a mantra meditation twice a day for 20 minutes, as well as 20 minutes of breathing exercises and 12 Sun Salutation yoga sequences – all while having a full-time job and a 1-year-old son at home.

“I’m lucky,” she said. “First thing in the morning my husband takes the baby so I have that 45 minutes of time to quickly do what I need to do before I take over or sometimes I’ll have to do it right before sleep or I’ll do it in the evening when my husband comes home.”

“I’ve noticed that when I do it, I’m just a better mom, a better person, I’m a happier person, I’m a calmer person,’” Seppälä added.

It can be very hard for parents to take time for themselves, she said, but it’s important to be “wisely selfish,” whether it’s making time to go for a run or play basketball with some friends or if it’s just for five minutes, do something that you find “nurturing.”

“Do whatever it is that helps you be your best person and that helps you feel good and be happy,” she said. “Whatever it is that you do, just look into yourself. You are making choices every day for how to use your time.”

Another myth of success, Seppälä said, is that we have to be our own toughest critics. In reality, Seppälä said more people should learn to practice less self-criticism and more self-compassion, meaning to give ourselves the same respect and kindness that we would give a close friend.

Being a kinder person to your coworkers, without being a doormat, Seppälä said, can get your further at work as well because it can generate loyalty.

“When you’re the kind of person who’s there for other people, who’s compassionate, who’s sympathetic, who’s helpful, you’re actually going to do better than that person who elbows everyone out of the way,” she said.

Having compassion doesn’t mean giving up ambitions, Seppälä said, and everyone defines success differently in their own personal way, whether its achieving a certain income or a new skill or learning how to be your best self.

“We are who we are, and the way we are is a gift,” Seppälä said. “We don’t need to fight self-interest… Because if you were constantly working against your self-interest, maybe you wouldn’t be able to make as much impact, and so … sometimes the way you’ve been designed is just perfect.”

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