How Happiness Breeds Success: 5 Tips to Enhance Your Career Success

For those who know me, it should come as no surprise that positivity is one of signature strengths (under the StrengthsFinder 2.0 strengths assessment), something that I am truly grateful for.  So when I learned that there was a branch of study called positive psychology, I was most intrigued to find out more. 

Positive psychology, a field that emerged in the 1980’s, is the scientific study of what makes people thrive and excel.  Simply put, it is the science of what makes us happy.

Happiness is often defined as “subjective well-being”, involving pleasure, engagement and finding meaning in life.   This can include:

•    Realizing that you have the capacity to change
•    Experiencing fulfillment
•    Joy in striving towards your potential

Happiness comes along with a positive mindset that looks at the world through the lens of learning and opportunity. For professional musicians, cultivating a positive mindset is an essential element of music entrepreneurship. Let’s take a closer look at how the science of happiness can help musicians to create greater career success.

Happiness Breeds Success

A lot of people think that happiness occurs once you achieve “success”, with thoughts along the following lines:

“Once I achieve ____ (get my DMA, become a tenured professor, get a tenured orchestra job), I will be happy.”

And often, even when they achieve that big goal, they move on to the next goal and in fact do not experience the joy and the thrill that comes from their achievement.

In fact, the opposite is true. New research from psychology and neuroscience shows that being happy and having positive emotions enable you to cultivate the mindset and behaviors that give rise to greater success and fulfillment.  In other words, success flows from happiness.

A lot of the latest research is summarized in an easy-to-read book called The Happiness Advantage:  The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance At Work (Crown Business 2010) by Shawn Achor.   Dr. Achor is a former Harvard researcher and head teaching fellow in one of the most popular courses at Harvard called “Happiness”.  He now is the founder and CEO of Aspirant, a research and consulting company that uses positive psychology to help individuals and organizations enhance their achievement and cultivate a more positive workplace.  Allow me to share some of his thoughts with you.

The Advantages of Being Happy

There are well-documented advantages to being happy and experiencing positive emotions.

1.    Positive emotions make it possible to be more creative, thoughtful and open to new ideas.
2.    When we feel positive, our brains are flooded with “feel good” chemicals like dopamine and serotonin which in turn help us to work more effectively, organize and retrieve information more quickly and become more skilled at complex analysis and problem solving.
3.    People who experience positive emotions are less stressed and physically healthier.
4.    In the workplace, people who experience positive emotions are more productive, make more effective leaders, and enjoy higher performance ratings, higher salaries and greater job security.

How does positive psychology translate into the world of professional classical musicians?

These extraordinarily talented people enter a world of perceived scarcity and have to deal with a lot of “rejection” in the course of starting their careers. Being the optimist that I am, I naturally disagree and advocate looking for opportunities in our changing world.

So I like to use positive psychology in my class at Yale, my coaching sessions and my speeches and guest lectures as a way of shining a lens on the positive to examine what you can do to create a sustainable careers in the arts.

How To Enhance Positivity and Prime Yourself for Greater Success

The good news is that it is possible to change one’s mindset and behaviors and become more positive by adopting the habits of positivity.

To do so, it is important to spend time and pay attention while cultivating these new habits.  Here are 5 suggestions that can enhance the positivity in your life and lead to greater career success.  As you will see, it’s easier than you think to be the person who can look for opportunities!

1.    Know and Use Your Strengths

Knowing and using your strengths are key tenets of positive psychology.  And no wonder! Research documents the many advantages of knowing and using your strengths, including:

  • greater motivation;
  • a better sense of direction and a higher probability of achieving goals;
  •  self-confidence; and
  • higher productivity.

Step one is finding your strengths, which you can do by taking a number of different strengths assessments, including StrengthsFinder2.0 (required in my class and beloved by my students) and the VIA Character Assessment, which was developed by the positive psychology researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.

Once you have identified your strengths, start to use them in all aspects of your life.  Think of your strengths like a muscle:  the more you use them, the stronger they become.  You are reinforcing the habit of playing to strengths, rather than compensating for weaknesses!

2.    Get Excited About and Look Forward to 3 Things a Day

Another great strategy is to make a daily list of 3 things that you are excited about and look forward to.  These activities often tap into your passions, as well as your strengths, since they reflect things you love to do and are good at. 

Try this the next time you have a rehearsal or a performance.  What about that experience are you most looking forward to?  Write it down.

Then check in after the event and see how you were able to use a strength or indulge in a passion.  It is another way to build up your stores of positivity.

3.    Make a Daily Gratitude List

Positive psychologists have long advocated making a daily gratitude list as a way to training your brain to focus on the positive aspects of your life.  So begin to create a new habit by making a list each day of 3 things that you are grateful for.  Maybe it is your musical talent, the wonderful friends in your life, the rich learning opportunities that are available to you or the fact that you have chosen a career that enables you to live your passion.

Do this every day.  This will help you to scan your day for the positive experiences and will train your brain to notice and focus on the possibilities and opportunities for personal and professional advancement.

4.    Set Your Career Intentions

Set an intention for your career by envisioning what success means to you and then writing it out as a goal in the present tense:

In 5 years, I am a_______________.

This is a powerful exercise that can inspire you to look for the opportunities and take actions that will make your goals a reality. And the research basis is that priming your brain to scan the world for positive opportunities enhances the likelihood that you will find those opportunities and make them happen.

5.    Consciously Engage in Acts of Service

Studies show that those who selflessly engage in acts of kindness experience less stress and better mental health.  Moreover, your brain cannot simultaneously feel fear and altruism so being of service can actually override fear!

Start to look for ways to be of service.  For musicians, this can mean a lot of things:

•    Dedicate your performance to a loved one;
•    Visualize your ideal audience member and play for him or her.;
•    Help your fellow performers shine in a rehearsal or in a performance;
•    Inspire your audience members who are new to music and change their world by introducing them to the wonders of music;
•    Be of service to the composer and bring out the best in his/her music;

Service can also take the form of little gestures:  opening doors, helping a elderly or disabled person to get on the bus or cross the street, treating a friend to coffee, or any other act of selfless kindness that resonate with you.

In order to cultivate this habit and reap the benefits of positive thinking, commit to 5 acts of kindness per day and be sure that you are making a conscious choice to be of service.  This way, you train your brain to think “service”!

By making a choice to cultivate positivity, you can begin to create the new habits and cultivate the mindset of positivity that is at the heart of success.