Find Happiness at Work and Home

Research scientist Emma Seppälä shows us how it's done.

Birds chirp and a horse whinnies as Emma Seppälä, research scientist and author of The Happiness Track, speaks into the phone. “Nature is my self-care,” she says.

The topic of self-care is a subject Emma has devoted much time to as a writer, the science director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and co-director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project. Emma is also founder and editor-in-chief of Fulfillment Daily, a site dedicated to the science of happiness, and has been asked to talk at companies like Google, Apple and Facebook on how to instill happiness in the workplace. It doesn’t stop there—her work and insights on the matter have been featured in The Atlantic, Vogue and Forbes.

She’s just the person to prove that you can still be highly successful and happy at the same time. As a mom of a toddler with a baby on the way, Emma debunks the notion that you have to sacrifice your happiness in order to achieve success.

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“When I looked at the data, I saw that this was not true,” she says. “If we take time for self-care and to be happier, we’re actually going to be more charismatic, more productive, more creative, more influential.”

Growing up in France, people believed in taking advantage of life and working less (30-hour workweeks, holidays off) and yet, Emma noticed, they were still grumpy. When she moved to the U.S., she saw that people appeared happier but worked themselves to the ground, and were not actually truly content. In the her first year as a graduate student at Stanford, three students committed suicide. She then lived in China for a couple of years, where she observed people who were really poor and struggling pragmatically, smile through it all.

“I realized that you don’t have to have anything to be happy and, at the same time, you can have everything and not be happy,” she says.

That’s where her research began. According to Emma, in the U.S., we’re influenced by the Puritan work ethic, the idea that you have to prove your worth through your work. While that creates a productive and innovative country as a world leader, people are suffering and feel like they are their work. The phrase “I am what I do” never rang more true. People’s first question upon meeting another is usually, “What do you do?” 

To live a more full, happy life in your career and at home, follow Emma’s tips below.

1. Practice breathing

I did research with veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who had post-traumatic stress disorder and a breathing intervention actually lowered and normalized their anxiety. If breathing worked for those who are severely stressed, it will work for anyone manageably stressed. The breathing technique I researched is called Sudarshan Kriya offered through a nonprofit called Art of Living. When you’re very upset, it’s really hard to think your way out of it. You’re already lost in a train of thought that’s not working. I advise breathing because it calms your nervous system, changes your physiology and that can be helpful in the moment. If you’re mildly upset, think about the things you’re grateful for. Research shows three times more positive things happen to us every day than negative, yet we’re focused on the one negative thing.

2. Spark your creativity with self-care

We’ve come to believe that we can only be productive if we’re stressed, which is completely false. We overschedule ourselves, drink too much caffeine and eat too much sugar. What we’re doing is activating our fight or flight response. By getting another cup of coffee, you’re jacking up your heart rate and blood pressure. Doing that day after day, taxes your immune system which is more likely to cause you to get sick and increases inflammation in the body which is linked to so many diseases. It’s a drug like anything else and leads to addiction and withdrawal. However, if you’re in a calmer place, you’re going to make better decisions, you’re going to be more emotionally intelligent, and more creative. Creativity kicks in when we are in a space of relaxation. Think about how many times people say, “I got that idea in the shower.”

3. Engage in acts of service

Look for ways to do something for others. It's proven that when you’re more compassionate and service-oriented, you are much happier over the long term. This also improves health, wellbeing, longevity and recovery from disease. One study showed that in a group of people who had been through traumatic life events (which usually shortens your lifespan), a subgroup of those people went on to live long lives—these were the people who were actively involved in community service.

4. Be there for your colleagues

We often think we have to compete, sink or swim, but by being there for your colleagues in a personal way, by being kind and friendly, you’ll be happier at work, the people around you will be happier and get this—you’ll probably be more successful. Data shows you’re more likely to get promoted and hired into other positions.

5. Use your time wisely

Think about how you waste your time. What productive things can you do with that time instead? Leave your phone at your desk and go out for a five-minute walk or sit and do a meditation. My favorite app is Sattva because it also has chants. Use the moments you have every day wisely. Are you watching some trashy TV program that isn’t making you feel any happier or are you taking a bath? Are you reading a book that transports you to somewhere that always improves your mood? Are you catching up with a friend?

6. Realize that the lows make you appreciate the highs

In other cultures, there’s this understanding that happiness and sadness go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. If you never felt down, you wouldn’t know what it’s like to feel up. If we don’t have those moments in our lives when we’re really low, we can’t appreciate the highs. The suffering in our lives brings us lessons and hopefully helps us seek out wisdom.