Psychology explains a counterintuitive link between happiness and success

Rational optimism may be the antidote to chronic stress.

Richard Schneider

It’s a cliche by this point that the path to happiness is paved by achievement: graduate from a top university, score the dream job, find eternal love, and retire early in a sunny beachfront town. But psychological research flips this conventional formula for happiness on its head. It turns out, positive external outcomes cause only fleeting happiness. However, daily habits that cultivate positive thinking and optimism create sustainable happiness.

“It's not about what I accomplish, the title on the door, or the house that I'm able to buy. It's really about this internal state that we can create, no matter where we're at in our lives,” Michelle Gielan, a positive psychologist and founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research, tells Inverse.

This week, Gielan outlines the four evidence-based tactics to get happier over the long term: practice gratitude, relive good memories, activate your social network, and break the tension at work. These actions don’t just strengthen mental health; they lead to tangible, meaningful performance gains.

“As we focus on the positive parts of our reality, it allows our brain to see that success is possible and good results are within reach,” Gielan says. “Ideas flow more easily, creativity skyrockets, and then positive results follow.”

I’m Ali Pattillo and this is Strategy, a series packed with actionable tips to help you make the most out of your life, career, and finances.

Disrupt negativity bias Before you can build happiness, you have to understand it. Based on positive psychology research, Gielan defines happiness as “the joy we feel growing toward our potential.”

“You can experience that happiness and joy in the midst of life's ups and downs. It really connects more with a sense of meaning about an experience than the fleeting happiness that you can get from buying something new or eating a chocolate bar.”

Unfortunately, our brains are wired toward negativity and constantly vigilant to threats in the environment, a tendency that hinders happiness. Across a wide array of situations, adults attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information, studies show.

Some scholars argue negativity bias serves a crucial evolutionary function, keeping us safe and out of harm’s way. It’s great if we're living out on the savanna where there might be animals attacking us, Gielan explains.

“It’s not so great if we're feeling threatened by someone walking down the hallway at work or constantly scanning our world for all the things that could go wrong.”

Negativity bias can frequently push humans into a fight-or-flight state, contributing to chronic stress. In a 2019 study conducted with Frost Bank, Gielan found that an antidote to this problem is actively cultivating an optimistic mindset. In the study, Gielan surveyed more than 2,000 Americans about their financial health, optimism levels, attitudes, and behaviors around money.

“At any point in our lives, we can change our brain. It just takes conscious attention.”

Optimists actually experienced better financial health than pessimists and engaged in healthier habits with their money. They also reported worrying about finances 145 fewer days each year as compared to pessimists who perhaps lean into their negativity bias.

After testing the optimism levels of hundreds of professionals across industries, Gielan and researcher Shawn Achor also found that people in the top quartile for optimism are 40 percent more likely to get promoted over the next year compared to their peers. They’re six times more likely to be highly engaged at work and five times less likely to burnout than pessimists.

Another study conducted on employees at MetLife Insurance Company shows optimistic sales professionals outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56 percent.

“When we consciously cultivate a more positive, optimistic, and resilient mindset, we fuel every single business and educational outcome that we know how to track,” Gielan says.

Optimistic thinking is even associated with less chronic disease and longer lifespans.

Happy people seem to get ahead professionally and personally, and luckily, the strategies for looking on the bright side aren’t rocket science.

How to become an optimist The key, Gielan explains, isn’t ignoring the negatives in our reality. It's not putting so much weight, time, and attention on them.

Gielan doesn’t advise common adages like "think your way to happiness," "just be positive," or any sort of “Polyannaish” views of the world.

It’s not about being blindly optimistic, but rationally optimistic, she says.

“Rational optimism is defined as being able to take a realistic assessment of the present moment while maintaining a belief that our behavior matters, especially in the face of challenges.”

People can practice rational optimism and build happiness with quick, daily interventions. Gielan recommends three strategies:

  1. Counting gratitudes: Take two minutes to write down three new and unique things you're grateful for from the past 24 hours, Gielan suggests. Write down what you're grateful for and explain why. Keep that habit up for 21 days.
  2. Time travel, for a moment: Each day, think about the most positive memory from the past 24 hours and then write down every detail you can remember about it for about two minutes. You're helping your brain to relive that positive memory while potentially doubling the number of meaningful moments in your day or more clearly cementing that memory in your mind, Gielan explains.
  3. Activate your social network: Write a two-minute note praising or thanking someone you know and try to make it a daily habit for a period of time, ideally 21 days. Social support is one of the strongest predictors of long-term levels of happiness that we have. These notes meaningfully activate our social support network and remind our brains of all the people who've loved and cared about us over the years, Gielan says.
  4. Break the tension: Before a big meeting or presentation, Gielan suggests focusing on past successes, watch a funny YouTube video, or scroll through pictures of loved ones. “The best thing you can do at the office is infuse it with bright, positive, happy moments,” she says. These easy, quick moments break tension and stress, helping you relax under pressure.

Mindsets are malleable at any age. Just two weeks of practicing gratitude lowered stress levels and helped elderly people “flourish,” or, essentially, become more optimistic.

“At any point in our lives, we can change our brain,” Gielan says. “It just takes conscious attention.”

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