A recent study found that happiness among Americans has dipped to its lowest point in half a century. It’s no surprise since 2020 has packed a punch for many of us. There has been upheaval and uncertainty in nearly all aspects of our lives.
But in my work as a career and leadership coach, I see every day that there are two potent ingredients to living a happier, more successful and rewarding life even amidst uncertain times, and those are expanded bravery and power. According to my research and my recent Power Gaps Survey, 98% of professional women are facing at least one of the 7 damaging power gaps that keep us from thriving at our highest level in our work. The research has shown that when we expand our bravery—which in my view is the courage to address what isn’t working and take accountability for what you can change—and when we consciously and intentionally build more internal and external power to become a true change agent for ourselves and for others—then happiness and other aspects of our well-being and success (financial, emotional, physical, spiritual, etc.) expand as well.
Gielan began analyzing data on individual and collective happiness at the University of Pennsylvania more than a decade ago, and has since worked with professionals at organizations including Google, Merck, and NASA on how to strengthen a resilient mindset in the midst of challenges. Her research shows higher levels of optimism and resilience are connected with better health and business outcomes, including greater energy, productivity, and profitability, as well as better financial health, according to recent research Gielan conducted with Frost Bank.
To learn more about how key shifts in our mindset can improve your financial well-being and happiness, I spoke with Gielan about what we can all do in the midst of continued, unprecedented uncertainty, to achieve more peace and happiness.
Here’s what Gielan shared:
Kathy Caprino: Michelle, you and I met soon after you had left your job at CBS News as the host of the CBS Morning News. During your time there, one of the biggest stories you covered was the Great Recession. Now we are seeing a similar economic downturn, which is surely contributing to our overall unhappiness. Money is on everyone’s mind. A new study you conducted can give those who are worried about finances some relief from financial stress during this time. What did you find?
This year, we conducted research to understand how we can leverage key behaviors of optimists to help people improve their financial discussions. Our study found those who talk about money (largely optimists) are twice as likely to have better financial health. We also found that while nearly all optimists (94%) talk about their finances at some point in their lives, pessimists are 3 times more likely than optimists to never discuss their finances. Pessimists think the conversations are unhelpful, and they often feel upset, dumb, ashamed, judged and guilty. That follows right along with our definition of optimism and pessimism. Optimists expect good things to happen and believe that their behavior matters, including having conversations about money.
Caprino: While the study identified roadblocks for pessimists, it also found actions of optimists that can help overcome challenges. Is that right?
Gielan: That’s absolutely right. While pessimists tend to get caught up in challenges of their current situation, optimists put one foot in front of the other and work toward their goals. For example, in the Frost study, optimists gave us a picture of their ideal conversation: short and sweet, aspirational and complete with goals, and with people we trust.
Optimists are also two and a half times less likely to monopolize a conversation, opting instead for more open-ended and inclusive conversations. Leaving room for others to share their perspective allows for productive financial conversations and approaching conversations with optimism encourages people to turn challenges into opportunities. This applies to other conversations and aspects of our personal well-being, beyond money.
Caprino: This is good to know, as money is clearly not the only stressor Americans are facing these days. Tell us about another study mentioned that found happiness at its lowest levels in 50 years. While that’s not necessarily surprising amid the pandemic, you say it points to something even more important?
Gielan: It does. The study found only 14% of Americans consider themselves “very happy,” which is less than half of what it was in 2018. Happiness being low now is to be expected, but this is not a trend that started in February. We have witnessed a steady decline in happiness for decades, even during times of financial prosperity and less political strife. I am concerned we are going to collectively keep trending in this direction, even when the pandemic is over.
Caprino: If it’s not the pandemic alone that has been the cause, in your research what have you found to be the main thieves of joy?
Gielan: The answer to that is far from simple. In our work with professionals at hundreds of organizations, we’ve found it to be a combination of a handful of reasons including negativity on social media, longer work hours , social isolation and loneliness, overscheduled kids, leaving vacation days on the table, and not enough time for meaningful social connection. I know for my own life, when I am running around too much, hurrying from one activity or project to the next, days are a blur at best.
Caprino: One thing I find very interesting is that there are many people in the midst of this pandemic (including many of my clients and course members) who indicate that they’re very or somewhat happy right now, and that can be an uncomfortable place to find oneself, especially when others are suffering. They’ve discussed how the shifts they’ve experienced because of sheltering at home and working remotely have yielded some true positives in their lives, but they’re very careful in sharing that with friends and try to be sensitive to what other people are experiencing as so many families are suffering right now. How do we hold both of those truths at the same time?
Gielan: What you’re describing is what some people have admitted to me almost like they are telling me a dirty little secret, and I totally get it. Even if life is not perfect, there have been these beautiful moments during this period of time. I’ve experienced a lot of them myself. I became a teacher to our 6-year-old son basically overnight—which was not always easy—but it brought with it all these blessings. We set up “Hogwarts Academy” to bring him the magic of the world, complete with a gratitude practice first thing in the morning.
I got to know a new dimension of my child and see the world through his eyes. It’s hard to reconcile that joy with news of suffering from hospital wards and in families around the world. When I feel that tension, I think to myself, how can I leverage this positive mindset to help others? Negative news tricks your brain into paralysis and overwhelm as you start to believe behavior doesn’t matter. Taking action reminds us we have control over the world in some ways, and we can make a difference.
Caprino: So with people struggling very hard today—to balance what’s on their plates, deal with their financial and job worries and the uncertainty of so much—when is it appropriate to start talking about happiness more openly, especially at work?
Gielan: I say right now. Leaders not having those conversations are fiscally irresponsible. My husband and fellow happiness researcher Shawn Achor and I just shared a case study in Harvard Business Review on our work with an organization that prioritizes happiness. Genesis Healthcare, alongside our partner training organization ITLN, implemented work routines that created happiness, fueled connection and encouraged positive expressivity at work. Following the implementation of these new interventions, Genesis Medical Center-Davenport achieved profitability during the first part of 2019, moving from an operating loss of $2M to a profit of $8M.
Right now I am leading a happiness challenge with 30,000 college students in AT&T’s “Extern” program. It could sound like a “cute” idea to do with students before they hit the working world, but these are the kinds of tools that will scientifically prepare them for any bumps in the road ahead.
Caprino: It’s interesting how connected optimism, happiness and control are with one another. I talk about this in my upcoming bookThe Most Powerful You, but can you share more about what your research has revealed about how the more we take the reins and control what we can in our lives and work—especially now when it feels like things are a bit out of control—is a key to happiness? And can you offer a few key tips to help us grab those reins on our life and work?
Gielan: Absolutely! Here are five small steps you can take starting today:
Start a conversation: In a time when much is out of our control, we can control our thoughts and actions, and they’re proven to make a difference. While a pessimist might choose to navigate challenges alone, optimists tend to strike a conversation with the people they’re most comfortable talking to. For example, 67% of optimists are most comfortable talking to people around the same age or those with about the same amount of money as them.
Seek progress, not perfection: Don’t put pressure on yourself to be perfect, especially in today’s world. We’re all working toward individual goals, and the research I did with Frost shows that optimists take time to celebrate the small victories, leading up to major milestones.
Get aspirational: Optimists are more likely than pessimists to focus on setting and achieving goals. In fact, the Frost study found that when dealing with finances, 58% of optimists have conversations that are goal related and half believe going into a financial discussion with goals in mind makes them most productive. It’s important look beyond the current situation and work toward long-term aspirations.
Expect the unexpected: Optimists don’t anticipate bad things will happen, but they’re more likely to have a plan in place should the unexpected surface. Take the pandemic for instance. Optimists tend to have a rough plan in place, such as an emergency fund, that would help navigate the repercussions of an unexpected event.
Find perspective: Optimists are 2.5 times less likely to monopolize a conversation. Listening to the perspective of others allows a person to expand their mindset and learn from the success of others.
In the end, the happiest among us see the meaning in the work they do, feel connected to other people, and see potential each day to make things better—in whatever aspect of their lives. The more we exercise that control through small acts, the more we remind our brains that our behavior matters—the very definition of optimism. And the more optimism you cultivate for yourself, the more it expands.
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