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How the science of happiness could help you succeed

Does it ever seem like happiness and success are pie-in-the-sky notions? And that only a lucky few seem to have found both a great job and a happy life?

A new book suggests happiness and success aren't as elusive as they appear -- we may just be going about pursuing them in all the wrong ways.

In "The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success" (HarperCollins), Emma Seppälä says the ways we're taught to seek career success -- working long hours, persevering at all costs, and looking out for number one -- are "just plain wrong." In fact, those approaches actually discourage success and make us deeply unhappy, she says.


Seppälä, the science director at Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, talked with CBS News about what she's learned from studying happiness and success. She said people need to ditch old misconceptions about the definition of success, and she offered up some new ways to find peace and joy in our jobs and personal lives.

Q: So why are so many of us burned out by our jobs and life, basically unhappy?

A: People have the misconception that in order to be successful they have to sacrifice their happiness in the present moment. In the popular culture, we have these theories of success we live by -- that you can't have success without stress, that this is the price we have to pay, having anxiety.

We have accepted overextension as a way of life. We're so addicted to an adrenaline-fueled lifestyle.

Q: What are some outmoded notions about success that you describe in the book?

A: Some of the false theories about success that the book dismantles are the ideas that you can't have success without stress, that you should never stop accomplishing things, working until exhaustion, and staying continuously focused.

We're actually most creative when we're not focused -- there's neuroscience behind this. Really successful, creative people make time for idleness and take time completely off the grid.

Q: You write how focusing on our own personal success to the exclusion of others is bad for us. Can you explain?

A: There's a theory out that you have to look out for number one, that it's dog-eat-dog. But research shows that when you have a more altruistic and compassionate attitude, your team becomes more productive. Your well-being is better.

If you have a more altruistic way of interacting with people and become a leader who knows your employees, you have a more positive and more productive workplace. Success comes from caring for and being interested in and maintaining a responsibility for colleagues as friends. Offering kindness and compassion when others are struggling. Avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes. Let's remove that personal accusatory style.

If you have a boss who is more of a tyrant, you often are worse off. Medical research shows workers with difficult bosses have worse heart health.

Q: So we're not managing our adrenaline-fueled lifestyles very well, are we?

A: People go home at night and just to calm down they take medicines and drink. Then the next day, we get up and what do people do when they're tired, they drink more caffeine. We are whipping our nervous systems back and forth.

Q: Do you have experience working in high-stress, high-successful places?

A: Yes, I've seen it first hand. Over the last decade, I've spent time with highly successful people. I studied comparative literature at Yale, and attended Columbia and then Stanford. I worked with successful people in Paris, at a major international newspaper, and in New York, Shanghai, and Silicon Valley.

Q: How do people shift from the old paradigm of success to the new way you're suggesting, by pursuing happiness?

A: I offer strategies for attaining happiness and fulfillment that are actually the key to thriving professionally. Being in the moment instead of always thinking about what's next.

I was born in France. In Paris, where I worked as an intern at the newspaper, upstairs it was all overweight guys eating pizza out of boxes and working, but down in press room [where there were mostly French laborers] the mood was downright festive. They all laid out their food and relaxed and ate lunch.

French cafes -- what do you do in a French café? You sit for three hours. You can't even do take-out. There's timelessness.

Q: If your office or workplace doesn't allow much time for a relaxed lunch or lunch out, what are some other strategies to reduce stress and become happier?

A: There's only so much we can do about our environment. One thing we can do is have an impact on the state of our own mind -- how we're going to respond and recover. Manage our energy. Work on your resilience and self-compassion. These things make you stronger in environmental circumstances you can't control.

Be compassionate with yourself and understand that your brain is built to learn new things. Research shows that when you are excessively self-critical, you damage both your psychological well-being and your chances at success. Self-focus is linked to anxiety and depression and characterized by being overly-attentive to how people perceive you and yourself. It leads to this lack of social connection.

But self-compassion is about treating yourself as you would a friend. It's an attitude you have to have in moments of failure, performance, and evaluation. Make failure a learning experience.

Q: Where did your interest in studying happiness and success begin?

A: I first got involved in the topic of happiness when I saw elderly people in China who had lived through some of the most challenging times. They had so little, and yet they were happy. But here in the U.S., we have everything and we are unhappy. I came back and did a masters in East Asians studies. I read the cultural literature. I started looking at meditation -- a field that was just starting to emerge in a strong direction. I studied kindness meditation at Stanford.

Q: Do you put into practice some of the mindfulness techniques you've studied and have written about?

A: I integrate a lot of the things in the book into my life daily. I do breathing practices every day and have done so for years. They've helped me be resilient in very tough situations and they allow me every day to come back to a place of peace and resilience. I have the same amount of stress as other people. I work and I've been writing the book, and I have a baby and I haven't slept in a year. I do experience stress and have tons of demands thrown my way but I get over it very quickly. I notice there is that resilience factor, it does come into play.

On vacation, I completely plug out. On the weekend, I'm completely plugged out. After 5:30 or 6 p.m. on weeknights, I'm with my baby and there's dinner. I'm generally not on my anything. It's sacred time but also smart time and the opportunity to be present for my family. They're a great source of happiness, the source of my happiness.

Q: You've studied meditation and talk about the need for stillness and silence in life.

A: Silence, like activity, helps our brains develop. Meditation can help you cultivate a state of calm and quiet in your mind, displacing the cycle of desire and anxiety that comes with chasing the future.

Q: Hopefully, we can take some ideas from your book and find success through the pursuit of happiness.

A: Honestly, currently, what's happening is not working and there's going to have to be a shift.

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