How Can Leaders Find Happiness?
Pursuing happiness itself isn’t the answer.
Posted Sep 18, 2017
Can you live happier and be a better leader? According to Tal Ben-Shahar, co-author of The Joy of Leadership: How Positive Psychology Can Maximize Your Impact (and Make You Happier) in a Challenging World, happiness is the key to successful leadership—but just pursuing it isn’t going to get you there. Discover the SHARP model for a happier life, an easy way to beat procrastination, and the number one factor in predicting well-being. Listen here.
Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host, and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.
We have the good fortune today, to have with us Tal Ben-Shahar. He’s a sort of giant in the positive psychology world. He’s a speaker and an author. He wrote Happier. He wrote Choose the Life You Want. He’s recently gotten together with Angus Ridgeway, and together they’ve formed the company, Potential Life. It’s a leadership development organization.
The book that Tal and I are talking about today is The Joy of Leadership, which he wrote with Angus. How positive psychology can maximize your impact, and make you happier in a challenging world.
Tal, I want to go through the elements of the book. One of the foundations of this book is when Angus, who used to lead the strategy practice for McKenzie in Europe, the Middle East and Africa saw that there were great strategies, from his perspective, and that some got implemented by executives, and some didn’t. In his view, the difference between those leaders and organizations who were effective at implementing and executing strategy, and those that weren’t, was their leadership ability. Their ability to influence the thinking and activities of other people in order to achieve shared goals.
You weren’t necessarily involved in that research, but you’re obviously intimately aware of it. I’m wondering what it is that you saw in them, and this may just funnel into the conversation about the book, that really made the difference between them saying “Hey, here’s a great strategy, but somehow I’m not getting it accomplished” versus “this is what we’re executing and implementing.”
Tal: It’s very much about the mindset. What do we see our role as a leader? Jack Welch once said that he sees his role as being the secretary in his organization, reminding people to do things, and many people, many of us, or lay leaders, have a misconception of what leadership is about.
It’s about standing on Mount Sinai, or Mount Rushmore, and, basically, talking about the grand vision that you have, and then living happily ever after, or at least famously ever after. Whereas leadership is in the details, leadership is about executing. It’s about doing. It’s about having the mindset, and the humbleness to get your hands dirty, and to remind yourself, and others, what needs to be done.
Peter: It’s interesting because I think this might be a little departure, and then we’ll get back to it, the humbleness that you talk about. I know a lot of leaders who have it, but they also have along with that this very healthy dose of confidence. This paired combination of saying “I might have humility, but I also believe in myself, and I believe I can get stuff done, and I believe I can drive things.”
I’m wondering what you’ve seen in your research that allows people to have both of those because we all know humble people who don’t get anything done because they don’t believe in their own capacity to act. And we all know confident people who step over the line and go into arrogance, as opposed to just confidence. What’s that balance that you’ve seen?
Tal: It’s a balance that has to exist, and it’s a very hard act to actually implement. One of the things that Collins and Porras, in their book Built to Last, talk about is the importance of not succumbing to the tyranny of the or, but rather embracing the genius of the and, and I can think of no better example of where this genius of the and is necessarily, than in being confident and humble at the same time.
Again, it’s very hard. In my upbringing, one of the stories that always captured my imagination, from a very young age, was the story talking about how important it is for us to walk around with two pieces of paper in our pockets. In one pocket we need a piece of paper that says “For me, the world was created.” And in the second pocket, there has to be a piece of paper that says “I came from dust, and I shall return to dust.”
Peter: I love that.
Tal: Having these two pieces of paper is so important, because when you’re over confident, you need to go that pocket that says “I came from dust, and return from dust.” When you’re not confident enough, “For me, the world was created.”, and having that balance, and being able to simultaneously hold these two, seemingly, opposite extremes, is extremely important.
Peter: I love that. You say that at the core of the essence of leadership is personal flourishing, and that’s very much a foundation of the book and your belief. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Tal: Sure, there’s a lot of research, obviously, on the relationship between success and happiness, success and flourishing, and the research, basically, points to a very simple truth, that success does not contribute to happiness. You see many successful people who are not doing very well, psychologically speaking, and you see people who are not well of, financially, who are very happy, but there is a relationship between these two variables and a very important one.
It’s not that success leads to happiness, it’s rather that happiness leads to more success. What we see, is that if we arrange levels of wellbeing, even by a little bit, and we’re talking 3, 4, 5 percent, what you see, immediately, is that creativity innovation levels go up significantly. What you see is the teamwork in an organization improves. Relationships, in general, get better. What you see is that motivation levels go up, resilience levels. Being able to overcome difficulties. Physical health is actually enhanced. You see, all these factors that are improved, enhanced, when you increase levels of happiness.
Now, all these factors that I mentioned, whether it’s better relationships, better teamwork, whether it’s higher levels of innovation, creativity, being able to think outside the box, whether it’s higher levels of motivation, all these factors go hand-in-hand with great leadership, certainly today, in the 21st century.
When we increase flourishing, we also improve people’s performance as leaders.
Peter: It’s interesting, because on the one hand what you’re saying, which we know because you wrote the book on happiness so I’m going to believe you here, is that happiness leads to success. I’ve also heard, and I’m curious to get your perspective on this idea, is that the pursuit of happiness doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness.
Peter: Can you talk about that?
Tal: Yes, there’s a real paradox in this whole happiness field. On the one hand, as I mentioned, it’s good for us to increase levels of happiness, beyond the fact that it feels good to feel good, it also contributes to all these wonderful factors that we all want and crave.
At the same time, there’s research showing that people who directly pursue happiness are actually less happy, that it actually is associated with loneliness, with anxiety. What do we do with that? Do we fool ourselves and said “Well, I’m pursuing happiness, but not really.” That’s probably a difficult to do.
The answer or the resolution to this paradox is that we need to pursue happiness indirectly. Meaning, we know what contributes to happiness, so if I experience a more meaningful life, if I experience a sense of purpose at work, or in the context of my family, I’m happier.
If I exercise regularly, and take care of my body, i will be happier. If I cultivate my relationships, spend quality time with people I care about, and who care about me, that will contribute to happiness. If I engage my curiosity, if I’m open to experiences that will contribute to happiness, so if I pursued these things, they will indirectly lead me to happiness.
Just saying “I’m going to go for happiness.”, that really doesn’t help. The metaphor I like to use here is of sunshine. If I look directly at the sun, then it’s going to hurt my eyes. However, if I look indirectly at the rays of light, perhaps through a prism, then I’ll see and experience a beautiful rainbow.
Indirectly pursuing happiness is like observing, enjoying the rainbow.
Peter: I share this with you because I know a little bit about your background, but in Judaism this idea of Na’aseh V’Nishma, which is you just do first. You act first and then you notice the impact of that action later. I’ve always thought that to bean essence of Jewish practice which is here’s a whole bunch of practices that will lead to connection and religious engagement, but it’s the practice that gets it. It’s not just the intention.
Tal: This is, perhaps, the most important lesson when it comes to bringing about change. You see, when it comes to change, western philosophy had it wrong, and religion had it right. Socrates, the father of western philosophy 25 hundred years ago said “To know the good is to do the good.” “To know the good is to do the good.”
Now, Socrates was a smart person, but in this instance, he was wrong, very wrong in fact, because we all know, for instance, what we should eat, what is good for us, and yet we all sin, and eat things that we shouldn’t. We all know that we should always maintain our calm and composure, even when all around us have lost theirs, and yet we lose composure at times, later regretting it.
To know the good, is not necessarily to do the good. Now, religion had it right. Why? Because religion understood that you first have to do the good, and then you learn the good, and then you know the good. They turned this equation upside down, and today research is showing just how right this approach is.
We know that if we want to change neuro pathways in our brain that leads to lasting change, that we need rituals, just like in religion, to do something over, and over, and over again, and that’s how we change. That’s how we also, change, literally, not metaphorically, that’s how we also change our mind.
Peter: It reminds me of the story that Sylvia Boorstein, who’s a Buddhist teacher and writer, shared with me where she was with her, I think, 4-year-old grandson, and they’d walked up to this temple. There were a number of big stairs to go up to these big, huge, wooden doors, and her grandson held her back, and she said: "What’s the matter?” He says “I don’t like those stairs” And her response was “Oh honey, you don’t have to like the stairs, you just have to climb them.”
I think this is actually profound for leaders who often spend a tremendous amount of time trying to convince people of what they should do, when instead, maybe the winning formula is to just say “Here’s what we’re doing. We could talk about why afterwards. You may need to know enough about why so that you feel like you’re willing to do it, but you just have to do it, even if you don’t like it, and we’ll see the impact of it afterwards.”
It’s a little hard to get away with that as a leader because everybody has free will and they might just cross their arms and say “I’m not doing it.” But in a sense, the motivation and the drive comes after the action and not before, which is another one of those ironic conundrums.
Tal: As you were telling that story, I was thinking of research on procrastination. Over 80 percent of the people see themselves as procrastinators. It hurts our well being, obviously, pushing things off, and one of the main characteristics of procrastinators is their belief that in order to do something, you really need to want to do something.
Whereas, those who don’t procrastinate say “Okay, you know, I want to, I don’t want to. I’m going to do it anyway.”, and very often, with the doing, also comes the motivation. It’s not motivation leads to doing. It’s rather doing leads to motivation.
Peter: Actually, at the moment of motivation, you don’t actually need that much motivation. I went on this bike ride that was in the rain and it was cold. It was an amazing ride for about 20 miles, and when I came back, someone in our apartment building looked at me, and I was muddy and wet and he said “Wow, you’re really motivated to go out in this stuff.” And I thought “You know, I only needed 30 seconds of motivation. I needed to walk out into the rain and start pedaling.”
10 miles in I wasn’t thinking “Oh, this is dumb. I should go back.” I mean, I was 10 miles in. I had to go back 10 miles. You don’t need motivation every second. When you sit down to write, once you’re writing, you’re writing. You don’t need to be continually motivated, but you might need motivation for those three minutes when you open the computer, sit down in your chair and write the first few sentences.
Tal: That’s exactly right, and you know, in procrastination researchers talk about the five minute take off technique, which is exactly that. Just sit down for those first five minutes, or go on that ride for five minutes, and usually, more often than not, it then becomes self perpetuating.
Peter: Right, it’s great. You have a SHARP model in this book which is strengths, health, absorption, relationships, and purpose. It all leads to this profound, flourishing, leadership. Can you give us a sentence or two about each, and then we can explore a little bit more in depth?
Tal: Sure, what Angus Ridgeway and I wanted to do was identify the areas, or the unique characteristics of great leaders in today’s world, and we identified these five elements as not the only ones, but the ones that account for most of the variance. The ones that explain most of what distinguishes the best from the rest.
The first one is strength, and that is about focusing primarily, not only but primarily, on the things that we’re good at, and the things that we’re passionate about. There’s much more return on investment, return on effort when we focus on strength.
Second, it’s about health. It’s about learning to manage our energy. Learning to deal with stress. Eating more healthfully, exercising, of course, on a regular basis. Then we have absorption. Absorption is about being mindful, being engaged, being present. This is so critical in today’s world, where we’re disengaged. We’re a distracted society with so many distractions all around us, so absorption is important.
The R of SHARP is for relationships. Your relationships is the number one predictor of well being. No surprise, it’s also one of the best predictors of leadership, our ability to engage in both positive and authentic relationships, and finally it’s about a sense of purpose. Having a sense of meaning in work, at work, being connected to what it is that we’re doing.
Peter: I have a question for you around this. As I’m listening to it, and it’s not a question I’ve got written down, but it got triggered when you said “We found these five things.” I’ve at this point, for the podcast, probably interviewed a hundred and something people, and so many different people have these research based”Here’s the six things. Here’s the 10 things. This is what we know. This is the difference between star performers and average performers.”I’m asking you this, not as a challenge but as a colleague in this space.
I don’t even know exactly what the question is, except that there are so many different views, research based views, on “Here’s what I have seen distinguishes”, and I’m just wondering what your perspective is on that, because I imagine you would have a good one, and you’re very research based as well?
Tal: If you look at a lot of research that finds, you know, the three things, the five things, the ten things, there is a lot of overlap in that field, and this is one of the things that we talk about in the book. We’re not about reinventing the wheel.
We’re simply about taking what’s out there and synthesizing it in an accessible way, because the real challenge of change is not the knowing, it’s the doing, and what will contribute to doing is having something that is accessible, and can be implemented with relative ease.
A lot of these models, you know, the five things, ten things, you will find there are overlaps there. Yes, once in awhile someone pushes the boundary, and introduces a new concept, a new idea, that hasn’t been introduced before, but that’s quite rare. Our book synthesizes rather than invents.
Peter: Great, so let’s go through each of these. Again, just for a few minutes, with the focus on the implementation and the execution, because I think that’s a theme throughout the book. It’s a theme in this conversation. It’s a theme in my work.
Starting with strengths, we all know it. I will stand up in front of an audience of a thousand people and say “How many of you have a performance review?” and everyone would raise their hand and I’ll say “How many of you have we don’t even call them weaknesses, we call them areas for development. It’s not a weakness, it’s almost a strength. It’s about to be a strength, don’t worry. Give me a couple of minutes, it’ll be a strength.
Then I’ll say “Raise your hand if that thing, in some language or other, has been there for the past 10 years?” And everybody raises their hand, so there’s an acknowledgement that I’ve got these weaknesses, and I’m probably not, maybe I’ll go from a C to a C plus, but I’m not going to go from a C to an A. I’m not going to be widely successful because I have gotten so good in my weakness.
And yet it is almost impossible to get away from trying to develop the thing that we’re not strong in, and the messages that people give us in performance reviews or in feedback, where everything focuses on not what can I do better than I’m already really great at. It’s how do you fix those things that you’re kinda miserable at.
I’m wondering what it takes to change that philosophy, or that mindset, or our own internal compass that says “I want to get better”?
Tal: First of all, it’s something that’s really embedded in us from a very young age. In school, you have a kid who’s, say, very good at mathematics, and not so good when it comes to language skills, and what was the focus? It was language skills, because mathematics, he’ll be fine. He won’t need to worry about that.
Peter: By the way you speak English very, very well.
Tal: Thank you, took me years to master. The challenge is, how do we get out of that mindset that we’ve inherited from our past? Easier said than done. The way to do it is also to think about sports.
I was recruited for squash when I went to college. The football coach didn’t even see me. Why? Because I’m 5’7″, and scrawny, and in sports, it wouldn’t even cross your mind to come to someone and said “Well, you should really bulk up so that you can become...” No, play squash. Play to your strength.
The thing though is, and this is important, when we’re talking about focusing on strength, we’re not talking about ignoring weaknesses, and that is why many people are afraid of going in the strength based approach, in that direction, because they are thinking “But, you know, I’m not good with people. I need to work on that. How can I become a manager, and only focus on my strategic thinking abilities?”
Well, Peter Drucker said it best, as he often did. He said “You need to focus on your strength, while managing your weaknesses.”, and that’s important. It’s not about ignoring. Again, we get to the genius of the and. You need to learn to manage your strength, and then focus, sorry, manage your weaknesses, and then focus on your strength.
Peter: I often think of it as mitigating the negative impact of your weaknesses and so it might be not even getting better at it, it might be delegating, but there’s some negative impact, and you gotta avoid that negative impact in whatever way you’re going to.
I might be too quick in saying this, but I think health explains itself, which is if you’re not healthy, if you’re not getting enough sleep, if you’re not eating right, if you’re not coming with your full energy to the work that you do, you’re going to falter as a leader.
Tal: Absolutely, and I’d just like to point out one thing that is important to emphasize, and that is our relationship with stress. Historically, a relationship with stress has been a negative one. You know, stress is bad. Stress leads to chronic disease, it leads to death, it leads to suboptimal performance, and so on. Well today, more and more we’re seeing through research is that stress, properly managed, is actually good for us.
I always give the analogy of going to the gym, and lifting weights. You know, when we’re lifting weights, we’re stressing the muscles. Not a bad thing, that’s how they develop. The problem is when we don’t provide time for recovery, that’s when we get hurt.
It’s not the stress, it’s the absence of recovery. This is something that Jim, Laura, and Tony Schwartz talk about in The Power of Full Engagement, so this is something that we emphasize. Stress is great, it’s important. Learn to manage it with recovery, and that’s when you maximize, that’s when you improve your performance.
Peter: Right, you talk about this distinction, which I know Jim and Tony do too, that we’re not in a marathon, we’re in a series of sprints. What I’m seeing increasingly, is people are running their sprints without an interval. Interval training is run as fast as you can and then recover, even if it’s for 10 seconds, and I don’t see us stopping for 10 seconds. We’re just running sprint after sprint after sprint.
Tal: And we’re paying the price. Just like physically, you would get injured, you would get exhausted, psychologically, mentally. That is what we see all around us.
Peter: So here’s my question about absorption. What I find often is that absorption is like happiness, which is it’s great when you’re there, but the pursuit of absorption is precisely the thing that can get in the way of absorption because you’re never really fully in that space. How do you get around that conundrum?
Tal: The nice thing about absorption is that it’s accessible, literally, at every moment in our life. It’s simply about returning to present. I love this, there’s a wonderful book by a Vietnamese, Tibetan monk called The Joy of Living, I believe, and what he talks about there are oops moments, where he says, you know, “Meditation is not about focusing all the time. It’s about returning to focus, and the oops moments are oops I just lost my concentration. Let me return to it. Oops I lost it again.”
This is the essence of meditation, and therefore, the more oops moments we have the better it is. Once again, it’s like exercising a muscle, returning to presence.
Peter: I’ve heard that with meditation. And the beautiful thing about that moment is, you may be in the past, or in the future, or you may be worrying, or you may be any number of things in your head, but the moment you recognize it, that’s the moment that you’re completely present. Meaning, you can’t recognize it unless you’re in the now. That moment, in my meditation, has always been very special for me, like when you discover the oops.
Tal: That’s right, and what’s important to understand also, about that moment, is that it’s accessible when you’re sitting down and meditating. It’s also accessible when you’re sitting down and listening to a conversation, or you’re participating in a meeting, so it’s accessible anywhere and anytime.
Peter: Let me ask listeners in this moment, what are you doing right now? Are you just listening to Tal and I have this conversation or are you doing something else at the same time?Is that something else distracting you from being fully present to what you’re listening to and the charm that exists between Tal and I? Are you really fully present to this conversation or doing something else? Just an oops check in, let’s say.
Relationships. You talk about authenticity and positivity, and I love that, and I think that’s so true in my moments of freedom, connection and relationships. What I also notice is the exact opposite, fear and vulnerability, that often prevents us from getting to that place. That we’re worried about fear and vulnerability and the risks, the lack of safety, and the fear of our history that we read as current.
We mistake history for reality. It’s very hard for people to get close in relationships and be committed and connected in those relationships for fear of vulnerability, which is specifically what would get in the way of that authenticity and positivity.
Tal: Correct, and being vulnerable, again, there’s wonderful work on this by Brené Brown. We pay a price for being vulnerable. We get hurt. At the same time, the price that we pay when we’re not authentic is a great deal higher, and it’s inevitable.
So many relationships, and here I’m talking about relationships at work, or a romantic relationships, or relationships with our kids. The number one predictor of long term success of relationships is our ability to be real, to be genuine within them, with all the costs thereof, and again, being authentic doesn’t mean being thoughtless, or it doesn’t mean having zero guards on.
You know, on a first date, you wouldn’t be able to be as vulnerable. You shouldn’t be as vulnerable and open as you are after 20 years of a relationship, but the aim should always be how can we reach higher and higher levels of authenticity, and in order to do that we need to open ourselves up gradually.
Peter: What it does is gives confidence to taking that risk. To say “You know, if I’m going to really say what I’m feeling in this situation then it feels important.” Meaning if I don’t say it I’m going to be walked over. If I don’t say it, we’re going to lose an opportunity here. Not being heartless or mean, but saying something that feels important to me. If I don’t say it for fear of the risk that I might lose the relationship for not saying it then that is already an indication that it probably needs to be said because it means you’re not showing up in the relationship in a way in which both of you will reap the benefits of really being in a relationship. It’s worth risking whatever that loss is in order to take a stab at having something real and authentic.
Tal: Yes, because not taking that risk is an inevitable loss.
Peter: Right, your final point, the key point in terms of living a purposeful life, and there’s something I really loved about how you framed this, which is that the focus of goals is to think of them as means and not as ends. That a lot of people can misinterpret the idea of purpose, life, in terms of just focusing 100% on the goals. Can you just talk a minute or two on that?
Tal: Sure, we go back to the beginning of our conversation when we talk about the relationship between success and happiness. Many people believe that becoming happier is about achieving that goal, achieving that milestone, getting that raise, getting into that school, or getting that job. Whereas, what we know is that, at best, achieving a goal leads to temporary well being, to a spike in our levels of well being, and then we go back to where we were before.
The path to happiness is not through the achievement of goals. However, at the same time, this is not to say that goals are not important, because if we do not have goals, then we are at the risk of being all over the place, being distracted, and not being able to be engaged, and present, so we need goals in order to liberate us to enjoy the here and now.
For example, if I know that I’m heading in this direction, and I want to reach the peak of that mountain. Once I know where I’m going, I can let go, and I can enjoy the process. If I know that I’m working on a book, I have that in mind. I want this book out. Now I can let go, and just focus on the present, which is writing.
Whereas, if I didn’t have a goal, I would, very often, wake up not having a sense of direction, not having a sense of purpose, and that would lead to unhappiness.
Peter: In a sense the goal of writing the book is what gets you to then say “Okay, even if I’m not particularly feeling it right now, or if I’m not particularly in the moment, I’m going to sit down, and I’m going to write for my five minutes to get myself motivated, and hopefully, I’ll stay for an hour and a half and get some good writing done.” Without that goal, you probably would never have to take the seat but the goal itself can help us move out of the “I’m just going to do what feels good in this moment” to “I’m going to do what moves me with a sense of purpose to achieve things that I want to achieve.”
Hopefully, in a way that leverages my strengths. That helps me to stay healthy and uses my energy in the way that will be strongest for me. That allows me to be absorbed and I’m not entirely sure how to intertwine relationships in there, but it’s gotta be in there somewhere.
Tal: Well, it’s in there if a relationship is important for you. It’s a goal. It’s an objective for us, and therefore, even through difficult times, we go through it. Nietzsche once said “If you have a what for, every how becomes possible.” If you have a what for, an important goal, an objective, you’re more resilient.
Peter: And there’s very, very little that I can think of that one can actually achieve with purpose that doesn’t involve relationships in some way in order to achieve it. We just don’t live in an isolated world in that particular way.
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