I want to make a confession: the recent emphasis in business books, articles, workshops etc. on “discovering our purpose” has rubbed me the wrong way. Reading Caroline Webb’s How to Have a Good Day, helped to clarify exactly what was missing, for me, in the discussion of “purpose.” Here goes: As important, if not more important, than having clarity about one’s bigger purpose, is creating the conditions for living in a way that ensures that we have good days.
The research suggests that good lives are very much an extension of good days—experiencing positive emotions in our daily lives. I also want to suggest that this is a critical finding for leaders.
Webb’s book is a wonderful (and fairly exhaustive) exploration of research in psychology, neuroscience and economics, and what we can learn from this research about how to create good days. This includes days that are more productive, more collaborative, more peaceful, and more intentional. She shares a myriad of great ideas—I’ve already adopted a few and am thrilled with the results. Thanks to Webb, my to-do lists are more manageable and I have a much better structure for setting intentions for each day.
Implicit in Webb’s book is an idea that is at the root of the work done by Barbara Fredrickson, a positive psychologist best known for Positivity and Love 2.0. Fredrickson focuses on the power of positive emotions—the big idea in her work is that positive emotion has a “broaden and build” effect. What this means is that the more we experience positive emotions, the greater our capacity to respond, to challenge, and the more resilient we become.
Research shows that resilience is directly linked with happiness. And, it’s important to note that we’re talking about actually experiencing positive emotions (feeling good), rather than not experiencing or avoiding negative emotions.
The more positive emotions we experience, the better we can handle the negative things that happen and the negative emotions we have. Positive emotion literally changes our minds. As Fredrickson writes: “Positive emotions orient our physiology, attention and cognition away from short-term personal survival and towards cumulative long-term benefits.”
One of my favorite studies by Fredrickson and her colleagues is described in a paper titled Happiness Unpacked (hint: reading Fredrickson is a great way to increase positive emotion). The study explores the impact of day-to-day positive emotions on resilience (and thus, on happiness)—as compared to more general “life satisfaction” (”Life satisfaction” can be seen as a cousin to “life purpose”). It turns out that positive emotions predict happiness better than life satisfaction—and that positive emotion leads to life satisfaction, not the other way around.
In other words, positive emotions are more predictive of resilience and happiness than what you think about your life in general.
As the authors write: “Participants who experienced frequent positive emotions became more satisfied not simply because they were enjoying themselves, but because they built resources that help deal with a wide range of life’s challenges.”
Which brings us back to Caroline Webb and having a good day. If we focus on our days—how we start the day, setting intentions, managing our work so we aren’t overwhelmed by it, dealing with our emotions as they arise, noticing what is going well—all things that we can learn to do—we will increase our store of positive emotion, becoming more resilient, and happier. Ultimately, we will be more satisfied and feel a greater sense of purpose in our lives. If, as leaders, we listen more to others, intentionally collaborate, practice kindness and gratitude, make an effort to be present with our teams, and notice people’s strengths, we will not only grow our own happiness, but help others becoming more resilient and happier. We also know that our emotions are contagious. Just by being happier and more positive, we’ll spread that positivity to our teams.
We now know just how important employee engagement is to business results. The data just keeps getting stronger. If we, as leaders, work to build teams of people who are having better days, filled with more positive emotion, the results will include teams that work better together, are more engaged, and deliver better results. The path from good days to powerful results is surprisingly direct.
To have a good life—and be an effective leader—a great place to start is by working on the quality of each day—one practice at a time. Webb’s book is a great resource for getting started. The great news is that it’s not that hard to do.