Everything Happens for a Reason But Seeing Why is not always Easy

by Grace UengSavvy Growth

After my article on corporate flourishing was published earlier this year, I was asked for more thoughts on Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor, a teaching assistant for the most popular course of all time at Harvard taught by Tal Ben-Shahar, my current teacher. This book was part of my year long literature review of positive psychology research, which started for personal reasons, then crossed over into my professional coaching work.

In the last 50 years, the mean onset age of depression dropped from 29.5 to 14.5 years old. Depression rates today are ten times higher than they were in 1960. 50% of the population will suffer from depression at some point in their life. A 2010 Conference Board survey found only 45% of workers surveyed were happy at their job, the lowest in 22 years of polling.

What can we do to change this phenomena?

1. Impact of our Explanatory Style

A dear friend, one of Savvy’s first business partners, underwent unexpected triple bypass surgery at the start of this year. I sent him The Happiness Advantage thinking it would be a good recovery read. Achor talks about how explanatory style – how we choose to explain the nature of past events – has a crucial impact on our happiness and future success and even on how well people recover after coronary bypass surgery.

After successful surgery, my friend was back in the hospital multiple times for issues completely unrelated to his coronary procedure, rather caused by infections that his medical team were struggling to find an antibiotic that would properly address. The in-home nursing and home-care required over many months were complex to say the least. I am inspired by how my friend describes the chain of events leading to his current situation and his stunningly positive outlook; I am thankful this attitude is serving his healing well.

2. Power of Mindset

What we spend our time and mental energy focusing on will indeed become our reality. The power of mindset shapes reality. Hence, Carol Dweck’s entire book by this title.

Dr. Marcel Kinsbourne, a neuroscientist at the New School for Social Research in NYC, explains that our expectations create brain patterns that can be just as real as those created by events in the real world. When I moved to NYC to work for Sports Illustrated in my early 20s, I enrolled in evening classes at this same school, the New School for Social Research, taking journalistic writing classes. I had the dream of becoming a writer someday. I went to Harvard Business School instead of pursuing a journalism career, as I thought I was supposed to be the practical daughter since my sister chose to be a musician. I always wanted to eventually be a writer, and through very gritty, hard work in positive psychology and much more, I now am flourishing into learning to be an author.

Achor also shares the impact of the placebo effect. Placebos are 55-60% as effective as most active medications like aspirin and codeine for controlling pain. The simple change in mindset – a belief that they are taking an actual drug – is powerful enough to make the symptom go away. Savvy’s coaching practice leverages “visualization” exercises, taking advantage of how the brain operates to create our future realities.

3. Pygmalion Effect

Our belief in another person’s potential brings that potential to life. Achor cites research that shows when teachers were told 3 students were exceptional, that just this belief led them to unwittingly and nonverbally communicate their belief in the students’ potential. At the end of the year, all students were tested and the 3 students posted off the chart intellectual ability. In reality, at the start, they were just the same as the others in their class! Think about if we had this belief in our employees or children, what potential we could help create.

A decade ago, I was invited to interview for a Fortune 50 board seat, a company with $30B in revenues. I ended up as one of the two final candidates. When the chairman called me to say that they realized they would be doing a disservice by having my first public board seat be such a ‘big’ one, and he would like to be a reference for a ‘smaller’ public board opportunities, I thought “that makes sense.”

When I recounted this story recently to a friend who had been CEO of a public company, he wholeheartedly disagreed, and said that I could have added immediate value. His encouragement was similar to that of the Fortune 50’s board member who was aging out, became my sponsor, and said that the reason I advanced so far to become one of the 2 finalists was, “your depth of entrepreneurial experience that would bring a different voice to the boardroom table.” But that supportive statement was drowned out by that of the chairman’s comments in his call of what I lacked.  It’s good to have people who believe in you. It can make the difference in reaching or not reaching your full potential.

4. Social Support Network

The greatest predictor of success and happiness. Relationship with your boss or what Daniel Goleman termed a ‘vertical couple’ is the most important social bond you can create at work. Open workspaces have become more widespread as they support the swapping of stories and building collaboration with colleagues.

Like stock portfolios, social support networks grow stronger the longer they are held. Relationships, a critical part part of happiness, take hard work, built over time. The most worthwhile investment. I had breakfast recently with a dear friend in town from the west coast, as she was in town to say goodbye to her east coast team, employees of the company she had founded. 12 years ago, she became a client. We worked together for many years through her exit, and while the work was rewarding, her friendship through the years is what is most precious.

5. Little can be Big

Barbara Fredrickson’s Love 2.0 emphasizes micro-moments, small bursts of positivity. Sprinkled throughout the day, and performed habitually over time, has been shown to help permanently raise our happiness baseline.

What money has not been found to do.

While it takes practice, meditation, practiced regularly, has been proven to be one of the most powerful happiness interventions. Though it’s admittedly a struggle to maintain this practice every day, I have my meditation cushion, yoga mat, and meditation app ready to go each evening, even if just for a couple of minutes. It’s the small bursts that matter.

6. Look for the best, rather than the worse

Our coaching practice focuses on strengths (click to take survey for free). Remind yourself of the relevant skills you have, rather than those you lack. Since our brains only retain one in every 100 pieces of information we receive, we tend to miss what we’re not looking for.

Studies have shown that lawyers are 3.6x more likely to suffer from major depressive disorder. The Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law, and Ethics explains: “Law schools teach students to look for flaws in arguments, and they train them to be critical rather than accepting.”

Finance has never been a strength of mine. When I returned to Bain after being a summer intern, they called to ask what client/industry I had interest in being placed. I thought, what is my weakness, what subject area should I improve? So I replied, ‘financial services.’ While my case manager and I were a productive ‘vertical couple’ and we remain in touch to this day, the financial services client was not leveraging my strengths. My summer intern assignment was a fun, global consumer products client where I was asked to explore new sectors for them to enter. Consumer and ‘new’ being two strength areas, brought out the best in me.

7. Being Open

Success is almost entirely predicated on your ability to spot and then capitalize on opportunities in front of you. 69% of students report that their career decisions depended on chance encounters. In my book, I share the synchronicities in my life. My mantra is that everything happens for a reason. But it is also up to us to be open, watch, listen, and learn.

I so admire Sheryl Sandberg. Not only because of how she inspired me with Lean In. But how she is so real in what she does. She immediately responded the times I’ve written her, even sending a Facebook t-shirt to me and my son. After Dave passed away suddenly, I was so saddened as I had met him decades earlier when my Bain classmate was his roommate back in LA. She had served as an inspiration to me not just in business, but personally as well. Having found her soulmate in her remarriage, she inspired in me hope. I could so feel her pain, when I read her devastating news.

I also have benefitted from Adam Grant’s Give and Take. A long time Savvy client is an investor in a company co-owned by Adam, which I have advised. When I listened to Sheryl’s Berkeley commencement address, it just made sense how Adam’s positive psychology work is now helping her.

Being open can also save your life. My friend who went in recently for the unexpected triple bypass surgery said that a chance conversation at the ice hockey rink with another player who had had similar symptoms led him to go and check his situation out. His bias for action resulted in his being on the operating table just a few hours later. He said that if he had not had that chance conversation, he would not be here to share his story with me today.

About the Author, Grace W. Ueng

The biggest mountain I’m climbing now is Project Peak. I’m combining stories of interesting entrepreneurs I meet, my story, and the key tenets of positive psychology research to inspire readers to climb their own mountains. We all have our own mountains to climb, and this is what drives us.

I founded Savvy Marketing Group in 2003 and rebranded to Savvy Growth last year to reflect our management consulting & executive and team coaching services, in addition to our long standing marketing services.

Click here for information on Executive Coaching.

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We also speak and give workshops on Project Peak – inspiring team members to climb their mountains.

Savvy’s passion is working closely with our clients as long term partners to help you reach your goals. Nothing makes us happier than having you come back to say thank you, that we made a significant impact on you individually and your business!

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