I facilitate a workshop (soon to become an e-book) called “Ten Things Leaders Can’t Do.” First on the list is that leaders can’t make everyone happy. I often ask my classes why this is true. People typically shout out several answers, but the primary reason is because happiness has a lot to do with individual choice. As a leader, you can’t control anyone’s emotions, particularly his or her happiness. Only the individual person has power over themselves and their emotions. Some people are going to be happy no matter what; others have made the opposite decision. Leaders, meanwhile, jump through more hoops than a Barnum & Bailey circus performer trying to make folks happy.

The science of psychology has a history of studying unhappy people. The hope is that if we can understand why people are unhappy, we can figure out what the prescription should be to help them become happy. About 10 years ago, there was a shift to studying happy people — the science of positive psychology. One habit that’s almost automatic for happy people is that they look for a gift or a blessing in the face of adversity. This persistence keeps them from being off their game for any extended period of time. We all have setbacks, things that bring our mood down, but if we learn to bounce back quicker, we’re happier and our performance improves over time.

Let me introduce you to the 10-50-40 rule on happiness developed by Sonja Kyubomirsky. 50 percent of your happiness comes from your genetic predisposition. Your happy set point comes from your parents and, generally, what level of happiness they displayed as you were growing up under their care. 10 percent of your happiness is because of your current circumstances. We have learned this is called hedonic adaptation — the human tendency to become satisfied in our circumstances. New salary levels, new cars, and new homes make us happy for a while, and then we recede backward. This is why even people in Hawaii go on vacation. The last 40 percent of your happiness is a result of the things you’re doing to be happy. This means that a huge amount of your happiness comes from the chase of things you think are going to make you happy. In reality, once you achieve them, you recede back to your base happiness level and need a new challenge. Very seldom does the destination change you as much as the journey to get there.

With that journey in mind, here are seven best practices my executive clients use to stay happy and productive.

  1. Always be on a mission. Research shows the more you can set a mission for your life and career, the more optimistic and happy you will be. When you’re living out of something that’s exciting, like the future, you become more joyful. Especially as you get into your mature years, you have to make your future more important than your past.
  2. Develop a strong social network. Work at nurturing your relationships. Don’t let social anxiety or introversion prevent you from making and developing friends.
  3. Keep working physically. Move and work your body on a daily basis. Make a serious commitment to getting into the gym. Have a workout program. Do a daily walk.
  4. Practice gratitude on purpose. I had a client group who wrote down five things they were grateful for five times a week over 10 weeks. What they learned most was that practicing gratitude on a habitual basis would make you more happy and optimistic.
  5. Take time to savor life. People maintain their high happiness levels because they consciously live in the moment and enjoy life’s simple pleasures, like a cup of coffee or a scenic trail. Remember, the things that get scheduled are the things that get done.
  6. Make a commitment to helping others. The folks who have been able to elevate and maintain their happiness levels often volunteer to help those in need. Your life will be defined and increased by what you have given.
  7. Be committed to growth. You’ll be happiest when you grow on a consistent basis. Go voyaging — do some things you’ve never done so you can be who you want to be.


Tony Richards is an organizational and executive development expert and CEO of Clear Vision Development Group, a leadership and strategy firm in Columbia, Missouri. He is one of Inc. magazine’s top 100 leadership speakers and thinkers. His firm’s website is www.clearvisiondevelopment.com. Follow Tony on Twitter @tonyrichards4.

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