Success Doesn’t Need to Be Strenuous – Here’s How

In her new book The Happiness Track, author Emma Seppälä presents a compelling argument that happiness is the key to fast tracking professional and personal success. If you want to accelerate your success, try slowing down by using any or all of the straightforward techniques Emma recommends in this excerpt.

Step Out of Overdrive: An Excerpt from The Happiness Track

Where do we get this notion that stress is both an essential requirement for, and an inevitable by-product of, success? Our culture idealizes professions that involve high pressure—from TV shows about emergency room doctors working in the most intense situations and busy lawyers running from case to case, to books and articles celebrating extraordinary CEOs and entrepreneurs who run major companies, volunteering on boards for charitable causes, and still managing to help their kids with homework.

Our culture also values persevering to attain our goals, and fighting to outperform others—all of which involve some form of stress. The idea of being a go-getter involves straining, pushing, and competing. When people successfully complete a project, reach a goal, or master a feat, the slang expressions to congratulate them are “you killed it” or “you destroyed it”; forcefulness is part of our understanding of success. As a consequence, we value intensity, which inherently involves physiological stress.

In fact, success is popularly equated with aggressiveness. Research conducted at Stanford with psychology professor Jeanne Tsai shows that, in the United States, when we are in a situation in which we want to influence others, we value high intensity positive emotions like excitement (as opposed to low-intensity emotions like calm). Why? Because we believe such emotions will make us more influential. In a study in which we assigned participants to be either leaders or followers, we found that those in leadership roles automatically wanted to feel more high-intensity positive emotions. However, emotions like excitement—despite being positive—activate our physiology’s stress response due to their intensity. In other words, even the positive emotions that we want to feel in order to be successful are inherently stress-inducing and taxing on the body.

The idea that stress and success are inevitably intertwined has become so ingrained in our culture and work habits that we take pride in our stress levels. We brag about how much we have on our plates or the length of our to-do lists. We boast about the craziness of our schedules. We advertise how little sleep we’ve gotten and that we haven’t taken a vacation in years. We may not like to feel stressed, but we wear it like a badge of honor. We seem to think that the more stress we experience—and hopefully endure—the more successful we will be.

Science shows that this drive-and-stress theory of success—though so widely accepted— backfires in the long run. Stress in small doses or spurts can help us perform at our best and might even help us achieve a short-term goal. Because of this positive effect, many people feel that stress has worked for them in the past, and therefore they conclude it’s necessary all the time. However, over time, chronic stress is the number one enemy of success. It depletes us and weakens the cognitive skills we most need. Far from helping us accomplish more, it can be a major obstacle.

If you have a fast-paced life, slowing down may seem like a challenge. We’re so used to running around and being addicted to the “speed” of life that making this shift to a slower gear seems down right foreign. However, you can learn to tap into your natural resilience. Consciously make time for calming activities. They are vital to your nervous system and well-being. Schedule them into your other top priorities, like taking a shower or brushing your teeth. We usually emphasize habits that make us look and feel good on the outside (grooming ourselves, putting on makeup, showering, and so on), but forget to do the same for what makes us feel good on the inside.

When you slow down, you may experience anxiety because you are so used to operating at a faster pace. This is normal—just go with it. Here are a few ways you can start.

Take a Breath. Your breath is with you all the time; it’s the most accessible tool you have, and it’s invisible. You can practice breathing for well-being no matter where you are, without anyone noticing. At a board meeting that is getting contentious, or when your child is throwing a temper tantrum in the backseat, or when you’re exhausted and still have hours of work ahead, take a breather.

The most basic way to develop a relationship with your breath is to take a few minutes, each day, to close your eyes and bring your total attention to your breath. Notice whether it is fast or slow, deep or shallow.

Soon enough, thanks to this practice, you will begin to notice that your breathing shifts with your feelings and emotions during the day. For example, you will naturally take a deep breath during challenging times or find that your breath quickens with anxiety or anger. As you become more aware of your breath, you’ll also start to gain more control over it and your feelings in the moment. Thanks to that awareness, when you feel fear coming on, for example, you may notice your breath speeding up and becoming shallower. At that point you can consciously slow it down and breathe into your abdomen to relax. With practice, you will know to take deep and slow belly breaths whenever you encounter a challenging situation.

Ease into Your Body. Although I highly recommend breathing practices as a daily routine, there are also other ways to balance your nervous system. These activities slow down your thoughts and bring ease to your body and nervous system:

Go for a walk. Studies have shown that a simple walk in nature (as opposed to an urban environment) can significantly decrease anxiety, preserve positive mood, and even improve memory. This benefit is not restricted to country dwellers alone. If you live in a city, choose a park or a tree-lined street. Even just looking at photographs of greenery for 40 seconds can give you a boost and increase your attention levels. Moreover, nature can inspire an experience of awe at the view of a landscape. Research on awe, which is often inspired by beautiful natural sceneries like a starlit sky or a vast horizon, suggests that it slows our perception of time (which is the opposite of what happens with stress) by bringing us into the present moment, and thereby enhances well-being and decreases stress.

Take care of your body. As a result of our distracted lifestyle, we often don’t listen to our bodies, or we try to compensate for the stress we feel with habits that harm our health. We eat the wrong foods, drink, stay up too late, and forget to exercise—or we over-exercise. We forget that physical well-being influences mental and emotional well-being. We don’t realize that the way we treat our bodies influences our stress levels and determines whether we are able to tap into our natural resilience. As anyone who has started a healthy diet or exercise regimen knows, when we start to take care of the body, we naturally feel better, and with a positive state of mind, our whole outlook on life changes.

Engage in slow-paced activities. If running is your way to relieve stress—as healthy as that is—try also including slower-paced exercise into your schedule. Look for activities that don’t involve too much intensity and strain. If you usually go for an intense hot yoga or a power yoga class, instead try yin yoga or restorative yoga or tai chi. Select an activity that is deliberately slow and doesn’t involve much effort.

Hug a loved one. Although it often seems that our schedules are too busy for spending time with friends or family, other than a quick catch-up call in the car on the way to work, it’s worth it to carve out opportunities to be in the presence of loved ones and share physical affection. One study even showed that hugs are associated with lower stress and stress-related health problems.

Whether you opt for breathing classes or other soothing activities, these practices all build upon themselves. Just like going to the gym, it takes repetition and daily commitment before you see a shift in your nervous system. By tapping into your natural resilience through calming exercises that activate the rest-and-digest part of your nervous system, you can learn to reduce stress and accomplish more than you ever thought possible.

Emma Seppälä, Ph.D., is the science director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, and a leading expert on health psychology, well-being, and resilience. She is a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today, Huffington Post, and Scientific American Mind. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Fulfillment Daily, a news site dedicated to the science of happiness.

Adapted from THE HAPPINESS TRACK: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. Copyright ©2016 by Emma Seppälä, published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.