The Happiness Track by Emma Seppälä (Book Summary)
The Happiness Track by Emma Seppälä is a short read that teaches us how to reach success without sacrificing our health, friendships, and happiness.
The book shows how common myths about success – never stop accomplishing, sacrifice the today for tomorrow, stress is inevitable for success, you need to hustle and grind it out – lead to burnout, misery, and failure rather than true success and fulfillment.
What’s Emma Seppälä’s alternative prescription for success? It’s all about slowing down, connecting with the present moment, and cultivating positive mind states such as kindness, (self-)compassion, and gratitude.
It’s all about using happiness in the Now as the path towards success in the future. In her own words: “Decades of research have shown that happiness is not the outcome of success but rather its precursor.
I enjoyed the book a lot – it’s simple, quick and easy to read, and backed by the latest research. Plus, it strongly resembles my personal philosophy of success – I am much more productive when I slow down, give time to mindfulness, and put my attention as fully as possible on the present moment.
Who Is The Happiness Track For?
- Anyone interested in being happy and successful simultaneously
- Anyone interested in becoming more productive
- Anyone interested in the psychological research of happiness, success, and productivity
1. Hustling, Grinding, and Chasing the Future Doesn’t Work
Are you overly focused on achievement, striving to exceed your goals, and playing catch-up with your ambitious to-do list?
Are you always running after the next task before even finishing the last one? Is your mind constantly obsessed with work? Do you often find yourself asking, “What am I doing right now to be more successful?”
If you’re anything like me, you can identify with this type of “chase,” “hustle,” or “Go-Getter” mentality.
The only problem? Constantly trying to get things done and focusing on the next thing doesn’t work. In fact, it ironically prevents us from being as successful as we want to be while wreaking havoc on our body and mind.
“Many studies show that the workaholic or successaholic chase can be detrimental on a number of levels:
Health. It is linked to lower levels of physical and psychological health. In particular, it is associated with burnout, emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and depersonalization (a disturbing sense of dissociation from yourself that accompanies prolonged stress or trauma). It is also linked to lower overall life satisfaction.
Work. It can – counterintuitively perhaps – damage productivity and performance. It has been linked to lower job satisfaction and increased job stress, which reduce productivity by, for example, reducing attention span. This should come as no surprise. If you continuously focused on the next thing you need to accomplish, only part of your attention is directed toward your present activity.
Relationships. At work, constantly focusing on achievement can increase negative interactions with co-workers, leading to competitiveness, rivavlry, and distrust, which further lead to counterproductive work behavior. In personal relationships, it is linked to higher levels of work-life conflict, reduced family satisfaction and functioning, and relationship problems with your spouses.
Most of us have been thoroughly conditioned to believe in this approach. And we just keep going whether it works or not. (As just proven… it usually doesn’t work.)
Fortunately, there’s a better way…
2. The Benefits of Being Present
“Paradoxically, slowing down and focusing on what is happening in front of you right now – being present instead of always having your mind on the next thing – will make you much more successful. Expressions like ‘live in the moment’ or ‘carpe diem’ sound like clichés, yet science backs them up robustly. Research shows that remaining present – rather than constantly focusing on what you have to do next – will make you more productive and happier and, moreover, will give you that elusive quality we attribute to the most successful people: charisma.”
Being present – as opposed to chasing the future – is what makes us happy and successful.
While there are many benefits to being present, Emma Seppälä focuses on the following three:
- Being present makes you more productive. Multitasking and trying to get a hundred things done at the same time doesn’t work. Instead, productivity is maximized through single-tasking and fully immersing yourself in whatever task you are engaged in.
- Being present makes you happier. Research shows that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. On the other hand, being fully immersed in an activity – no matter how trite or boring it may seem – makes us enjoy it and boosts happiness.
- Being present makes you more charismatic. This is a rather obvious one. If you meet someone at a party whose eyes are constantly flitting around the room, do they appear magnetic, charming, charismatic? Probably not. On the other hand, someone who is completely attentive to you and actively engaged in the conversation, who won’t check their cell phone when it’s ringing… now that’s charismatic!
Bottom line: Being present makes you more productive, happier, charismatic, and generally better and more successful person. Time to slow down, buddy!
3. How to Bring Your Mind Into the Present
“When you notice that your mind is going toward future-oriented thoughts, you can choose not to follow the train of thought – instead, you can nudge your mind back into the present. Let’s say you are working at your desk, playing with your child, or having dinner with your spouse, and you notice that your mind is somewhere else. Of course, this isn’t the first time your mind has wandered away from the present, but when you first consciously observe this pattern, it can be a little disturbing. Your might have thoughts like ‘Wow, here I am with my loved ones and I can’t focus on them.’ But this awareness is key. Try reorienting your attention fully on what is going on in front of you. This exercise is not easy at first, but, like working a muscle, you can strengthen your ability to stay present by repeating this exercise.”
Yeah, so this is the trouble with being present… it’s very, very hard. Because we are so used to being lost in our thoughts and seem to keep ourselves busy all the time, we hardly ever realize that we’re not actually paying attention to the present moment.
We just don’t remember to be present. Frankly, we lack the necessary awareness to realize we’re not being present at any given moment. If you are new to this whole present-to-the-moment thing, meditation, mindfulness, and what not, you may only realize it once or twice a day. That’s normal.
When you do realize it, please don’t get upset, sad, or disappointed about the fact that you’ve been distracted. Instead, don’t lose any time and bring your mind right into the here and now. Fully inhabit your experience. Be totally alert. Pay attention to what’s going on. That’s what being present means.
And if all of this sounds weird to you, check out our summaries on mindfulness and meditation books. Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh or Awareness by Osho might be a good start.
5. The #1 Way to Learn the Art of Presence?
“Meditation can help you cultivate a state of calm and quiet in your mind, displacing the cycle of desire and anxiety that comes with chasing the future. Research shows that experienced meditators have less brain activity in areas related to mind-wandering.”
In a blog post of hers, Emma Seppälä sums up the research-backed benefits of meditation as follows:
- It boosts your health by increasing immune function, decreasing pain, and decreasing inflammation at the cellular level.
- It boosts your happiness by increasing positive emotion, decreasing depression, decreasing anxiety, and decreasing stress.
- It boosts your social life by increasing social connection and emotional intelligence, making you more compassionate, and making you feel less lonely.
- It boosts your self-control by improving your ability to regulate your emotions and improving your ability to introspect.
- It literally changes your brain for the better by increasing grey matter, increasing volume in areas related to emotion regulation, positive emotions and self-control, and increasing cortical thickness in areas related to paying attention.
- It improves your productivity by increasing your focus and attention, improving your ability to multitask, improving memory, and improving your ability to be creative and think outside the box.
She also mentions another pretty cool study in the book:
“One study showed that meditation can actually buffer against the tiring effects of self-control. The researchers replicated Baumeister’s classic experiment: participants completed a task that depleted their self-control, then worked on a second challenging task. If their self-control was drained from the first task, they typically should do worse or give up more easily on the second task. In this study, the difference was that some of the participants meditated between the tasks while others did not. The scientists found that the meditating participants performed as well on the second task as participants who had not completed the first task at all. Meditation therefore appears to be a useful tool to recharge your tank and prevent depletion after challenging tasks requiring self-control.”
We’ve known that meditation boosts willpower in the long-run for a while now (read about it here). But I had no clue that it had such a positive effect after just a few minutes.
Bottom line: If you’re not meditating yet, you’re missing out. Check out our beginner’s guide for help on getting started.
4. Multitasking Is a Bad Idea
“When we are doing several things at once, we cannot deeply process the material we are working on. Research shows that multitasking harms your memory. In one study, university students who had their laptops open during a lecture ended up scoring worse on traditional memory tests for lecture content than students who had their laptops closed. Research also shows that our concentration skills weaken because we lose our ability to filter our unnecessary information and are therefore constantly thinking about other things.”
Unfortunately, most of us have lost the ability to stay in the present. We maintain a packed schedule with very few breaks and fill every moment of free time with multitasking.
Not only does multitasking harm our performance (e.g., our memory and concentration), but it’s also harming our well-being. There’s a study in the book showing that the more people engage in media multitasking, the higher their anxiety and depression levels tend to be.
If you think about it, that’s not too surprising. If you’re constantly being pulled in ten different directions, it’s only natural that you start feeling stressed out and overwhelmed.
Thankfully, being present comes to the rescue once again. Instead of scattering our attention, we should focus all of it on the present moment, specifically on the task we’re working on right now. This is single-tasking and it makes you a lot more productive:
“Research shows that when we are completely in tune with what we are doing, we more fully enjoy that activity. Moreover, being completely present allows us to enter a state of complete absorption that is extremely productive. Think of a time when you were faced with a project you were dreading. You knew it would involve a lot of effort; maybe you kept putting it off. However, once you started – perhaps finally egged on by an impending deadline – you become engaged and the project just flowed. You found that you actually enjoyed the process. You became highly productive because you focused completely on the task at hand. Instead of being stressed about the future and having your attention pulled in different directions, you got the work done and done well, and you were happy to boot.”
6. Calmness Is the Key to Effortless Self-Control
“We exercise self-control countless times during a regular workday (and in the evenings too!), and it’s exhausting us. When we experience high-intensity emotions like excitement or stress, we need extra self-control, because physiological arousal adds one more element to control. For example, your heart is pounding with anxiety over a presentation you have to make, and then you have to exert control not only over your words as you deliver your message, but also over your body so that you don’t stutter or lose your train of thought.
Calm states are the key to effortless self-control. Staying calm helps you be present with the task in which you are engaged, making it easier to avoid distractions. Paying attention happens naturally without any need for self-control.”
Self-Control matters. As we’ve mentioned multiple times in our articles, it’s literally the #1 predictor of happiness, health, wealth, and overall success in life.
And calmness, it turns out, is the key to effortless self-control.
Why is that? It’s because the physiology of calm and the physiology of self-control go very well together. In fact, they are one and the same. When you’re calm, heart rate variability is maximized, your limbic system is minimally activated, and the prefrontal cortex (the seat of willpower) is fully online.
When you’re aroused through high-intensity positive emotions (e.g., excitement) or more likely through high-intensity negative emotions (e.g., anger or anxiety), your physiology shifts into a more impulsive and primitive state. Heart rate variability goes down, the limbic system goes into overdrive, and the prefrontal cortex goes offline. Goodbye willpower!
The point is, feeling calm is the optimal state for self-control. And self-control is incredibly important for living a happy, healthy, and successful life.
So, how do you cultivate this state of calmness? So that it becomes more automatic and natural in your life? Basically, anything that activates your parasympathetic nervous system will do the job. This involves activities such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, stretching classes, or relaxation exercises.
In addition to that, it helps to learn how to manage stress in your life. Stress – whether emotional or physical – activates the sympathetic nervous system and tends to take you out of a state of calmness. Guess what the best stress management strategies are? Meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, stretching, relaxation exercises… so yeah, just get started with meditation already.
Oh, and one other way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and cultivate a state of calm is the practice of breathing…
(Learn more about willpower in our summaries of The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal or Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.)
7. The Power of Breathing
“According to Stephen Porges, professor at the University of North Carolina and distinguished university scientist at Indiana University Bloomington, one reason slow breathing has an immediate effect is that it activates the vagus nerve—the tenth cranial nerve, which is linked to our heart, lungs, and digestive system—and thus slows down the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and adrenal systems. In so doing, it rapidly calms us down. And with a calm mind, we handle situations more effectively. Porges explains that abdominal breathing—using the diaphragm—is particularly beneficial, as are lengthened exhales. Exhales slow the heart rate; the longer we spend on the outbreath, the more the nervous systems relaxes. In this way, exhales activate our parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) system, coaxing greater relaxation into our bodies and minds and helping us feel more peaceful. By controlling your breathing, you can use a voluntary mechanical behavior to make a profound change on your state of mind.
So what does that mean for us? We can use our breath whenever we experience a stressful event. It is an incredible tool that is accessible to you anytime and anywhere—whether it is in an interview you are nervous about, an interaction that is upsetting, or a big public talk.”
What’s the fastest way to change your state of mind? What’s the fastest way to switch your body from sympathetic dominance into a more calm and relaxed state?
One to two minutes of slow and deep breathing can do wonders if you’re feeling stressed, agitated, or overwhelmed.
And by slowing down your mind and body, it puts you back into that state of effortless self-control. In fact, Kelly McGonigal, an expert in all things willpower, mentions in her book The Willpower Instinct that the breath is pretty much the only quick fix to more self-control.
So, next time you’re in need of some willpower or are feeling stressed out, just take a moment or two to slow down your breathing to four to six breaths a minute. For example, try breathing in to a count of four and breathing out to a count of eight.
Oh, and while we’re talking about stress, next up is something you want to avoid…
8. Toughing It Out Doesn’t Work
“When we feel anxious and can’t talk our way out of stressful thoughts, we often end up suppressing emotions. We put on a poker face and ‘suck it up.’ Research by Stanford psychologist James Gross demonstrates that attempting to suppress emotions (by not showing our emotion) leads to the opposite of what we want. By trying to hide emotions, we actually manifest them more strongly physiologically. For example, anger or stress increase the heart rate and make your palms sweat. Suppressing these emotions increases their physiological impact. In fact, it even impacts the physiology of whoever you are talking with by raising their heart level! Suppressing negative emotions on a regular basis actually makes people experience more negative emotions and less positive emotions. Individuals who tend to suppress have lower self-esteem, optimism, and well-being and higher rates of depression as well as impaired memory. Suppression negatively impacts their relationships and social life.”
This research comes out of a field called emotion regulation. I learned about it in the great book Your Brain at Work by David Rock. Researchers in this field have found that negative emotions can have a detrimental effect on our health, performance, and general well-being and they’re trying to figure out how best to deal with those negative emotions.
One way of dealing with them is suppression – as we just learned, a bad idea. So, what should you do next time you’re feeling angry, sad, anxious, or otherwise bad? There are several strategies that work, but the easiest one is to just label the feeling.
You just say to yourself, “Oh, that’s anger.” Or, “Oh, I’m feeling a bit sad.”
You label the negative emotion. While this may not sound very helpful, it actually is. The reason it works is because it creates a distance between you and the emotion. You’re not so identified with it anymore and thus less reactive to it. In addition to that, labeling emotions has been shown to activate the prefrontal cortex – the seat of your willpower and other cognitive processes.
I can’t go into details here. But next time you’re experiencing negative emotions, don’t try to suppress them – it doesn’t work, anyway. Instead, accept them and put a label on them. And then go about your normal life.
9. Practice Gratitude to Boost Well-Being and Strengthen Professional Skills
“Research supports the idea that gratitude has tremendous benefits; gratitude not only boosts your well-being but also significantly strengthens professional skills.
Grater physiological well-being and health: improved positive emotion, longer-lasting positive emotion, buffering against stress and negativity, decreased anxiety and depression, reduced materialism (and materialism is linked to lower levels of well-being), improved sleep quality and duration, in part because you have more grateful thoughts before you go to sleep.
Improved professional skills: higher social intelligence, improved relationships, likeability (gratitude makes you a kinder, more altruistic, moral, and ethical person), strengthened willpower, better long-term decision making, increased positive influence on others, who become more ethical and act with greater integrity and greater kindness.”
Some people call gratitude the most powerful human emotion that exists. Whether that’s true or not is debatable. The fact that it is indeed powerful and highly beneficial is not.
Check out Robert Emmons’ book Thanks! (summary here) to find out more about the science of gratitude and how to apply it in your own life. The easiest way to get started with cultivating more gratitude in your life is to keep a so-called gratitude journal, in which you write down 3-5 things you’re grateful for every day. Yup, that’s all it takes!
10. Self-Compassion, NOT Self-Criticism Helps You Thrive
We talked about success myths at the beginning of this article. Here’s another common one: You need to be critical of yourself and push yourself hard to reach high levels of success.
The research shows something else:
“Self-compassion – as opposed to self-criticism – helps people thrive and is associated with a host of benefits:
- Greater psychological well-being
- Less anxiety, depression, and stress
- More happiness, optimism, curiosity, creativity, and positive emotions
- Better health
- Lower cellular inflammation in response to stress
- Reduced cortisol (a stress-related hormone)
- Increased heart rate variability, a physiological marker associated with the ability to bounce back faster from stressful situations
- Improved professional and personal skills
- Stronger motivation
- Better relationships with other people
- Reduced fear of failure and greater willingness to try again
- Enhanced willpower
- Greater perspective and reduced tendency to become overwhelmed during times of struggle
I’ve written about this stuff countless times. If you want greater happiness and success, you need to let go of self-criticism and choose self-compassion.
To get started, I suggest checking out some of my articles on the topic. Here's one explaining why self-compassion makes you more successful than self-criticism. Here's one on how self-compassion helps us overcome procrastination. And here's a book summary of Kristin Neff's book of the same title.
If you enjoyed this book, you’ll likely enjoy other books on psychology, productivity, and the science of happiness. Some recommendations:
- The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. Very similar premise to this book: Sacrificing happiness for success doesn’t work. Instead, be happy now and use it to become more successful.
- Give and Take by Adam Grant. Another book on success based on sound psychological science. Shows how being a giver rather than a taker helps you succeed.
- Deep Work by Cal Newport. A book on the science of productivity. Deep work is about maximizing productivity through single-tasking, shunning distractions, and working with as much concentration as you can muster.
And if you want more summaries like this one, check out Blinkist for instant access to 2,000+ summaries of the best nonfiction and self-help books ever.
Thanks for Reading
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Thank you for your excellent detailed review, I’m greatly appreciative. I teach a Senior College (a division of the University of Maine for over 50 people) course on Humor, Happiness and Health which is always oversubscribed. I will be sharing your review with my students.
LOVE it, Elcha. Thank you.