I’m actually from the Bay Area. I’m going to take a quick poll first. Do you feel you know how to sustain your own personal happiness in your life? I’ve been touring the world now since the book came out to talk about delivering happiness, and every time I ask this question, no matter where I am in the world, an average of about 1 to 5 percent of people raise their hand.
I thought that was so interesting because here we are pretty advanced. We have all this technology at our hands. We have so many sacrifices for us to benefit from. Yet, as a global society, we are unhappy. Happiness is not a new thing. It’s been around. Aristotle, around 300 BC, was talking about it as the aim of our existence, the purpose of our life. It’s written in our constitution. Yet here, as a society, we are overall unable to sustain happiness over time.
Take these real-world examples. [visual] We have Renee in the upper right corner. She just received her financial statement from Merrill Lynch thinking, You know, I thought if I saved for my 401(k), I’d be a happy person. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. We have John in the lower left who just got laid off from a job he never liked anyway.
I’d like you ask this question: What are your own personal goals in life? If you think about this, no matter who you ask, no matter what your answer is: I want to get healthier; I want to raise a family; I want to create a company. No matter what it is, if you ask yourself why enough times, it usually goes back to the same thing, that universal thing we call happiness. So it’s interesting.
When I talk about happiness, I talk about the science of it. The science says we, as humans, are hardwired to seek happiness, yet we’re super bad about figuring that out long term. We all hear about lottery winners, right? Their happiness level is supposed to zoom up, but in reality, it either stays the same or goes lower. What’s also interesting is that the inverse is true. People that lose their sight or the use of their limbs, their happiness level sometimes actually goes up. This all goes to say that we, as humans, are really bad at predicting what can create that long-term happiness.
So I started reflecting on my own life because I find it so ironic. Here I am talking to you, talking to people around the world about happiness because I was not that happy-go-lucky kid. I was the one in high school with the Walkman on listening to the Cure, reading books such as The Stranger by Albert Camus, in French. Can’t get more glum than that. And thinking about all these existential questions such as, Why are we here? What am I doing? What is this all for?
So I started thinking about my own history, and it landed me at Cal. I’m Asian American, and in that kind of household, there are three quintessential things to be successful in life. Number one is to become a doctor or lawyer, number two is to get into a good school, and number three is to learn a variety of musical instruments. So for me, I thought I was successful, in my parents’ eyes at least. I got into Cal-Berkeley. I was studying premed, and I had several years of piano under my belt. But when I started studying premed, I figured this actually was not for me. So I started wandering, and I stumbled on something called Asian American Studies. I was so impassioned by this because I had no idea about myself, about my ancestors, about who I am. So I decided to major in it, and I picked up the phone and called my parents. You can probably predict this next scene.
They completely freaked out. They said, “Are you serious? We’re working all these jobs for you and your brother. We’re sacrificing all these things for opportunities that we did not have. Your great, great, great, great grandparents sailed the Pacific Ocean in a boat and almost died so you can study yourself?” I was like, Darn, they are really good at this guilt thing. But I stood my ground. I majored in it, and I graduated. And I remember the exact moment I realized what they were talking about. I couldn’t find a job. It was my turn to freak out.
I started cold calling every company I knew, and luckily for me it was really timing. The Internet was born, and I became an Internet consultant at KPMG almost overnight. You know the story of the first dotcom. It was just amazing. The money, title, and status were just thrown in my lap the next day. You know the end of that story too. The dotcom busted, and I got laid off. And all of a sudden the money, title, and status were gone, and I felt like the ultimate loser. Not just because I lost my job, but because all those things I thought were so meaningful—money, title, status—meant nothing at all.
What I realized at that point was that I was trying to avoid the question I should’ve be asking myself all my life, which was What am I going to do without the fear of failure? So that’s when I decided to do something, to climb a mountain, Mt. Kilimanjaro. Because I knew I didn’t want to go back to the world I came from, but I didn’t exactly know where I wanted to go.
That’s when Tony and I (Tony is the CEO of Zappos.com) climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. I had just lost my job. He had just sold his first company, LinkExchange, to Microsoft for about $250 million. So you can imagine us climbing the mountain in our twenties and, obviously, at the opposite ends of the financial spectrum. But we were thinking the same exact thing, which we didn’t realize until we started working on this book together, and that was What are we going to do for the rest of our lives that we are so passionate about that money doesn’t matter?
So we summited. It was like straight out of movie. This is amazing. Opportunities are endless. I’m going to go home and do something about it. But then, that moment in life that happens to everyone at least once, if not many times, where it does a complete 180, the rug gets pulled out from underneath. And for me, it was facing my greatest fear, which was losing someone I couldn’t imagine living my life without, and I lost my dad to colon cancer.
So again, going through that experience made me force myself to ask those questions. What am I going to do of substance and meaning every single day? So I looked at the world as a green field again. I started doing creative stuff—writing, graphic design, making films, things that I thought were meaningful to me. And through that process, I realized I was actually establishing my own personal core values. If it’s not money, title, or status that matters, what does? And for me, it was the people in my life, and that’s when I committed myself to make decisions around that.
In a weird parallel way, that’s when I stumbled on Zappos. That’s when they were a tiny little start-up, and all they wanted to do was sell shoes to the world. But they grew up, and they realized, “You know what, we want to provide the best customer service.” And they grew up again and said, “Actually, we want to make our employees happy first.” And then they realized what they were doing. Their purpose was to deliver happiness to the world, and they developed their values in their own way. So in a weird way, this was a parallel process. And a few years later, that’s when Delivering Happiness was born.
So going back to the roots of Zappos. This quote is from Maya Angelou, “People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” It’s not just a great personal poem and mantra for my life; it is actually what Zappos uses to guide their everyday decisions. And through that process, since 1999, by focusing on company culture and customer service, those two things, they were able to build a company that is now $2 billion in gross merchandise sales annually, and they were sold to Amazon for $1.2 billion at the time of closing several years ago.
I bring up Zappos because it is just not the only one doing it. What’s absolutely phenomenal is that other companies are doing it as well. So take this graph of the 100 best workplaces annually (Fortune magazine does this every year). [visual] It consistently does better than the S&P 500 in the last 10 years. And what’s so great about this whole idea about happiness is that we can measure it now.
I don’t know if you saw the Harvard Business Review cover several years ago that had a smiley face with dollar signs at the corners of the mouth. This was the Harvard Business Review saying that there is an economic value to well-being and happiness. No matter what kind of industry or size of company, it showed that if they were happier employees, they sold more things or they were more productive, or if they were doctors, they actually had up to 50 percent better decision making in their field. So for us, this was the trick to how to take the fluff out of happiness and how to actually to measure it.
So we worked with Nick Marks. Nick Marks had a pretty popular TED talk on a happy planet index. We worked with him to essentially create a happy business index so we could go into companies and figure out how happy they are and how to trace it back to their metrics.
But what’s so interesting right now is that we have all these tools. But just in 2011, we looked at a Gallup Poll, and it showed that 71 percent of our employees in the workforce were disengaged from their work resulting in $300 billion lost in productivity. This was in 2011. So that’s the big dilemma for us, and the big challenge we wanted to face to delivering happiness. I’m going to segue to how do we actually tackle these things. I will talk a little about the science of happiness and some of the frameworks and the stories we learned along the way.
One of them was a memoir written by a woman who worked in palliative care, in a hospice, and cared for people before they passed away. What she noticed over all the years of doing this was that there was a consistency of what people were saying before they passed, their “I wishes” in life. Among the top five was “I wish I’d let myself be happier.” Another one was “I wish I had spent more time with my friends and family.” But the number one “I wish” that she heard was “I wish I had the courage to be true to myself and not what others expected of me.” Because going back to the study, it shows people regret not doing things. They don’t regret doing things in the end.
So how do we turn this paradigm around and face it in the present today? Here is another study that was done. Basically, it captures the elements of happiness and how we differ from one another. Why is that the case? Fifty percent comes from nature or genetics, 10 percent comes from nurture or the environment around us, and 40 percent, according to this study, is what I call a norm, basically our controllable percentage of happiness in our day-to-day actions and decisions. But this is also interesting. A gentleman named Shawn Achor wrote a great book called The Happiness Advantage. He actually tied these things together so that with the norm, and the nature and genetics, there is a possibility of increasing to 90 percent control of sustainable happiness. His whole theory is that success doesn’t actually create happiness; happiness creates success. People who operated from a positive state of mind rather than a neutral or negative one actually are more efficient, productive, and in the end, maybe in a more traditional sense, more successful. So how do we take this into our own lives?
This is another framework we talk about in the book. These are the different levers to increase our happiness in our everyday lives. Number one is perceived control. Do we have a sense of control that the decisions we are making are actually affecting our lives? A corollary to this is what I call “expectation management,” which is essentially expect the worse but hope for the best. So we walk into a movie, and we have low expectations of that movie. We come out and are Yeah, actually it was pretty good. If we go in thinking this is the best, the top movie out there, I think I could have spent that 90 minutes somewhere else in my life. But what’s interesting about that is not necessarily the activity you are doing, but it’s how you frame it in your brain that actually creates what reality is.
The next lever we talk about is perceived progress. This is about how you grow, learn, and develop continuously in life. Talking about movies, do you remember the movie Coming to America with Eddie Murphy? He came to America and all he wanted to do was have real-life experiences because he was a prince, he never worked. So he found a job at a mock McDonalds. I guess it’s a Mock Donalds.
And he was telling his friends, “Hey, I was there before. I was actually mopping the floors, but now I’m at the lettuce station. I’m going to be doing burgers next and fries. And you know what? Before you know it, I’ll be assistant manager, and that’s when the big dough comes in.” So for him, this was his own mentality of how his progress was. His own sense of progress made him happy in that way. I’m not saying don’t be self-aware of your surroundings, and we might not be able to change the world in a day, but we may be able to change the world in our own sphere and the world around us immediately one day at a time.
The third thing we talk about is a very important component. It is connectedness, how we relate to one another, essentially the depth and breadth of our relationships around us.
The last one is vision and meaning, and I’ll talk about this more. This is another framework we talk about. It’s basically the three types of happiness. The first one is pleasure, or what we call Rock Star, a very important type of happiness because we all need it. It’s like going out and having drinks with your friends, buying a car, or buying a new dress. All these things are important types of happiness, but unfortunately, they are very fleeting or hard to sustain. That is of course, unless you are a rock star.
The next type of happiness we talk about is what we call passion, flow, and engagement. So within this engagement is how you engage with the people around you, and the sense of flow is actually a psychological term. It’s basically describing when you are doing some activity where actual hours go by, but it feels like just minutes. It could be painting. It could be kite surfing, whatever that state of flow you can gain from. Research shows that if you do it more in the course of your days, your happiness levels will go up. And this term flow was developed by a guy named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and rumor has it that he developed this concept when he had to say his name 10 times really fast.
The last and most sustainable form of happiness, and essentially this is answering the question I started this talk with, which is, How do we sustain long-term happiness when we are so bad about predicting it as human beings? And the research goes back to this. It is the higher purpose and meaning in our lives. Whatever that might be. It might be having kids, but it might be more than that too. As we say at DH, if you are true to your weird self, we just believe everyone has a little bit of weirdness, or a lot, in them and follow your values along the way, and through that, find your passions. We know we have a lot of them. And through that, discover your higher purpose. And if we live with that as a headline instead of the pleasures along the way, that is what the scientists say is the key to long-term sustainable happiness.
Jenn Lim is the CEO and chief happiness officer of Delivering Happiness, a company she cofounded to inspire science-based happiness, passion and purpose at work, home and everyday life. Her role is to put the people, resources and financing in place to create a sustainable company through the lens of happiness.