What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently
—revealing the surprising and dreary fact that, over the past 40 years, women's happiness has trended downward as compared to men's, this despite gradual increases in power and prosperity.
Many of you have offered explanations for this decline, some of you have rejected it as inconsistent with your own lives, and a couple of you have even questioned whether the trends are big enough to bother about.
Regardless of your views on the data, you know better than anyone whether you're happy. You know whether you feel you're living the life you were supposed to live. So, to those of you reading this and thinking, "I can be happier. I want to be happier in my life," here's the prescription. Here's what you can do to find your strongest life.
Who We Studied
The frustrating thing (from a researcher's perspective) is that happy, successful women look so very different from each other. Some have broken through the increasingly cracked glass ceiling at work and are now running countries, companies, newsrooms. Some are happy clambering up the corporate ladder, while others have long ago jumped off the ladder and found fulfillment in running their own business or devoting themselves to charity work. Some are employed full-time and have their kids in daycare. Some stay at home. Some used to stay at home while their kids were young but now have on-ramped back into the workforce.
To focus our research, we polled thousands of women on the following five questions and interviewed in-depth those women who could respond "every day" to four of the five. If you want to self-diagnose the kind of life you're living, try them out on yourself:
1. How often do you get to do things you really like to do?
2. How often do you find yourself actively looking forward to the day ahead?
3. How often do you get so involved in what you're doing you lose track of time?
4. How often do you feel invigorated at the end of a long, busy day?
5. How often do you feel an emotional high in your life?
Martha Washington, the first first lady, said that, "The greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our disposition and not on our circumstances." Our research certainly confirmed this. The women who could answer positively to the questions above had, on some level, simply decided that they were going to be happy. They made that choice.
However, more specifically, they:
Focus on Moments, More Than Goals, Plans or Dreams
Certain moments in your life create in you strongly positive emotions—let's call these "strong-moments." Not all moments are strong-moments—some moments spark negative emotions, while some don't spark any emotions at all. But when you do experience a strong-moment, it is authentic. It is true, in the sense that the emotions you feel are true. You may not know exactly what you should do with your emotions, or what label you should give each emotion, but you know how a specific moment made you feel. You know this more certainly than you know virtually anything else in your life.
It could be that moment yesterday when, as you again sat hunched over the year-end results, you found a revealing pattern in the financial report you were reading; or the snuggling of your grandson into the crook of your shoulder as you read him the last chapter in The Magic Tree House book, or that glorious sentence you wrote last night on your blog, or the way you managed to calm down your colleague after your boss changed everyone's schedule.
Whatever you are picturing, it will be a vivid, detailed moment, and as you think about it now, you feel yourself change. You are sitting up a little straighter than you were even a minute ago. Your shoulders are back. You've slowed down your breathing just a hair. Perhaps you are smiling. This moment, and the emotions you feel as you relive it in your mind, is you, in truth.
When you commit your life to being true to yourself, you are not committing to some far-flung destiny, some grand dream or some disembodied list of values, no matter how worthy. Instead, you are committing to the truth embodied in this strong-moment, the truth that this specific moment, for no rational reason, energizes you.
When you search your life for strong-moments, you don't always like what you find. In the words of one of the interviewees: "It's hard to admit, but I don't like playing with my kids. My daughter would come up to me and say, 'Mom, you play the mommy, and I'll play the baby,' and I would think: 'Not again. I am the mommy, you are the baby.' The moments I love with my kids are when I'm teaching them something, helping them learn, but I'm bored silly by playing another game of dress up. I got my life back on track only when I rejected the idea of being the 'perfect' mother and accepted the reality of which moments energized me and which didn't."
Acceptance doesn't mean resignation, giving up on your dreams. In fact, more often than not, accepting which moments strengthen you and which don't reveals to you exactly how you can live out your dreams, whether at home or at work. It means not only being comfortable in your own skin, but also being creative in your own skin.
Strive for Imbalance
When someone tells you to try to have greater balance in your life, your immediate and appropriate reaction is a spasm of disbelief. "Balance?" you ask yourself. "How does that work? For every extra hour at work find another hour at home? For every extra kid at home, reduce my workload by exactly the amount my new child requires? For every school play I should attend, cut out a presentation on the road? For everything I say yes to, say no to something else? Is that it?"
Not according to the people we interviewed. They didn't talk about balance much at all. They seemed to realize that not only was a perfect equilibrium nigh on impossible to achieve, but also that even if they did manage to achieve it, it wouldn't necessarily fulfill them anyway—when you are balanced, you are stationary, holding your breath, trying not to let any sudden twitch or jerk pull you too far one way or the other. You are at a standstill. Balance is the wrong life goal.
Instead, do as these women did and strive for imbalance. Pinpoint the strong-moments in each aspect of your life and then gradually target or tilt your life toward them. This means being as deliberate as you can about making them happen. It means investigating them when they do happen, looking at them from new perspectives, and celebrating them. Above all, it means giving them the power of your attention.
Learn to Say Yes
So often you are told: "You must learn to say no." But, to live your strongest life, do the opposite. Learn to say yes. Yes, to the strong-moments in each part of your life. Yes, to the people who help you create these moments. Yes, to your feelings as these moments happen. Say yes with enough focus and force, and yours will not be a balanced life, but it will be a full life.
There are so many voices in your life demanding your attention, so many "have-tos" and "shoulds," that it can be hard to hear the sound of your own voice. To help you cut through the clamor and find your strongest life, we designed the Strong Life Test.
Think of it as an internal compass. It measures you on nine life roles—adviser, caretaker, creator, equalizer, influencer, motivator, pioneer, teacher and weaver. More than likely, your life calls on you to play all nine roles some of the time, but, even so, you are not a blank slate—your personality doesn't shift and morph according to the demands of every unique situation. Instead, as we all do, you have some consistent patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving, patterns that are distinctive and that remain stable across time and situations. These patterns come together in a lead role, a role you return to time and again, a role that you and your closest family and friends recognize as the core of who you are. Your lead role will help you to know where to look, in any domain of your life (as a spouse, relative, mother or employee), for the kind of moments that will strengthen you the most, invigorate you the most, bring you joy, excitement and fun. The Strong Life Test doesn't give you all the answers, but it tells you where to start.
Take the Strong Life Test