Home / Industry / Emma Seppälä on building positive priorities

In an “always on" world enabled by hyperconnectivity, divisions between office and home, and work and rest are becoming increasingly porous.

But does it even get the best results? In her new book The Happiness Track, Emma Seppälä, science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, draws upon the latest research to argue that these high-intensity work styles are fundamentally misguided. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What are the main problems with our conventional understanding of success?

We tend to have a misconception that in order to be successful, we need to sacrifice or postpone our happiness. For example, many people feel that you can’t have success without stress and they feel that they have to be constantly focused on the next thing and getting things done constantly. But research shows that if they prioritize their own well-being as well as that of the people around them, they’re going to be more productive in the end. They’re going to be more creative.

In what way do different personality types affect the issue?

In a lot of ways, go-getters are rewarded because that is the kind of modus operandi—it’s that you need to be working non-stop, workaholism is good, you need to burn the candle at both ends because that’s just how it works. But research shows that with that kind of attitude to work, we are seeing very high levels of burnout across industries. It’s basically chronic stress—it impacts your mental faculties, cognitive faculties, memory.

Stress can get you through a deadline—it’s great when it’s a short-term thing—but when you’re constantly in that high-adrenaline mode, it’s actually leading to burnout. A much better way to manage your energy is to learn to stay calmer, it’s learning to not just tap into your fight or flight nervous system but your rest and digest system, the part of your nervous system that helps calm you down and that helps your body restore itself, and your mind as well.

[When you are calm] you’re going to be more creative. “A-ha" moments come when the mind is at rest. Research shows when you detach from work, you come back to work more engaged, more creative. A lot of people are not taking their vacations—they take their work home with them. But it’s not serving them.

To what extent do companies in some cases preclude these various sorts of strategies to manage our well-being?

Workplaces may not adopt these ideas yet, although they will with time because they are supported by data. But in very few cases do people have actual control over their environments—you cannot control the demands placed on you by your workplace, by your managers. You can’t do much about the environment, but you can do something about the state of your own mind. For example, everybody always has a number of different activities that they need to do at work—some require a lot of high intellectual focus and others don’t. So, alternate during the day the high-intensity activities with the more low-intensity activities. That allows you moments of recovery, where your mind can drift a little bit and that’s where it can access its creativity. The other thing you can do is, take five minutes to close your eyes and just do some deep breathing and relax your nervous system, and then you’ll still have more energy to keep going and you’ll also be calmer.

What can managers do to help engender a culture of happiness and well-being?

What research shows for managers and employees alike is that if you were kinder, helpful and supportive, if you’re compassionate when your colleagues are going through hard times, you will end up doing better and being more productive, your team will be more loyal and overall the results will be greater for everyone. Not to mention that your psychological health will be better, your physical health will be benefitted and even your longevity is impacted by living with an attitude that’s more oriented towards kindness, service and supporting others.

So, what leaders can do is adopt that more compassionate stance to the people that are working with them. Find out what’s going on in your employees’ families—is anyone going through a hard time?—being there for them as a human being, adding the human touch back into the workplace, which is sorely missing these days. We’re not robots working and completing our tasks—we are first and foremost human beings who need social connection desperately as a very fundamental predictor of happiness and well being, we know that from research. Reintroduce the humanness back into the workplace, through creating an environment that’s characterized by trust, respect, forgiveness, understanding and empathy.

What are the signs that someone is approaching burnout?

Well, if they continue to feel exhausted in the morning when they wake up, if they are having trouble focusing, if they are having memory and attention difficulties, they’re having trouble sleeping and winding down, those are all some signs. A lot of people think, “I have no choice, I just have to keep going", but if you just take a few steps back and take care of yourself, you’ll see that you’ll actually do better.

Taking care of yourself can take other forms too. A lot of people are
self-critical because they think that will lead to self-improvement, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Self-criticism leads to greater anxiety and depression and it leads them to be less likely to learn from their mistakes and the challenges they face. On the contrary, there is self-compassion—treating yourself as you would a friend, giving yourself a break rather than berating yourself. We all face challenges, mistakes, failures—how resilient we are, a lot of that has to do with your relationship with yourself.

Read an unabridged version on, printed in an exclusive partnership with

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