Advances in neuroscience continue to give us both clues and validation on many theories posited by philosophers, great leaders, and psychologists. In several recent studies, it is now conclusive that our happiness, that chemical state of being with higher levels of dopamine and lower levels of cortisol, is less a function of happy activities and more a function of the power of negative experiences. Anecdotally, I had uncovered this when I interviewed over 60 people with Stage IV cancer for my book Is Today The Today, written in 2001. To a person, irrespective of age, gender, life lived, I found what these folks wanted to tell me on their dying beds had more to do with their regrets than their successes. They wanted me to know what had held them back, the negative experiences they had foolishly carried for so long, and how they wished others’ would not make the same mistake. Many other books and research corroborate what I learned.
In effect, a sustained state of happiness, that state where we have the highest cognitive function, access to all relevant memories, not just a select few based on the threat of a situation, has less to do with positive experiences and more to do with the power of the negative ones. At a personal level, going to yoga or having a great meal, both positive experiences, will have nominal impact to your overall happiness, than the presence of, for example, a sick child at home. In a corporate setting, I see more and more companies selling their positive attributes like free lunches, training programs, vacation, etc., and though this is not a bad marketing strategy, it does not come close to ensuring a happy person, worker or culture. I see companies having many of these forward-thinking employee-centric attributes but also having decapitating internal politics or tolerance for bureaucracy that as negative attributes, will win the battle of a great culture. The software of the brain cannot be altered with a new fancy laptop, as one put it. It is still the same software in the new laptop.
As a person and leader, it is your role to identify the negative attributes of your culture. This is not hard to do. It is harder to change them and many will seem out of your control or influence. You will need to chose from that list the ones that you can impact/remove. Your personal and professional success, the regrets of your life and the healthy collaboration/innovation of your team, will have more to do with this than all the positive experiences you orchestrate and will likely be applauded for. The latter will make you liked but the former will make you unforgettable in the memory of all those impacted. It is one of the truly greatest emotions to watch your actions lead to the unleashing of your team’s talent/potential.