The Three Vital Ingredients To Happiness- At Work, and In Life

Dr. Martin Seligman

Woody Allen once said: “80% of the secret to success is just turning up.” I ‘turned up’ once to a talk by someone billed as ‘the world wide expert on happiness.’ I left an hour later a changed man. And have had a much happier life ever since. Here are the three key tips I learnt that day.

His name is Dr Martin Seligman. He’s the Director of The Positive Psychology Center at The University of Pennsylvania. In essence he’s spent much of his career researching and helping people suffering from depression. Through this work he gained deep insight into ‘happiness’ and resilience, and has shaped theories around this which I wanted to hear more about.

So one cold winter night I went with my brother-in-law to his lecture in downtown Sydney. It was life changing. This is what he told us.

The Three Keys To Happiness

This is how I recall what he told us that night, and how I have used it to help shape my life. I share these three tips at every training session with my STW colleagues. I tell my friends. I tell my children.

According to my recollection of what Seligman said, the ‘happiest’ people he observes have three common characteristics in their lives.

1. They do every day what they love and what they are good at

This is a very similar message to that of Sir Ken Robinson, outlined in my recent post  A Knight To Remember-This Changed My Life. Be very clear about what your ‘element’ is- what you really love doing most in life and are good at, and build that into your working life as much as you possibly can. I have not worked many days in my life. I am lucky. I love working, I love challenges, I love working with young people, and I love the creative industries. I’m in my element when I coach and inspire. And I get to do that every day.

2. They do something for others without expecting anything back in return

For me, apart from some involvement in charity work, I achieve this by helping as many young people as I can make a start in this industry. I give them time, and then link them with my contacts, hoping to kick-start momentum to finding a role. And increasingly I am also doing this with the older tribe, working to reinvent themselves and find roles in the latter phases of their careers.

3. They are optimists, and have learned to stay that way

Seligman calls it Learned Optimism. It’s this concept I tell as many people as I can about. Train yourself to be optimistic in how you view the world, and how you react to circumstance. Become a skilled ‘disputer of negative thoughts.’ (You know, when that voice tells you: “You can’t do- it will be a disaster.” Counter it with: “Hang on a minute- yes I CAN do it, and it will be great, and I am absolutely going to give it a go.”)Take full responsibility for what happens to you. Refuse to blame other people. Learn lessons from setbacks. And keep 150% forward looking and focused on what actions you can take to solve issues and improve matters. Be optimistic. Have hope.

A quick final story. John Gardner, the founder and CEO of investor and financial relations firm Magnus is one of the most optimistic guys I know. When he worked with me at my firm Savage & Partners, John’s optimistic approach literally saved me from giving up. I remember one day when a big banking client called to fire us. I put the phone down, devastated. “But that’s great news,” said John, enthusiastically. “Yes we will miss the revenue short term, but they were a difficult client, marginally profitable, did not appreciate us, and we all hated working on it. Now we can go all out to win work from their competitor!” And that’s exactly what we did, with enthusiasm, a spring in our step, and hope in our hearts.

Be optimistic. Train yourself to view the world that way. Be forward looking.

It makes for a much happier life, or at least, that’s how becoming a Learned Optimist has impacted mine.

Thanks Dr Seligman. Thanks John Gardner. I learnt a lot from both of you.

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25 Responses to The Three Vital Ingredients To Happiness- At Work, and In Life

  1. Carl Sherriff February 1, 2012 at 10:21 am #

    Thanks for that Chris, gave me a positive zap on a rainy Tuesday. Cheers, Carl.

    • Chris Savage February 1, 2012 at 10:23 am #

      Pleasure Carl. Thanks for reading it.

  2. Naomi Beames February 1, 2012 at 10:44 am #

    Another great piece of advice. Thanks Chris. Naomi

    • Chris Savage February 1, 2012 at 12:49 pm #


  3. Simon Betteridge February 1, 2012 at 10:52 am #

    Happiness is always my goal so thanks for passing on the wisdom on how others have got it & maintained it. I am constantly amazed at our ability as humans to train ourselves to achieve things we hadn’t once considered. Happy 2012!

    • Chris Savage February 1, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

      And happy 2012 to you Simon…!!

  4. Sue Meehan - The White Agency February 1, 2012 at 11:04 am #

    Thanks for this positive post Chris. It really resonated with me (you had me at the first sentence with a Woody Allen reference!).

    It’s all about choice isn’t it? We can chose the optimistic approach and reap the benefits (sometimes short term other times longer), or not. We can choose to show up (physically, mentally, emotionally) and by being present be rewarded, or choose to switch off and not engage.

    It’s such a simple philosophy but it’s something that can be easily forgotten in the quagmire of our working life. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Chris Savage February 1, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

      Thanks Sue- yes it is simple but hard to do I guess. Thanks for the feedback.

  5. Martin P February 1, 2012 at 11:24 am #

    if you have kids read Seligman’s “Raising Optimistic children”. Helps you bring up happier and more robust offspring.

    • Chris Savage February 1, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

      Thanks- will do!!!

  6. Daniel February 1, 2012 at 11:41 am #

    Awesome, thanks for sharing Chris!

  7. Peter Sertori February 1, 2012 at 11:47 am #

    I read about Martin Seligman in BRW. I bought the book Learned Optimism. And his subsequent one Authentic Happiness. I’ve given the books away – and bought them again – twice! It’s not pop psychology, Seligman’s work is founded on decades of research. Happiness is about Resiliance, to handle what life throws at us. And yet, it’s not rocket science either. You can teach it to your kids. Great post Chris.

    • Chris Savage February 1, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

      Thanks Peter. You’re so right. It’s not rocket science but it does need persistence to ensure you follow this path. Hope you are well. Chris

  8. Jane Carey February 1, 2012 at 11:59 am #

    The simplicity of these ideas are great, thanks for the article.

  9. Andy Price February 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm #

    Happy people outperform unhappy people, they are healthier, more productive and make better friends, parents and partners.

    As I coach my clients I point out that the ‘pursuit’ of happiness is a strange can’t ensure future happiness…you can only ensure you are happy right now.

    Thanks for the thoughts Chris.

    • Chris Savage February 1, 2012 at 12:52 pm #

      Thank you Andy. Appreciate the comments.

  10. Gary Elphick February 1, 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    Finding a silver lining in any situation however bad it may seem, is a something we should all try to achieve. It’s made easier by keeping those types of people around you,

    Thanks for the advice Chris,

    Please do a post on ‘How to make the sun shine in Summer’.

  11. Carolyn February 1, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

    Thanks Chris. I’ve had such trouble getting back into work since the vacation period and this helped me focus again. Love your blog, love your work. Best, Carolyn

  12. Emma Perrett February 1, 2012 at 6:19 pm #

    Morning. What a v positive message. I found happiness is being able to do my strategy work mostly from the kitchen table of our cottage deep in the very beautiful National Park of Dartmoor, UK. Bliss. Wonder what brother-in-law Andy made of it???? Much love from across the pond. Emma

    • Chris Savage February 2, 2012 at 3:36 pm #

      Thanks Emma! Delighted to see you are reading Possums! Hope you and yours are well. Chris

  13. Alia Sahari February 1, 2012 at 8:22 pm #

    You keep churning out great advice pieces and I truly admire your ability to write so well – Its clear, concise, coherent whole and most importantly very motivational. I truly envy that skill and have a lot to learn from you.

    Thank you Chris.


    • Chris Savage February 2, 2012 at 11:10 am #

      Thanks Alia. Appreciate the feedback. Chris

  14. Garth February 2, 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    Thanks Chris very timely – I recently had a debate about people loving their job. I was told people don’t love what they do that’s why money is more important. My point was love what you do & the rest follows, trust me I’ve done both – the love and the not so much. Debate lasted a few good bottles of red – looks like this post might prompt another!

  15. Sven February 8, 2012 at 2:54 pm #

    Makes me happy

  16. Craig Charnock February 10, 2012 at 1:07 am #

    Optimisitic and Loving it in Cape Town, South Africa.
    Thanks, Chris!

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