Are Happy Leaders Better Leaders?

© 2016 Richard McKnight

© 2016 Richard McKnight

This is an occasional blog on subjects pertaining to leadership, strategy, coaching, leadership development, and everything in between. You can sign up using the form at the left/below. © 2016 McKnight-Kaney.

We know that humble leaders are better leaders than egotistic leaders. (See my blog on the topic.) But are happier leaders better leaders than grumpy or depressed leaders?

I'm writing a book, entitled, Navigating to Nirvana. I’ve been wondering if happiness is teachable/learnable, if the person in the state I'm calling the Navigator mode could be said to be happier than those whose primary mode is that of the Survivor or Victim, and if people who characteristically live in the Navigator mode can produce blissful states at will, even in the midst of trying circumstances.

I am pleased to say that I am now convinced that this is indeed the case.

I began my background reading with Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness and his book, Flourishing, moved on to Chade-Meng Tan’s Joy on Demand (Tan is a Google engineer). I’m now reading Matthieu Ricard’s Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, which is fabulous. Waiting for me is Sharon Salzberg’s bestselling book Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program, and the Dalai Lama’s book, Happiness. (I recommend all of these books, especially Ricard's.)

Ricard’s book has gotten me to thinking hardest—or should I say happiest!—about the subject so far: he claims by subtitle that happiness is a skill and, more challengingly, that with enough practice, happiness can be produced by anyone regardless of their external circumstances. And, judging by his performance in a series of physiology experiments, he ought to know.

If the name Matthieu Ricard is not familiar to you, he has been described as “the world’s happiest man” due to his performance in a study of experienced meditators. He is often referred to in books on happiness. He’s also a Buddhist monk of French birth who has a PhD in molecular biology. 

Ricard was a subject in a brain study that brought together age-matched controls who had one week of meditation training and meditators like himself who had at least 10,000 hours of meditation experience. The researchers stuffed individuals from both groups into one of those MRI tubes and had them meditate in four different ways. The results were presented in what it is arguably the most prestigious journal in science, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

It should come as no surprise that the experienced meditators did better at lighting up centers in the brain associated with peace and serenity than did the novices on all tasks nor that they produced far more brainwaves associated with serenity (gamma waves). But what astonished the researchers is how much better: the experienced meditators knocked the top of the scientists’ dataset of dozens of previous observations. And Ricard was head and shoulders above everyone, thus the moniker the world’s happiest man. (Ironically, the label irritates this peaceful man, a Buddhist monk who lives much of the year in a hermitage in Nepal.) 

The conclusion of this and related studies strongly suggests, in the words of science writer Daniel Goleman, that “the brain can be trained to do well in a constructive way; contentment instead of craving, calm rather than agitation and passion in place of hatred.” Goleman suggests that the research gives credence to the speculation that, with training and practice, people can induce mental states at least as potent as those apparently available now only with drugs.

In his book, Ricard summarizes this research (he does not say it was he who performed the best, nor does he refer to himself as the happiest man; I got this from other sources) and other studies confirming that individuals have different, apparently inborn “set points” of happiness, i.e., we vary with respect to how happy we “naturally” are. But other research, based on brain functioning, demonstrates that these natural tendencies are highly susceptible to influence, perhaps permanently. According to Ricard, “happiness as a way of being is a skill. It requires sustained effort in training the mind and developing a set of human qualities, such as inner peace, mindfulness, and altruistic love.”

And what is the genesis and epicenter of that skill? Meditation, what he refers to as a means of “transforming the mind,” the practice that “brings lasting fulfillment, joy, serenity, and, above all, the irreplaceable boon of altruistic love.”

Wow. I guess I’d better go meditate. Stay tuned: I’ll keep telling you what I’ve learned.