It is said that when Adlai Stevenson II died in 1965, he had near his bedside the prose poem Desiderata. The famously erudite U.S. statesman had intended to use in his Christmas cards the then largely unknown poem that Max Ehrman wrote in 1927. Desiderata had been included in the devotional materials at Saint Paul’s Church in Baltimore since around 1959. Desiderata would also become a personal favorite after my Psychology 101 professor required our class to memorize the poem.
Desiderata turned out to be a timeless prescription for happiness, predating the research-based advice from the likes of Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage (Crown Business, 2010), and whose article, “Positive Intelligence” was featured in the recent Harvard Business Review issue.
As Desiderata counsels “Strive to be happy,” so does Shawn Achor imply that gaining a happy, productive, and positive state of mind requires individual purposive action. Achor argues that while environmental and genetic factors may influence an individual’s general sense of well-being, the brain can be trained to be positive. Based on research and case studies he conducted, and which were corroborated by other scholars’ studies, Achor recommended three strategies for improving one’s chances of happiness:
1. Develop new habits. From a 2008 experiment that involved participants’ engaging in a brief positive exercise every day for three weeks, Achor found that the experimental group scored significantly higher in optimism and life satisfaction metrics, compared to the control group’s scores. Participants in the experimental group performed exercises in gratitude, engaging positively with those in their social network, meditating, exercising, and documenting meaningful experiences in a journal.
2. Nurture co-workers. A March 2011 research by Achor revealed that social support providers were 10 times more likely to be engaged at work, and 40% more likely to get a promotion – as compared to those who kept to themselves. In adopting social support as a strategy for enhancing happiness, Achor cited Ochsner Health System’s “10/5 Way” as an effective practice. Employees are asked to make eye contact when within 10 feet of another person, and to say hello when within 5 feet.
3. Develop a positive relationship with stress. When stress is seen as enhancing to the human brain and body, rather than as a factor to diminishing performance, participants in Achor’s undated study were positively correlated with a drop in health problems incidence, and increased happiness in the workplace.
In asking his students to put to memory, Desiderata, which is Latin for “desired things,” my Psychology 101 professor nailed his message down, even without citing relevant studies. So one more time, let’s …
… Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.
- Shawn Achor (2012), “Positive Intelligence,” Harvard Business Review, January-February issue.
- Wikipedia, “Desiderata” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desiderata, accessed February 12, 2012.
- Wikipedia, “Adlai Stevenson II at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adlai_Stevenson_II, accessed on February 12, 2o12.