Executive Development Blog

Leadership Development, Mindfulness & the Key to Happiness

Posted by Kip Kelly on Feb 27, 2014 9:30:00 AM

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What is the secret to happiness?  Turns out, there's an app for that.

Five years ago, Matt Killingsworth built an app, Track Your Happiness, which prompts users to report their feelings in real time.  Here's how it works: users receive a text or email asking to record what they are doing and how they are feeling at that moment.  The app records these responses over time and creates a personalized "Happiness Report" which details what activities are associated with greater happiness.  In addition to providing the individual, personalized report, the app collects data that fuels Killingsworth's research at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  To date, over 35,000 people have participated in the study.

NPR TED Radio Hour on leadershipKillingsworth recently shared these findings on NPR recently in a TED Radio Hour segment (if you missed it, the audio and transcript are available on NPR's website).  His research suggests that people are substantially happier when they are focused on what they are doing at that moment, and substantially less happy when their minds are wandering.  It doesn't matter what the activity - brushing your teeth, working, exercising, reading this post - you're happier when you're focused on the activity, and less happy when you let your mind wander.  Sadly, no pun intended, we spend a significant amount of time "mind wandering."  According to the research, forty-seven percent of the time, people are thinking about something other than what they're currently doing (think about that the next time you're driving on the highway...or better yet, stay focused on the road and you'll be a little happier and the roads will be a whole lot safer).

Feb 2014 TIME Magazine cover on Mindful LeadershipSo, we are significantly happier when we stay "in the moment" - but we spend nearly half of our time "mind wandering."  How do we overcome the tendency to let our minds wander and train ourselves to be more focused?  Killingsworth's research, while insightful about happiness, doesn't offer much direction.  Fortunately, there's a wealth of research about mindfulness, or the practice of becoming more fully aware of the present moment.  Many people associate mindfulness with meditation, which is a common way to practice mindfulness, but there are a variety of practical exercises you can use to become more mindful.  Mindfulness is a talent that you can grow and develop over time.  Start with a minute of deliberate mindfulness, focused on conscious observation.  It is harder than it sounds but, with practice, it can become easier over time.  Research suggests that mindfulness may offer a number of benefits - reducing stress, boosting memory, improving personal relationships, etc.  Practicing mindfulness can make you happier and healthier - and it can also make you a better leader.

Great leadership skills - creating a vision, inspiring others, taking initiative, driving results - are amplified through the practice of mindfulness.  Mindfulness helps you to become more intentional in your actions throughout the day - and that includes being more deliberate as a leader in your organization.  You can identify opportunities throughout the day, as you interact with others, to be a better leader.  Then, create mental cues - little reminders throughout the day - to introduce positive behaviors that become ingrained in your daily routine and reinforced over time.  Mindfulness techniques can also be used to break bad habits that may be preventing you from reaching your potential as a leader.  Once you have identified any negative behaviors, you can train yourself to change and replace bad behavior with good.  Mindfulness can be a very effective tool to help you to break bad habits, change routines, and get out of a rut.

"Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun's rays do not burn until brought to a focus." - Alexander Graham Bell

Mindfulness can also help to boost productivity. The internet can be a powerful business tool - but it is also a gateway to distraction.  Technology continues to introduce new opportunities to multitask, but dividing your attention does not always lead to greater productivity (often, productivity suffers as a result of multitasking).  Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble concentrating and shutting out irrelevant information.  Many people notice when they're having trouble concentrating, but they don't recognize mindfulness as part of the solution.  Concentration is the act of focusing your attention; mindfulness tells you where to focus, and helps to keep you focused.  In this way, mindfulness and concentration work as a team, providing a valuable defense against distraction and the tendency to multitask.  Killingsworth's research suggests we spend a tremendous amount of our time "mind wandering." Imagine the business impact if you could become more deliberate in choosing where you focus your attention, and stay focused longer on those things that are most important.  Now consider the impact if everyone in your organization could do the same.  That's the power of mindfulness.

Here at UNC, we recognize that the best business leaders value and model mindfulness in the workplace so we include mindfulness techniques among the tools that we use to help business leaders become more effective, productive and successful.  If you're interested in learning more, please feel free to contact us at unc_exec@unc.edu.  You can also explore our program portfolio, including the Intentional Leadership program which is designed specifically to help you:

  • Become more deliberate and intentional in reaching your leadership potential
  • Overcome obstacles that are preventing personal and professional success
  • Develop practical tools you can apply to enhance your leadership effectiveness
  • Practice mindfulness techniques to enhance your leadership style
  • Break-out of everyday routines and behaviors that limit your success


Topics: executive education, emotional intelligence, burnout, mindfulness, stress