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Uncovering the secrets of happiness

The holidays are one of my favorite times of year. As the sparkling lights and decorations go up, the holidays are a reminder and invitation to reflect, spend time with loved ones, and take stock on the learnings from the prior year. I thought this would be an ideal time to post a reflection on building and sustaining happiness in life. During my sabbatical over the last 4 months I prioritized sustainable health and happiness because it’s one of the areas that often gets shortchanged due to lack of time and too many things going on.

The secret to happiness is relationships

In a long running Harvard study, surveys show that while we are young we are focused on wealth and fame as keys to a happy life. However, over 80 years as they followed 700 men and spouses, the research suggests very different factors that determine happiness and health in the long-run.

What the researchers found is striking. One of the key factors that strongly influences health and well-being is having strong relationships with friends, and especially spouses as a means of protection against chronic disease, mental illness, and memory decline. The secret to happiness and health is building strong relationships with family, friends and community. Framed in a more negative way, loneliness kills, quite literally.

Building strong and deep relationships has always been something I’ve valued in life but not spent significant time on. I find this to be true for many people I’ve talked to. The reality is often this is one of the last items that we take care of in our day-to-day priorities since it falls into the important but not urgent category. Managing my career and schedule has always been the primary focus of my time and efforts and while I do have close friends, they are also incredibly patient and tolerant people who are forgiving when I disappear into work and resurface weeks or months later.

Applying management best practices to relationships

What if we managed our personal lives and relationships in the same way that we manage our work? In the past few months I have proactively been spending time reflecting on and applying management best practices to optimize my personal life and happiness.

Create daily rituals through 1:1s

My closest friend, business partner and advisor is my husband Sachin Rekhi. Over the last 12+ years, we have supported each other in work and life and even started a company together. When we founded our startup Connected 5 years ago, we adopted the practice of two daily stand-up meetings as a way to work better together. The reason we tried this was that often one or both of us needed to be immersed in concentrated work such as product development or writing. We found sharing new insights or questions as they popped up was often an interruptive and distracting factor in the day, and setting aside scheduled times allowed both of us to work more productively. So we tried it. In that time, we talked about what we had accomplished, what we were working on, and any challenges or questions that came up over the idea.

It was a tremendously successful experiment for us. In fact, it was so helpful that since then it has survived beyond Connected and evolved into daily ritual. When we are both home, each morning we share our morning coffee and what we’re planning to do that day. At the end of the day, we take our dog on a walk through the neighborhood and talk about the day’s challenges and insights. One unexpected but delightful benefit is how much I’ve learned over the years from these daily rituals. Hearing about product development and design has vastly accelerated my learning on how technology works, and he has benefited greatly as well. Whether it is a business problem or what to do for dinner, this has become one of the most important ways for us to stay close in our busy lives.

Manage and prioritize your time through goal setting

At LinkedIn, the team has embraced the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) goal setting framework. While you can read about it more here, the idea is that you sign up for a small set of stretch goals that are aggressive, measurable, and publicly shared. In my professional life, I find this to be an incredibly helpful tool to ensure that I’m establishing and communicating my top priorities with my direct and extended team. Over the years I’ve started to adopt this into my personal life in several ways.

During the course of my professional work, I would often choose to incorporate personal OKRs into the list that I shared with my manager as a way to discuss my personal development. For example at LinkedIn I would share of meeting with one new person a week as a way of broadening my professional network inside and outside of the company. This was a means of providing my manager with context on what was important to me. More recently during my sabbatical, I reflected on what I wanted to accomplish in my time off and established a much broader list of personal OKRs to ensure that I’m spending my time wisely. At the end of the day, the achievement of these goals are purely for personal benefit but it’s been an invaluable tool for me to structure my life around my personal priorities and commitments.

Make friendships proactively with networking

When I reflect on my closest relationships, many of them were formed during important times in my life when I had the time and wherewithal to invest time in building them. The hard reality is building close, trusting and intimate relationships is a LOT of work. It requires time, frequency, and vulnerability. That’s why as I’ve spoken with many people about this, we can often count our close friends on one hand and they are often from times in our life like college, graduate school, long-term jobs or childhood friends.

That said, there are many lovely friends who I don’t (yet) have that level of closeness with but the seeds are planted. In today’s hectic and over-scheduled world, the biggest challenge of building closer relationships has been frequency of exposure. That’s why over the past few months, I’ve been taking a more structured and proactive approach to personal relationships. What if you approached relationship building with the same focus as a job search or networking? Just like how I focus on establishing recurring 1:1s with key relationships in the workplace, or build a target list of relationships for a prospect funnel, I’ve applied the same methodologies to personal relationships. My initial start has focused on making a list of lapsed friendships with people who I enjoy but haven’t spent time with recently, and reaching out to them proactively. In addition, for many friends I’ve adopted the practice of trying to schedule our get together at the end of the current time together. It turns out that often my interactions were based on proximity and convenience rather than deliberate and intentional effort. As I have gone through the process of reconnecting, it’s been one of the most joyful experiences in recent memory.

In Conclusion

Thinking about long-term happiness and relationships is an incredible personal and individualized process. For each of us, the balance is going to be different. What is worthy of a moment of time is pausing to reflect on how our time is being spent and whether we’re safe guarding the most important parts of life. Some food for thought as we head into the holiday week. Happy holidays!

Ada Chen Rekhi is co-founder & COO of Notejoy, a collaborative notes app for individuals and teams. She’s also an executive coach who works with founders and executives looking to scale themselves as they scale their teams. If you enjoyed this essay, subscribe to her newsletter or follow her on @adachen.