The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor

Work hard. Become successful. Then be happy.

That’s a formula that you’ve probably heard and seen before, many, many times. It’s a formula that’s ingrained in our culture.

Lose 5 pounds, then you’ll be happy. Get a new car, then you’ll be happy. Hit your sales target this quarter, then you’ll be happy.

The only problem with this formula is that it isn’t true.

If it was true, then every student who receives an acceptance letter to the school of their dreams, or employee that receives a promotion, or achieved any goal of any kind should be happy. But there is always the next thing to achieve, which leads to an endless cycle of searching for happiness in all the wrong places.

Consider this quote from the actor Jim Carrey:

I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.

Luckily for us, Shawn Achor is here to give us the inside scoop on how happiness actually works, and why we’ve got the formula exactly backwards – that happiness and optimism actually fuel performance, and is not the result of it.

The 7 principles you are about to learn are the culmination of Achor’s life work and research on 1,600 Harvard students, and dozens of Fortune 500 companies worldwide.

So buckle up, and get ready to learn how to be happy, so you can be more successful.

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The Happiness Advantage

Achor tells us that positive brains have a biological advantage over brains that are neutral or negative. Cultivating positive brains makes us more motivated, efficient, resilient, creative, and productive. You know, all the things that are likely to make you more successful.

Positive emotions also flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that engage the learning centres of our brains to higher levels. They also help us organize new information, keep that information in the brain longer, and retrieve it later on. Lastly, it also allows us to make more and better connections between the neurons in our brains, helping us think more creatively and more quickly. Again, all things that will help us be more successful.

So, your first step should be fairly obvious – stop waiting to be happy, and find ways to become happier now.

Here are 7 proven ways you can do that.

  1. Meditate. Why? You’ll immediately feel more calm, contented and happy. And over time, you’ll actually grow the left prefrontal cortex of your brain, which is the part of the brain responsible for feeling happy.
  2. Find something to look forward to. Why? The anticipation of the event is often the most enjoyable part of it, and releases endorphins into your bloodstream. Easy peasy.
  3. Commit conscious acts of kindness. Acts of altruism contribute to enhanced mental health and decrease stress.
  4. Infuse positivity into your surroundings. Your physical environment has a direct impact on your well-being, which includes the things you allow into your mind. For starters, watch less negative TV. Turn off CNN, right now.
  5. Exercise. You’ve heard this before, but it can boost your mood and enhance your work performance in a number of ways. Your brain will thank you, and so will those jeans you haven’t worn in 5 years.
  6. Spend money, but not on stuff. Buying things gives us fleeting joy, but spending money on experiences – especially with other people – produces strong positive emotions that last longer.
  7. Exercise a “signature strength.” When we use a skill or a talent, we experience a burst of positivity. Even better, exercise a strength of character. The more you use your signature strengths, the happier you’ll become.

The Fulcrum and the Lever

Archimedes famously said:

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”

Achor suggests that our brains work in exactly the same way. Our power to maximize our potential is based on:

  1. The length of our lever, which is how much potential power and possibility we believe we have, and
  2. The position of our fulcrum, which is the mindset with which we generate the power to change.

Most of us walk around assuming that we are seeing the world for what it is. But Achor points out that it’s the mental construction of our daily activities, more than the activities themselves, that defines our reality.

Here’s a practical example.

Suppose you are in a workshop, and you’ve decided 2 minutes in that the content is not relevant to you. Let’s also suppose that the presenter also happens to be a very good presenter.

You could simply check out for those two hours, stressing over everything else you could be doing with your time, or you could decide that over those two hours you would learn three things about effective presenting.

Here are some practical ways you can put this into practice.

When you are faced with a difficult task or a challenge, instead of focussing on the reasons you might fail, focus on the reasons you might succeed.

Choose to view your work as a calling instead of a job or a career. When the work is it’s own reward, you’ll work harder and longer to achieve your goals.

For extra bonus points, as a leader you have the ability to change the fulcrum and the lever for everybody around you. Help them see the positives in their lives, and you’ll get more out of them.

The Tetris Effect

Something interesting happens to people who play Tetris for hours on end – their brains literally see Tetris shapes everywhere they look.

As Achor explains it – it’s not just a vision problem – playing hours of Tetris literally rewires your brain to warp the way you see real life situations.

Similarly, when our brains get stuck in a pattern that focusses on stress and negativity, we are setting ourselves up to fail.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that we can retrain our brains to spot patterns of possibility, so we can see opportunity every place we look. The secret is that we see what we are looking for, and miss the rest.

To prove this point, Achor has us close our eyes and think of the colour red – focus on it for a few seconds with your eyes closed, and then open your eyes. Magically you’ll see red popping out everywhere – because you are intentionally looking for it.

When we intentionally look for the positive in situations instead of the negative, we unlock three magical gifts – happiness, gratitude and optimism.

And this is the secret – there are positives and negatives to be taken out of any situation – it’s up to you to decide what you are going to see. Focussing on the negatives is, well, negative. Focussing (and thus finding) the positives will help you get more of what you want in your life.

The best way you can kick this into high gear is to make a daily list of the good things in your life – some people call this a gratitude journal. By reminding yourself of the good in your life, you’ll start to see more of it, creating a virtuous cycle of positivity.

Falling Up

Now, no matter how hard you try to be positive, bad things are going to happen to you. And when stress and crisis hits, our brains map different paths to help us cope.

You’ve heard the saying “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”? That’s only true if you view those crisis points as an opportunity to grow and develop.

When being sent off to battle, soldiers are regularly told by their doctors that they’ll either come back “normal”, or with PTSD. But Achor tells us that there’s an often overlooked third option called Post-Traumatic Growth.

Basically, the story you tell yourself about adversity determines how you will deal with it.

People that have a positive explanatory style interpret adversity as local and temporary, whereas those with a pessimistic explanatory style see the events as global and permanent.

To help you see a path from adversity to opportunity, practice the ABCD model of interpretation: Adversity, Belief, Consequence and Disputation.

Adversity is what happened – we can’t change it. Belief is our reaction to the event, which is a conscious choice. Our belief leads to a consequence. And if our current belief about the situation leads us down a path to a negative consequence, we can dispute our belief, because that’s all it is – a belief.

The Zorro Circle

Achor tells us that one of the biggest drivers of our success is the belief that our behaviour matters – that we can control our future.

But when the stress ratchets up at work, our feelings of control are one of the first things to go – especially when that stress drives us to tackle too much at once.

Our brains essentially get hijacked by emotions. But we can take control back by following a few simple steps.

First, we start with self-awareness. The easiest way to recover when you are feeling out of control is to identify the emotions you are feeling and put them into words. Write it down in a journal, talk to a co-worker or friend, or whatever you need to do in order to name what you are feeling. Brain science has proven that this will immediately diminish the power of the negative emotions.

Second, identify which aspects of the situation you have control over, and which ones you don’t. The idea here is to let go of the stresses that are outside of your control, so that you can move your focus on the things you can actually do to improve your situation.

Lastly, start working on the things you can control one at a time. The best way to do this is to get the small/easy ones out of the way first so you start to build some small wins quickly, reinforcing the idea that you do in fact control your fate. Keep doing this one step at a time until you are done.

And remember, it’s a marathon and not a sprint – you can’t solve all your problems in one day.

The 20-Second-Rule

It’s obvious that in order to get from where we are to where we want to go requires change. And in almost any situation, we know what we need to do in order to get there.

For instance, we know that we need to workout more and eat less if we want to lose weight.

The problem is that we are, at our core, habit machines. Our willpower to create change is a finite resource (check out our summary of the great book Willpower for more on this), and it’s impossible to rely on to create long-lasting change.

The answer, Achor tells us, is to put the desired behaviour on the path of least resistance, so that we don’t need to rely on willpower to get it done.

The hardest part is usually just getting started. That’s why if you lower the activation energy for the habits you want to adopt, and increase it for the habits you want to avoid, you’ll be on the path to success.

For example, researchers have found that they could cut cafeteria ice cream consumption in half merely by closing the lid of an ice cream cooler. Crazy, right?

Achor put his running shoes beside his bed and slept in his gym clothes to decrease the energy required to get out of bed and out the door to the gym in the morning.

By making small energy adjustments, you can reroute the path of least resistance and replace bad habits with good ones.

Social Investment

This last principle is pretty straightforward – the more social support you have, the happier you are.

As Achor points out, the most successful people invest in their friends, peers and family members to propel themselves forward.

In fact, one of the greatest predictors of our overall success is our social support network.

The good news for those of you you don’t excel at creating social connections is that psychologists have shown that even brief encounters can form high quality connections, which leads to a bunch of measurable tangible gains in performance.

Conclusion

To wrap things up here, let’s go all the way back to the beginning and revisit the formula we are all familiar with.

Work hard and become successful. Then be happy.

It turns out the truth – as supported by cold hard science – is that the real formula is reversed:

Be happy – then work hard and become successful.

The choice is yours – choose wisely young grasshopper. Your future depends on it.

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