The Happiness Advantage

Source published on: 2010


If there is one thing that we can all agree on is that we want to be happier. While many of us may believe that happiness is a byproduct of being successful Shawn Achor, in his book The Happiness Advantage, argues that the opposite is true; choosing to be happy and positive leads to more success:

For untold generations, we have been led to believe that happiness orbited around success. That if we work hard enough, we will be successful, and only if we are successful will we become happy. Success was thought to be the fixed point of the work universe, with happiness revolving around it. […] Now, thanks to breakthroughs in the burgeoning field of positive psychology, we are learning that the opposite is true. When we are happy, we are smarter, more motivated, and thus more successful.

Positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that not only make us feel good, but dial up the learning centers of our brains to higher levels. They help us organize new information, keep that information in the brain longer, and retrieve it faster later on. And they enable us to make and sustain more neural connections, which allows us to think more quickly and creatively, become more skilled at complex analysis and problem solving, and see and invent new ways of doing things.

In other words:

Our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive.

Even if you don’t tend to feel happy or be positive research shows that you can change that. This is particularly useful for those of us whose work requires continuously focusing on finding faults and considering worst case scenarios.

People usually aren’t trying to be difficult or grumpy. Their brains are just really outstanding at scanning their environment for negatives – at immediately spotting the annoyances, stresses and hassles. […] Their brains have been honed and trained to do so through years of practice. Unfortunately, our society only encourages this kind of training. […] The problem is that if we get stuck in only that pattern, always looking for and picking up on the negative, even a paradise can become a hell.

Constantly scanning the world for the negative comes with a great cost. It undercuts our creativity, raises our stress levels, and lowers our motivation and ability to accomplish goals.

On the contrary:

When our brains constantly scan for and focus on the positive, we profit from three of the most important tools available to us: happiness, gratitude, and optimism.

How do we do this?

The best way to kick-start [focusing on the positive] is to start making a daily list of the good things in your job, your career, and your life. It may sound hokey, or ridiculously simple but over a decade of empirical studies has proven the profound effect it has on the way our brains are wired.

Happiness is a fuzzy word but the following emotions may help you get a more accurate picture of the full gamut of what psychology calls ‘happiness’: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, love.

So how do we go about increasing our base happiness level? Research shows that the following activities have the maximum potential to increase our happiness:

  • meditating
  • finding something to look forward to
  • committing conscious acts of kindness
  • making your surroundings positive
  • doing exercise
  • spending money on experiences
  • exercising one of your signature strengths

Shawn also talks about how our mindset significantly affects our abilities and therefore our success:

Studies show that simply believing we can bring about positive change in our lives increases motivation and job performance; that success, in essence, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. One study of 112 entry-level accountants found that those who believed they could accomplish what they set out to do were the ones who ten months later scored the best job performance ratings from their supervisors.

One emotion that completely destroys our happiness is helplessness, the belief that the only possible path is the one downwards. When something, specially bad, happens to us if we focus on how that can make us grow it will accelerate our learning and our success:

When faced with obstacles or failure, succumbing to helplessness keeps us down on the mat, while looking for the path of opportunity helps us pick ourselves up.

Two says to finding the path of growth when facing challenging situations:

The first one is to change your counterfacts:

Imagine […] that a robber walks into a bank and fires his weapon once. You are shot in the right arm.

Instead of focusing on the objective fact that you have a bullet in your arm and it’s going to be painful to get it out, you can focus instead of the fact that you didn’t get hit in your head or that the little lady a meter away didn’t get shot (and possibly killed with the shock), etc.

The second way is to change your explanatory style:

Explanatory style, how we choose to explain the nature of past events, has a crucial impact on our happiness and future success. People with an optimistic explanatory style interpret adversity as being local and temporary while those with a pessimistic explanatory style see these events as more global and permanent. Their beliefs then directly affect their actions.

Another way of increasing our happiness is through feeling, not necessarily being, in control. It has been shown to be one of the strongest drivers of well-being and performance. Feeling out of control triggers our amygdala which puts our body in “jerk” (“fight or flight” or “emotional hijacking”) mode. Once in that state one of the fastest ways of regaining the feeling of control is to put those feelings into words.

The best athletes […], when they win, graciously accept the praise they receive and when they lose, they congratulate their opponent on a job well done. Believing that, for the most part, our actions determine our fates in life can only spur us to work harder; and we see this hard work pay off, our belief in ourselves only grows stronger.

Regarding habits Shawn has the following to say: we are wired to follow the path of least resistance but that usually works against us. Paths of least resistance that become bad habits become hard to eradicate. An effective way of getting rid of them is to add time or effort to these paths. Conversely, if you want to set new habits make sure you minimize time and effort required to start following them, like sleeping in your running clothes if you want to start doing exercise first thing in the morning.

People with stronger social connections are happier, more resilient, more successful, learn faster and live longer. High quality interactions with others, even if they are short, can have a similar effect to deep connections like those we have with family and close friends.

The following TEDx talk by Shawn is a nice summary of his main ideas regarding happiness: