Is Happiness an Advantage? Looking at The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor

We all know people who are generally happy and others who are generally unhappy. Some people just seem wired to be one or the other. The happy ones remain so, despite the tough world that sometimes wages around them, while the unhappy ones could win the lottery and be upset that they had to spend money on travel to pick up their winnings.

So why are people like this? Which state — happy or unhappy — is most likely to give you success? Can you affect change according to where you stand on the happiness scale?

To answer briefly, yes you can change where you stand on the happiness scale and that is the point of The Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor. The author wants to teach you that being happy is a huge advantage and that success follows happiness, happiness doesn’t follow success.

If you work hard, you will become successful, and once you become successful, then you’ll be happy. This pattern of belief explains what most often motivates us in life. We think: If I just get that raise, or hit that next sales target, I’ll be happy. If I can just get that next good grade, I’ll be happy. If I lose that five pounds, I’ll be happy. Success first, happiness second.

The Happiness Advantage is divided into three sections. The first section works to show you how positive psychology is a huge revelation in the field of psychology. A big enough revelation that it’s equated to the revelations Copernicus made when he said Earth revolved around the sun.

Before positive psychology came on the scene almost all research focused on the negative aspects of a person. Now positive psychology puts focus on the positive traits of a person and tries to figure out how to increase those traits rather than simply inhibiting the less-desirable traits.

The second section of the book is all about the 7 Principles of the Happiness Advantage. These are seven things that you can learn about and implement in your life to help infuse happiness into your daily routine — and through that infusion you can increase the success you have in work and life.

The third and final section is all about how changes in an individual can affect those around them. In this book it’s called the ripple effect, but many people are familiar with the old saying that the single flap of a butterfly wing can create a hurricane across the world. The little things we do that affect our mood and increase our success ripple out and affect everyone that we interact with, and the people that our friends interact with.

A recurring theme

One of the biggest recurring themes in the book is that different people will interpret the same set of circumstances in totally different ways. Going outside on a warm sunny day one person will praise the nice weather and the other sitting directly beside them will lament the heat of the day and how uncomfortable it is.

I started to realize just how much our interpretation of reality changes our experience of that reality. The students who were so focused on the stress and the pressure — the ones who saw learning as a chore — were missing out on all the opportunities right in front of them. But those who saw attending Harvard as a privilege seemed to shine even brighter.

This also brought to mind a quote by Charles Swindoll I’ve been familiar with for years.

Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it. – Chuck Swindoll

And another from a book I just finished by Jeff Goins from The Art of Work.

Sometimes the route to our purpose is a chaotic experience, and how we respond matters more than what happens. – The Art of Work

I’ve been a firm believer in the sentiment of the sayings above long before I first heard the concept via Chuck Swindoll, and while I’ve heard it a number of times in books, reading The Happiness Advantage presents real studies to prove that how you choose to react has more bearing on your outlook and success than what actually happens to you.

The 7 Principles

Great — you may now actually believe that how you react and your attitude is one of the greatest predictors of success, but how on earth do you work to increase your happiness? That’s where Section Two and the 7 Principles come into play.

Lets take a quick look at each principle.

Principle 1: The Happiness Advantage

Principle 1 is all about how happiness gives your brain and your organization a leg up on the competition. The whole goal of the chapter on Principle 1 is to show you how people capitalize on happiness, why this works to bring success, and how we can also profit from this focus on happiness.

As we work towards our goals, happiness is either irrelevant or an easily dispensable luxury or a reward only to be won after a lifetime of toil. Some even treat it as a weakness, a sign we’re not working hard enough.

First you need to recognize that there is no single answer about what happiness is. For me it’s hanging out with my kids and heading out into the mountains with my family. For you it could be a long drive on your motorcycle or curling up with a good book and your cat. The only one that can really judge if your current life is a happy one is you. You set the parameters for what happiness is in your life.

This means you can change the parameters — which is what this book is about — changing how happy you are to increase your success.

The most competitive people, the ones with the competitive edge, don’t look to happiness as some distant reward for their achievements, nor grind through their days on neutral or negative; they are the ones who capitalize on the positive and reap the rewards at every turn.

Even at work those who are generally happy, that have generally positive emotions, are more productive. They earn more and produce higher sales for the company. They get higher performance ratings and have more job security. Happy people take fewer sick days and stay in that happy job longer.

But you may think that these people just put their nose to the grindstone and after lots of work are happy. You’d be wrong.

Study after study shows that happiness precedes important outcomes and indicators of thriving

Principle 1 is all about working to improve your positive emotions and to get the bosses that are reading this book to really care about creating a happy environment.

Really, to me this feels like the introduction to the book. In my opinion The Happiness Advantage should have 6 principles and Principle 1 should be the introduction to the book. The best takeaway from this is to add some ‘fun’ areas to an office to promote play. If you do, you’ll get happier people.

While this is attainable for some businesses it’s far out of reach for many. The examples of companies doing this all fall into the category of huge companies dominating markets without much to take away for smaller companies.

Principle 2: The Fulcrum and the Lever

Happiness is so much about mindset as we cited above in our quotes. How you view a situation has more to do with the outcome and your feelings than what actually happened.

Happiness is not about lying to ourselves, or turning a blind eye to the negative, but about adjusting our brain so that we see the ways to rise above our circumstances

This is what Principle 2 is all about. Changing how we view the things that happen to us by changing where our fulcrum is (our mindset on a topic) and how long the lever is that we operate with (the potential power we believe we have).

If we move the fulcrum so that we provide all the mental leverage to the negative mindset we can never hope to move it. If we choose instead to push the fulcrum towards the happy end of the scale we change what is possible for us to accomplish.

Here the author cites a study where 75-year-old men were sent away on a retreat. On this retreat they were told to act like they were 55. Listen to music from the era. Dress like they did when they were 55. At the end of the week-long study they had measurably better health. They even looked younger in their pictures at the end of the week than they did at the beginning.

Simply moving their thoughts towards being younger hauled their bodies along and made them operate as younger versions of themselves.

Before the retreat, the men were tested on every aspect we assume deteriorates with age: physical strength, posture, perception, cognition, and short-term memory. After the retreat, most of the men had improved in every category…

Next time something looks tough, simply start acting like it’s not, which moves your fulcrum on the event towards happiness. Look back in a few days and you can really ‘fake it till you make it.’

Principle 3: The Tetris Effect

The Tetris Effect gets its name from the supremely addictive game of the same name. It turns out if you get people to play Tetris for a number of hours straight they will head out into the real world later and with their brain primed to fit things together, they’ll actually try. This is really just the brain being used to acting on a pattern and trying to continue to act on that same pattern.

For days after the study, some participants literally couldn’t stop dreaming about shapes falling from the sky. Others couldn’t stop seeing these shapes everywhere, even in their waking hours. Quite simply, they couldn’t stop seeing their world as being made up of sequences of Tetris blocks.

The positive psychology principle at work here is “cognitive afterimage” which means they are stuck in one way of thinking. The pattern of playing Tetris stuck with them after long exposure of playing Tetris.

Moving into something a bit more practical than Tetris we can use this to increase our happiness by putting good patterns into play. If you once walked into the room and found something to complain about (a bad Tetris Effect) change that to mention something you like about each room you come into.

Stop the pattern of scanning for the negative and start the routine of scanning for the positive. At our house we talk about the three things that we’re happy about or thankful for in the day. This helps focus us all on the positive aspects of the day and increases our happiness.

For you maybe it’s writing three things in your journal every day or talking about it with your spouse or friend. Either way, use the ability of our brain to stick with a pattern for good by focusing on what’s going well around you.

Principle 4: Falling Up

If a problem has only two options then you’re probably being lazy. If the two options are both not great and you’re simply choosing the best of bad options, you’re really being lazy.

Falling up is all about choosing a path that’s not polar — i.e. success or failure — it’s about choosing a path that, even in failure, can push you forward. You may have heard it as the concept of failing forward.

All the greats you see online have a myriad of failed products, launches, businesses to their name. They are only successful because of the lessons they learned via that failure.

…the Third Path, that leads us from failure or setback to a place where we are even stronger and more capable than before the fall. To be sure, finding that path in challenging times isn’t easy.

Have you ever had a bad client relationship or a bad day at work? How about a rut of those bad days and bad clients. Where some people view these times as something to barely survive or to run away from there is a third path here that those looking for growth can take.

What can you learn from the situation?

Study after study shows that if we are able to conceive of failure as an opportunity for growth, we are all the more likely to experience that growth.

With the a steady stream of clients that aren’t going well it’s time to evaluate your client intake process. What are you doing that’s missing the bad apples? If every client recently has been bad, what are you doing (or not doing) that brings out the worst in the relationship? Only be really digging into how you can affect the issue can you take ownership of it and thus possibly find a solution.

Choose that path that turns failure into something to learn from. Don’t wallow in that failure, it happens to all of us.

Principle 5: The Zorro Circle

With the Zorro Circle you’re supposed to think of yourself like Antonio Banderas…nah I’m just joking. The Zorro Circle is drawn from the training of Zorro — in the movie starring Antonio Banderas. In this movie his initial training is inside a circle just barely big enough to contain his feet in a proper stance. Only once he owns the space inside that circle does his master give him permission to move outside that and start to accomplish bigger tasks.

Few of us have masters living in a cave teaching us to fight the system but we can still apply the same principle.

The concept of the Zorro Circle is a powerful metaphor for how we can achieve our most ambitious goals in our jobs, our careers, and our personal lives. One of the biggest drivers of success is the belief that our behavior matters; that we have control over our future. Yet when our stresses and workloads seem to mount faster than our ability to keep up, feelings of control are often the first things to go, especially when we try to tackle too much at once. If, however we first concentrate our efforts on small manageable goals, we regain the feeling of control so crucial to performance.

If you have a messy office, take five minutes and clean off a corner of the desk. Now spend the next few days guarding that corner as if your life depended on it. Once that success is firmly ingrained move on to another part of the desk or the whole desk.

This idea of small manageable bits of a task is exactly how you should tackle any project, really. Find small easy wins to start and let the momentum build. Soon enough, each project has a tsunami-sized force of success rolling along behind it and things get much easier.

All too often we bite off a huge revolutionary change, like cleaning the entire office and committing to keeping it all clean until the end of time. Once we let a few papers stack up we are creating a small failure and as those build up we lose the motivation to even try.

Take small bites and jump from small success to small success. Look back in a year and you’ll see a mountain moved.

Principle 6: The 20-second Rule

I get up around 5 a.m. every day. Two days a week I work out at 5:45 a.m. and then come to the office. Three days a week I work for a few hours and then work out. Every day the first thing I do is put on my workout clothing before I head out the door to ride my bike to the office. But this habit really starts the night before.

See, the night before I set out my workout clothing and pack away my change of clothes at the bottom of my bag. This means that I have to dig out my ‘regular’ clothes if I try to decide to skip a workout. It’s harder — though just barely — to do that than it is to put on my workout clothes.

Then when I’m at the office people see me and assume I’m going to work out. I mean the clothes I’m wearing aren’t typical office garb. This assumption means that at least once a day someone asks me about my workout.

Because of a choice I made to make it easier to put on my workout clothes in the morning my whole day is oriented around that workout until it’s out of the way. That’s the essence of the 20-second rule.

Without action, knowledge is often meaningless. As Aristotle put it, to be excellent we cannot simply think or feel excellent, we must act excellently. Yet the action required to follow through on what we know is often the hardest part. That’s why even doctors know better than anyone the importance of exercise and diet, 44 percent of them are overweight.

Do you want to start a reading habit? Take the batteries out of your TV remote control or unplug the TV. Take the book you want to read and put it in place of the remote. Hide the remote away on a bookshelf. Now when you hit the couch after a hard day it’s much easier to pick up that book instead of mindlessly turning on the television.

Even for myself — a voracious reader — I found that having an iPad around was too distracting. I didn’t even have social networks on the iPad outside of Goodreads, but the simple fact that I could check my RSS feeds or maybe the stats for my site, or even dip into a comic I enjoyed regularly meant that I’d read for two minutes then dip into something else.

Simply having my phone around meant that I’d pick it up sometimes and start flipping through something I knew took away from my real goal of reading. To combat this I purchased a Kindle Paperwhite. This single-purpose device still allows me to update my reading progress on Goodreads. I can even add books to my wishlist and purchase new Kindle books from it.

What I can’t do is flip around in meaningless wonder at all the amazing things my phone or iPad can do. I also put my phone on the table at the other end of my house and put it on vibrate. Most nights my kids are upstairs and my wife is sitting beside me. Nothing emergent can happen that I need to deal with instantly with those people close so I have no need for a phone.

Making these few simple changes increased my already speedy uptake of books.

What do you want to do? If it’s work out, get your shoes out the night before. If it’s eat healthy, make your healthy lunch the night before so you don’t have to scramble and take the easy way out in the morning.

Make it easy to do the things you want to do and hard to do the things you don’t want to do.

Principle 7: Social Investment

So many people now work alone flung far from their colleagues. As a solo business owner I literally have no one around that I must interact with for work outside of my clients whom I confine 90% of the time to my project management system.

What is the cost of this isolation though?

Unlike many others I connect regularly with friends via text and coffee. I make a point of talking to people at church and asking how things are going with them. We carry these conversations over into the week through digital means of communication.

Where do these relationships go when things get hard though?

…the heart of Principle 7 — that when we encounter an unexpected challenge or threat, the only way to save ourselves is to hold on tight to the people around us and not let go.

It’s so easy and it feels so safe to retreat inside when things are not going as we planned. We may cower inside at the thought of revealing our lack of success to others when we so often simply show our highlight reel to the world. But this is the exact wrong thing to do.

Faced with a daunting project that will tax our ability to complete it on time we withdraw and ‘put our nose to the grindstone’ working all hours. We neglect our friends and family and coworkers in focus and they all understand because things are busy and we need to work.

One of two things happens at this juncture. Either we falter and fail to finish the project, or we power through and get it done, then immediately get rewarded with another challenging project, though we now have zero oxygen left in our tank. Either way, we’re not only miserable, dejected and overwhelmed, but lost in a dead end, unable to perform — and all alone.

The most successful people take the exact opposite approach. Instead of turning inward, they actually hold tighter to their social support. Instead of divesting, they invest. Not only are these people happier, but they are more productive, engaged, energetic, and resilient. They know that their social relationships are the single greatest investment they can make in the Happiness Advantage.

The final principle is all about taking steps to continue to invest in those relationships. It’s actually a good thing to talk at the water cooler for two minutes about the sports game or whatever TV show has captured people’s attention.

Business owners should be okay with some work time spent on these endeavours. In fact they should have some spaces to facilitate them. I know years ago when I worked at a local canoe store it wasn’t uncommon to simply find staff standing at the front desk on a slow time talking about the paddling adventures they wanted to have or had already experienced. While these times didn’t last hours, it wasn’t uncommon to spend 20 minutes doing this a few times a week.

Being friends with the owner’s son I knew that they felt the staff was the best they had ever had in 20 years. We spent our weekends together kayaking or hiking or … something, just enjoying the company of the friends that we worked with. This social connection meant that when some shipment came in randomly at midnight and one of us happened to be driving near the store the call to help in the middle of the night in the snow and rain was something we did happily. If one of us was out there then of course we’d help.

If you’re a solo worker, make sure you have a group around you that you can actually see that can support you. Continue to connect with them at church, or over bowling, or over coffee. How strong these relationships are is a key indicator of how well you’ll weather the tough times that will inevitably come.

Is happiness an advantage?

In one word…YES!

Can you add a happiness to your life? Again the answer is a resounding YES!

Should you read The Happiness Advantage? YES you should. While the core of each principle is written here there are many more practical examples of how to put them into action inside the book. There are many more fascinating studies cited in the book to drive home how big a change you can make in your mood and your physical health by choosing happiness.

Get The Happiness Advantage on Amazon

photo credit: clement127 cc

The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life Book Cover The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life
Shawn Achor
Currency
September 14 2010

Achor explores the relations between happiness and success.

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