Did you know that most Americans actually find free time more difficult to enjoy than work? Although many people also find their work stressful, boring, or meaningless, success doesn’t make people happy, either.
“More than a decade of groundbreaking research in the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience has proven in no uncertain terms that the relationship between success and happiness works the other way around,” writes Shawn Achor, one of the designers and teachers of Harvard’s famous happiness course, in “The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work.” Research shows that happiness is the precursor to success, not the result, and that, together with optimism, it fuels success. This is what Achor means by the competitive edge he calls the “happiness advantage.”
But can unhappy people — or even mildly content people — become happy? If so, how? And is it possible to be happy even at work?
Achor believes so. As the CEO of Good Think Inc., a global positive-psychology consulting company that has worked in over 50 countries, Achor uses the latest in research, including his own work with 1,600 Harvard undergraduates, to give practical steps to increase happiness in our daily lives. His TED talk on the subject has garnered millions of views.
Stumbling Upon Happiness
Achor got a taste of happiness when he unexpectedly got into Harvard, having applied on a dare. He then stayed in the dorms for the next 12 years, first as an undergraduate, then a graduate student, then as a live-in resident to help students with academic and personal success. There he witnessed a pattern of students getting worried, overwhelmed, depressed, sometimes failing. He wanted to know why some students — like himself — viewed Harvard as a gift or privilege, and others succumbed to stresses and pressures that made the experience unbearable.
It was only after he went to visit a shantytown school in Soweto, South Africa, that he began to understand the answer. When he asked, as an icebreaker, “Who here likes to do schoolwork?” — one of his opening lines in America that usually brought up groans and laughter — most of the kids there raised their hands. And they weren’t lying. A CEO from South Africa told him, “They see schoolwork as a privilege … one their parents did not have.”
When he returned to Harvard and saw people complaining about the very thing Soweto students saw as a privilege, he “started to realize just how much our interpretation of reality changes our experience of that reality.” Students who saw learning as a chore missed out on the opportunities in front of them, but those who saw Harvard as an opportunity shined. Achor loves to show a scatter-plot diagram, the standard graph plotting anything — weight in relation to height, sleep in relation to energy, etc. — with one dot (individual) outside the standard path.
“If we got this data back as researchers, we would be thrilled because very clearly there is a trend going on here,” Achor says. Researchers usually believe the one weird red dot outside the path — the outlier — is a measurement error, and so would delete it. Which is statistically valid if you’re studying trends or average behaviors or average outcomes. “If we study what is merely average, we will remain average,” says Achor. While conventional psychology ignores the outliers because they do not fit the pattern, Achor seeks them out in order to learn from them — as do others in positive psychology, who, unlike self-help authors, use scientific, empirical studies to research positive trends.
The seven principles in “The Happiness Advantage” are not about putting on a happy face, Achor believes. It’s not using positive thinking to pretend problems don’t exist, or that everything will always be great. It’s about harnessing our neuroplasticity, our brain’s ability to change and rewire itself. “The hardest part about happiness is remembering that we can choose it,” he says. “Our amygdala is constantly scanning for threats, so unless you are a monk with 8,000 hours of meditation, we have to actively choose happiness by remembering that our external world does not define our happiness and by creating positive habits that sustain us and get us back on track.” Achor talked with Brain World about the seven principles of “The Happiness Advantage.”
Principle 1: The Happiness Advantage (Why Happier Workers Make Better Workplaces)
Happiness, Achor says, is “the joy we feel striving toward our potential. This definition links positive emotion with a cognitive awareness of growth. Positive emotion without growth is pleasure, which is fleeting. Growth without positive emotion is equally short-lived and leads to depression.”
“Your brain works significantly better at positive than it does when neutral or negative,” Achor says, noting that when positive, the brain has triple the creativity, 31 percent higher levels of productivity, 23 percent fewer fatigue-related symptoms, 37 percent higher levels of sales — all resulting in higher profit and lower burnout and turnover. “The greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain,” he says. “Why work with a negatively impaired brain?”
Happiness, health, and heartiness came before success — not after, Achor points out. That’s because happiness gives us a chemical edge, flooding our brains with dopamine (the neurotransmitter responsible for reward-driven learning) and serotonin (the neurotransmitter contributing to well-being and happiness).
A study at the University of Toronto published in The Journal of Neuroscience in 2009 found that mood can affect how the visual cortex processes information. Those subjects primed for positive moods process much more than those primed for negative moods. People who were positive also did better business deals. That’s why companies like Google, Yahoo!, and Virgin make sure their environments are fun, happy places. “Smart companies cultivate these kinds of working environments,” says Achor, “because every time employees experience a small burst of happiness, they get primed for creativity and motivation.”
Achor advises basic life-happiness principles to elevate mood, such as meditation (which can help grow the prefrontal cortex and increase happiness), infusing positivity into your surroundings, and exercising a signature strength (something you know you excel in, which can make you less depressed).
Principle 2: The Fulcrum and the Lever (Change the Way You Think and Maximize Your Potential)
Achor learned at an early age that the brain is like “single processors capable of devoting only a finite amount of resources to experiencing the world.” You can use those resources to see the world through a lens of negativity, stress, pain, and uncertainty, he says, or through a lens of gratitude, hope, resilience, and optimism. “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.”
Sure, some people have a lower baseline of happiness. “Genes set the initial baseline but our research in positive psychology has proven beyond a doubt that we can take a pessimist and turn them significantly more optimistic and happier,” Achor says. “Look at studies of twins, which are the basis for much of our genetic research in psychology, and the graphs show a different picture. There are outliers all over the place.”
An expectation of a happy event, like mirthful laughter, causes the same neurons to fire as if the event took place. “Mental construction of daily activities, more than the activity itself defines our reality,” Achor points out, citing an experiment performed on the cleaning staff of seven hotels, published in Psychological Science in 2007. Researchers told half the staff how much exercise and how many calories they were burning doing their work, how vacuuming was similar to a cardio workout; they didn’t tell the control group anything. Some weeks later, only the cardio group lost weight, and their cholesterol went down.
It’s not enough to do activities you enjoy — your brain has to feel the activity has a purpose. The same goes for leisure activity: You have to know your leisure has a purpose for it to feel meaningful. You also have to believe your abilities can improve.
But a crucial part in work satisfaction is whether you view your work as a job (a chore to get a paycheck), a career (necessary to advance and succeed) or a calling (work as an end in itself contributing to a greater good), according to Yale psychologist Amy Wrzeniewski. It doesn’t matter what work one does, one can always connect it to one’s higher calling, Achor says.