Working For Happiness: 7 Principles of Positive Psychology

Principle 3: The Tetris Effect (Rewiring a Stuck Brain)

According to Achor, the brains of people who repeatedly play video games became stuck in a “cognitive afterimage,” which causes them to see the game wherever they go. (Achor tells the story of almost stealing a police car after playing “Grand Theft Auto”!) “Playing hour after hour of ‘Tetris’ actually changes the brain,” he says — new neural pathways are created.

People can get stuck that way, too, he says. Especially accountants, lawyers, and other professionals trained to be critical. Lawyers “depose” their children, accountants make spreadsheets of their wives’ faults.

But you can create a “positive tetris effect” — i.e., train your brain to get stuck in a positive afterimage using happiness, gratitude, and optimism. Make a list of three good things at the end of the day, and your brain will have to scan for positive events. “This trains the brain to become more skilled at noticing and focusing on possibilities for personal and professional growth and seizing opportunities to act on them,” Achor says, adding that it pushes out the negative experience.

Principle 4: Falling Up (Learning Resilience)

The human brain has been wired to create mental maps to survive and navigate the world. After failure, we create a map with three possible outcomes:

  1. Circling in the same spot.
  2. Getting you further lost (going down a more negative path).
  3. Getting to a place where you are stronger than before.

Achor says the third way “is the difference between those who are crippled by failure and those who rise above it.” After repeated setbacks, some people learn helplessness, believing their actions are futile, while others have what psychologists call “adversarial growth” — success because of their positive mindset.

How do you change your mindset to become one of the latter? Achor likes to tell people a fabricated scenario where you walk into the bank and are the only one to get shot in the arm by bank robbers. He then asks: “Lucky or unlucky?” About 70 percent usually say “unlucky”, and only 30 percent say “lucky,” for many different reasons, including “Why me?” and “Glad more people weren’t hurt.”

Achor says the brain invents a “counterfact” — Richard Wiseman’s term from his book, “The Luck Factor”: an alternate scenario to help the brain make sense of what occurred. When something goes wrong, we can all invent counterfacts—even disputing our natural pessimistic tendencies — to make us feel better and handle the situation better.

Principle 5: The Zorro Circle (Get Control of The Small Stuff)

Before he could become a hero, the fictional character Zorro had to learn to control his impulsiveness and master his skills one by one, first within a small circle. Often, Achor says, we feel out of control, especially when we try to tackle too many things at once. In a study of 7,400 employees published in The Lancet in 2007, people who felt they had little control over their deadlines had a 50 percent higher risk of heart disease.

Our brain’s prefrontal cortex helps us think logically — to think first, then react. But in stressful situations, the amygdala floods our body with adrenaline and the reflexive fight-or-flight response, overpowering logic.

In times of stress, Achor says, it’s important to identify your feelings, find out which parts of the situation you can control, then try to accomplish one small goal. Then another, and another…

Principle 6: The 20-Second Rule (Minimize Barriers to Change)

Neuroplasticity tells us that we can change our brains: Bad habits wire them that way, as do good habits. Achor works with people to replace a negative habit with a positive one, “so that the brain’s resources are being allocated appropriately” toward change. “Your neurochemicals can change in less than a minute based upon your environment and cognitive responses,” Achor says. “Some researchers claim they can see changes in the neural pathways caused by a moderate-level habit in about 28 to 29 days.” Other researchers, like Achor, use 21 days of habit-formation as a starting foundation for long-term change.

But for a new habit to form, you have to create the path of least resistance. Achor found that committing to playing the guitar every day wasn’t enough when his guitar was stored in the closet. Once he moved it outside (“lower the barrier”), he was able to incorporate guitar playing into his daily routine. You can raise the barrier of resistance for bad habits you want to avoid — removing the chocolate from the house, hiding your email folder in three other folders so you won’t check it — and lower it for habits you want to do. (Achor used to sleep in his running clothes so he would go exercise in the morning!)

Scientists have also found that willpower is a limited resource, so one should limit one’s choices so you don’t run out of willpower.

Principle 7: Social Investment (It’s All About Friends)

In times of stress and crisis, many people retreat into their shells and cut off communication with their friends and loved ones. But happy, successful people do the opposite: “Instead of turning inward,” says Achor, “they actually hold tighter to their social circle.” Forming social bonds increases oxytocin, reducing anxiety and improving concentration and focus. So many studies on illness find that support groups increase sufferers’ chances of survival.

The Harvard men study followed 268 men from college in the 1930s to the present, and found that social relationships mattered more than anything else, regarding health, success, and happiness.

Social relationships — they don’t always have to be deep — help people at work and at home to manage stress, lower cortisol, and get over conflict. “At Harvard, I found a 0.7 correlation between happiness and social support,” Achor says. “Social support is as predictive of longevity as smoking and obesity, and can make you 10 times more engaged.”

In the end, Achor says we can always be happy at work by creating positive habits and sticking with them. “But if you feel like you could grow more in another job, then optimism should fuel the belief that you can make that change successfully,” he says. But if for some reason change is not possible, then “making the best of the current situation only makes good sense.”

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