Did you know that many people 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 fuel 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, Achor uses the latest in research to give practical steps to increase happiness in our daily lives. His TED talks on the subject have garnered millions of views.
The Texan got a taste of happiness when he unexpectedly got into Harvard after applying on a dare. He then stayed in the dorms for the next 12 years, first as an undergraduate, then a graduate student and live-in resident to help students with academic and personal success. There he witnessed a pattern of students getting worried, overwhelmed, depressed and even failing.
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 the kids if they like to do schoolwork, most of the kids 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, “I 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.
The seven principles in “The Happiness Advantage” are not about putting on a happy face, Achor believes. It’s not about 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.
Achor talked about the seven principles of “The Happiness Advantage.”
Principle No. 1 The Happiness Advantage 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.
Principle No. 2: The Fulcrum and the Lever Achor learned at an early age that our brain can be thought of as “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.”
According to Yale psychologist Amy Wrzeniewski, a crucial part in work satisfaction is whether you view your work as a job (a means to a paycheck), a career (necessary to advance and succeed) or a calling (work as an end in itself contributing to a greater good). It doesn’t matter the work one does, it can always be connected to one’s higher calling, Achor says.
Principle No. 3 The Tetris Effect
The brains of people who repeatedly play video games (like Tetris, where blocks have to fit geometrically) became stuck in a ‘cognitive after-image,’ which causes them to see the game wherever they go. People can also get stuck that way, especially accountants, lawyers and other professionals trained to be critical. Lawyers depose their children while 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 positive 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,” he says.
Principle No. 4 Falling Up
The human brain has been wired to create mental maps to survive and navigate the world. After a failure, we create a map with three possible outcomes: 1. Circling in the same spot. 2. Getting further lost (going down a more negative path). 3. Getting to a place stronger than before.
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 and believe their actions are futile, while others have what psychologists call “adversarial growth” success after traumas or failures because of their positive mindset.
Principle No. 5 The Zorro Circle
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.
In times of stress, Achor says, it’s important to identify your feelings (whether in writing or in words), find out which parts of the situation you can control, then try to accomplish one small goal. Then another, and another.
Principle No. 6: The 20-Second Rule
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, he says.
But to form a new habit, you have to create the path of least resistance (i.e., it needs to be easy). 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 incorporated guitar playing into his daily routine.
Principle No. 7 Social Investment
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, they actually hold tighter to their social circle,” Achor says. Forming social bonds increases Oxytocin, reducing anxiety and improving concentration and focus.
In the end, Achor believes 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 change is not possible for some reason, “making the best of the current situation only makes good sense.”