HomeBooks‘The Happiness Advantage' - How a Positive Brain Fuels A Better Life

‘The Happiness Advantage’ – How a Positive Brain Fuels A Better Life

The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life has been a New York Times bestseller for Shawn Achor, one of America’s leading experts on happiness and related research

Achor, also a professor at Harvard University, states early in his book about positive psychology, “What we spend our time and mental energy focusing on can indeed become our reality” (pg. 12). “We become more successful when we are happier and more positive… It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive” (pg.15).

He then lists “seven specific, actionable, and proven patterns that predict success and achievement,” what he calls “The Seven Principles” of The Happiness Advantage (pg. 17 ff):

The Happiness Advantage — Because positive brains have a biological advantage over brains that are neutral or negative, this principle teaches us how to retrain our brains to capitalize on positivity and improve our productivity and performance.

The Fulcrum and the Lever — How we experience the world, and our ability to succeed within it, constantly changes based on our mindset. This principle teaches us how we can adjust our mindset (our fulcrum) in a way that gives us the power (the lever) to be more fulfilled and successful.

The Tetris Effect — When our brains get stuck in a pattern that focuses on stress, negativity and failure, we set ourselves up to fail. This principle teaches us how to retrain our brains to spot patterns of possibility, so we can see — and seize — opportunity wherever we look.” (The “Tetris” word is based on a smartphone game that can be so absorbing people forget what is going on around them.)

Falling Up — In the midst of defeat, stress, and crisis, our brains map different paths to help us cope. This principle is a bout finding the mental path that not only leads us up out of failure or suffering, but teaches us to be happier and more successful because of it.

The Zorro Circle — When challenges loom and we get overwhelmed, our rational brains can get hijacked by emotions. This principle teaches us how to regain control by focusing first on small, manageable goals, and then gradually expanding our circle to achieve bigger and bigger ones.

The 20-Second Rule — Sustaining lasting change often feels impossible because our willpower is limited. And when willpower fails, we fall back on our old habits and succumb to the path of least resistance. This principle shows how, by making small energy adjustments, we can reroute the path of least resistance and replace bad habits with good ones.

Social Investment — In the midst of challenges and stress, some people choose to hunker down and retreat within themselves. But the most successful people invest in their friends, peers, and family members to propel themselves forward. This principle teaches us how to invest more in one of the greatest predictors of success and excellence — our social support network.”

Achor developed these seven Happiness Advantage principles based on research he conducted at Harvard University, where he teaches, using students and others as subjects. Students and thousands of others worldwide have benefited from learning and applying these principles.

Change Is Possible – Part of The Happiness Advantage

People can change their minds, behavior and happiness because of a feature of the brain known as neuroplasticity. Essentially the brain can not only change but increase in size as a result of learning. “Once our brains were discovered to have such built-in plasticity, our potential for intellectual and personal growth suddenly became equally malleable” (pg. 29).

But Achor warns his readers, “Just reading this book is not enough. It takes actual focus and effort to put these principles into practice, and only then will the returns start pouring in…. The fact that each principle is based on years of hard science means that these ideas have been tested, retested and proven effective” (pg. 33).

Principle #1 — The Happiness Advantage

Contrary to previous thinking that happiness was the result of success, positive psychology is discovering that the opposite is the case. “When we are happy — when our mindset and mood are positive — we are smarter, more motivated, and thus more successful” (pg. 37).

Achor acknowledges that happiness means different things to different people, so a universal hard definition is not recommended. “That’s because there is no single meaning; happiness is relative to the person experiencing it. … In essence the best judge of how happy you are is you” (39).

But how do scientists define happiness? “Essentially, as the experience of positive emotions — pleasure combined with deeper feelings of meaning and purpose. Happiness implies a positive mood in the present and a positive outlook for the future” (ibid.).

“Study after study shows that happiness precedes important outcomes and indicators of thriving…. Happiness causes success and achievement, not the opposite” (42). That’s why he calls it The Happiness Advantage.

Other research has found that “Happiness can improve our physical health, which in turn keeps us working faster and longer and therefore makes us more likely to succeed. This revelation provides companies an additional incentive to care about employee happiness, since healthy employees will be more productive on the job” (43).

“Extensive research has found that happiness actually has a very important evolutionary purpose…. Instead of narrowing our actions down to fight or flight as negative emotions do, positive ones broaden the amount of possibilities we process, making us more thoughtful, creative, and open to new ideas…. 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” (44).

Achor then provides a number of “proven ways we can improve our moods and raise our levels of happiness throughout the day…. If performed habitually over time, each has been shown to help permanently raise our happiness baseline” and create our own Happiness Advantage (pg. 51 ff.):

  • Meditate. “Take just five minutes each day to watch your breath go in and out…. Research shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness, lower stress, even improve immune function.”
  • Find Something to Look Forward To. Whether it’s looking forward to a vacation, watching a good movie, or having a fun experience, “Anticipating future rewards actually light up the pleasure centers in your brain much as the actual reward will.”
  • Commit Conscious Acts of Kindness. Extensive studies have show that “acts of altruism — giving to friends and strangers alike — decrease stress and strongly contribute to enhanced mental health.”
  • Infuse Positivity Into Your Surroundings. “People who flank their computers with pictures of loved ones aren’t just decorating — they’re ensuring a hit of positive emotion each time they glance in that direction. Making time to go outside on a nice day also delivers a huge advantage.” Also “the less negative TV we watch, specifically violent media, the happier we are.”
  • Exercise. “Physical activity can boost mood and enhance our work performance in a number of other ways as well, by improving motivation and feelings of mastery, reducing stress and anxiety, and helping us get into ‘flow.’ … In short, physical activity is not just an incredibly powerful mood lifter, but a long-lasting one. Walk, bike, run, play, stretch, jump rope, pogo stick — it doesn’t matter as long as you’re moving.”
  • Spend Money (but Not on Stuff). “Contrary to the popular saying, money can buy happiness, but only if used to do things as opposed to simply have things….” Researchers “found that money spent on activities — such as concerts and group dinners out — brought far more pleasure than material purchases like shoes, televisions, or expensive watches. Spending money on other people, called ‘prosocial spending,’ also boost happiness.”
  • Exercise a Signature Strength. Here Achor is referring not to physical strength but to using a special skill or talent. “Evermore fulfilling than using a skill, though, is exercising a strength of character, a trait that is deeply embedded in who we are.” He recommends a free online test to determine you “signature strengths” at www.VIAcharacter.org.

Principle #2 — The Fulcrum and the Lever

Changing Your Performance by Changing Your Mindset

Human brains have limited capacity… “Our brains are like single processors capable of devoting only a finite amount of resources to experiencing the world. Because our brain’s resources are limited, we are left with a choice: to use those finite resources to see only pain, negativity, stress and uncertainty, or to use those resources to look at things through a lens of gratitude, hope, resilience, optimism, and meaning.” We can’t change reality but “we can use our brain to change how we process the world, and that in turn changes how we react to it” (pg. 63).

Achor notes that “According to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, many of the seemingly inviolable laws of the universe become altered based on the observer. …(Likewise) every second of our own experience has to be measured through a relative and subjective brain. In other words, ‘reality’ is merely our brain’s relative understanding of the world based on where and how we are observing it. Most important, we can change this perspective at any moment, and by doing so change our experience of the world around us” (pg. 65 ff.).

Achor says your mindset can affect your ability to do things… “The more you believe in your own ability to succeed, the more likely it is that you will…. 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…. More important, our beliefs about our abilities are not necessarily innate, but can change, as our mindset is almost always in flux” (74).

He suggests “when faced with a difficult task or challenge, give yourself an immediate competitive advantage by focusing on all the reasons you will succeed, rather than fail. Remind yourself of the relevant skills you have, rather than those you lack. Think of a time you have been in a similar circumstance in the past and performed well” (75).

“Once we realize how much our reality depends on how we view it, it comes as less of a surprise that our external circumstances predict only about 10 percent of our total happiness” (78).

Achor cites the research of Yale psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski which found that the most successful people at work don’t view their job as a job or even a career, but rather as a calling. “People with a calling view work as an end in itself; their work is fulfilling not because of external rewards but because they feel it contributes to the greater good, draws on their personal strengths, and gives them meaning and purpose” (78).

“Researchers have found that even the smallest tasks can be imbued with greater meaning when they are connected to personal goals and values. The more we can align our daily tasks with our personal vision, the more likely we are to see work as a calling” (80).

Principle #3 — The Tetris Effect

Training Your Brain to Capitalize on Possibility

Achor came up with the “Tetris” name after learning that people who play the game Tetris, fitting shapes together on a screen hour after hour, come to experience the world as a large Tetris game. “The Tetris Effect stems from a very normal physical process that repeated playing triggers in their brains. They become stuck in something called a ‘cognitive afterimage.” Playing Tetris for hours “actually changes the wiring of the brain” (pg. 89).

Our brains “very easily get stuck in patterns of viewing the world, some beneficial more than others.” Some people for example are grumpy much of the time. “These people 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 and stresses and hassles… Their brains have been honed and trained to do so through years of practice…. And worse, the better we get at scanning for the negative, the more we miss out on the positive — those things in life that bring us greater happiness, and in turn fuel our success. The good news is that we can also train our brains to scan for the positive” and enjoy the benefits (pg. 90-91).

“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…. And it’s not that people are only grateful because they are happier, either; gratitude has proven to be a significant cause of positive outcomes” (97-98).

Research has shown that “69 percent of high school and college students report that their career decisions depended on chance encounters. The difference between people who capitalize on these chances and those who watch them pass by (or miss them entirely) is all a matter of focus…. Psychologists call this ‘predictive encoding’: Priming yourself to expect a favorable outcome actually encodes your brain to recognize the outcome when it does in fact arise” (99).

One way to make the Tetris effect work in your favor is “to start making a daily list of the good things in your job, your career, and your life. … Over a decade of empirical studies has proven the profound effect is has on the way our brains are wired” (100). “In just five minutes a day 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” (101). This can also take the form of regular “journaling about positive experiences, (which) has at least an equally powerful effect.”

Principle #4 – Falling Up

Capitalizing on the Downs to Build Upward Momentum

“The human brain is constantly creating and revising mental maps to help us navigate our way through this complex and ever-changing world — kind of like a tireless, overeager cartographer. This tendency has been wired in us through thousands of years of evolution…. But these maps aren’t just crucial to survival in the wilderness, they are vital to succeeding and thriving in the business world” (pg. 107).

These mental maps are vital in helping us make good decisions. “The problem is that when we are stressed or in crisis, many people miss the most important path of all: the path up” (108).

Some paths lead us to more negative consequences, and some keep circling around the same negative experience. “And one, which I call 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…. Our ability to find the Third Path is the difference between those who are crippled by failure and those who rise above it” (108).

We have all heard of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which is fairly common among people who experience highly stressful situations like soldiers at war. But “another large body of research proves the existence of a third, far better path: Post-Traumatic Growth” (109).

He gives as an example women diagnosed with breast cancer, who often experience “Increases in spirituality, compassion for others, openness, and even, eventually, overall life satisfaction. After trauma, people also report enhanced personal strength and self-confidence, as well as a heightened appreciation for, and a greater intimacy in, their social relationships” (110).

Once again, “mindset takes center stage. People’s ability to find the path up rests largely on how they conceive of the cards they have been dealt,” so the strategies that work best include “positive reinterpretation of the situation or event, optimism, acceptance, and coping mechanisms that include focusing on the problem head-on (rather than trying to avoid or deny it” (110).

Famous people like Walt Disney and Oprah Winfrey were fired as young adults. Basketball great Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. “I’ve failed over and over again in my life,” Jordan once said, “ and that is why I succeed.” Robert F. Kennedy said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can every achieve greatly” (112).

So now “psychologists actually recommend that we fail early and often. In his book The Pursuit of Perfect, Tal Ben-Shaham writes that ‘we can only learn to deal with failure by actually experiencing failure, by living through it’” (112).

Happiness Advantage Strategies for Finding the Path Up

Achor offers several strategies for finding the Third Path, the path upward out of adversity:

  • Change your Counterfact. Achor tells the hypothetical story (used in a training exercise) of a bank robber who entered a bank lobby and in the process of robbing the bank, shot one of the customers in the arm. Some participants who imagine this scenario think it is horrible and pity the victim. Others say things like, “I could have been shot somewhere far worse than my arm. I could have died. I feel incredibly fortunate.” Or “It’s amazing that nobody else got hurt. There were at least 50 other people in the bank, including children. It’s unbelievably lucky that everyone lived to tell the tale.” The point is, Achor says, “is that every brain in the room does the exact same thing. It invents — and that’s an important word — a ‘counterfact.’ A counterfact is an alternate scenario our brains create to help us evaluate and make sense of what really happened” (122). The important thing is “Because it’s invented, we actually have the power in any given situation to consciously select a counterfact the makes us feel fortunate rather than helpless. (This also) sets ourselves up for the whole host of benefits to motivation and performance we now know accompanies a positive mindset” (122).
  • Change your Explanatory Style. Salesmen experience a tremendous amount of rejection, sometimes up to 90 percent. Many find this depressing and discouraging. But for a few, it rolls off like water on a duck’s back. They remain optimistic. Extensive research has “shown that 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… Virtually all avenues of success, we now know, are dictated by explanatory style. It predicts how well students do in high school, and even how well new recruits do at the U.S. Military Academy” (124).
  • Learn your ABCD’s. “One way to help ourselves see the path from adversity to opportunity is to practice the ABCD model of interpretation: Adversity, Belief, Consequence, and Disputation. Adversity is the event we can’t change; it is what it is. Belief is our reaction to the event; why we thought it happened and what we think it means for the future…. If we see the adversity as short-term or an an opportunity for growth … then we maximize the chance of a positive Consequence…. Disputation involves first telling ourselves that our belief is just that – a belief, not a fact — and then challenging (or disputing) it. Psychologists recommend that we externalize this voice (i.e., pretend it’s coming from someone else), so it’s like we’re actually arguing with another person” (125).

Principle #5—The Zorro Circle

How Limiting Your Focus to Small, Manageable Goals Can Expand Your Sphere of Power

The Zorro name comes from the legend of Zorro, who began as a young man named Alejandro, taught by the old sword master Don Diego “to fight only within this small circle” drawn on the ground. Don Diego tells the youth, “This circle will be your world. Your whole life. Until I tell you otherwise, there is nothing outside of it” (129).

Achor uses this story to make the point that “if we first concentrate our efforts on small manageable goals, we regain the feeling of control so crucial to performance. (129). “Feeling that we are in control, that we are masters of our own fate at work and at home, is one of the strongest drivers of both well-being and performance,” Achor says. “The most successful people, in work and in life, are those who have what psychologists call an ‘internal locus of control,’ the belief that their actions have a direct effect on their outcomes. People with an external locus, on the other hand, are more likely to see daily events as dictated by external forces” (130).

Achor explains that “our actions are often determined by the brain’s two dueling components: our knee-jerk-like emotional system (let’s call him the Jerk) and our rational, cognitive system ( let’s call him the Thinker).” (132-33).

“The oldest part of the brain, evolutionarily speaking, is the Jerk, and it is based in the limbic (emotional) region, where the amygdala reigns supreme. Thousands of years ago this knee-jerk system was necessary for our survival.” It triggered the automatic reaction to danger like an attacking tiger by “flooding our body with adrenaline and stress hormones,” which energized the body for fight or flight.

The problem is, today we don’t have tigers in our homes or office, but we have many sources of stress that can trigger the “Jerk” response, flooding our systems with adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones that really get in the way of clear thinking. “The Thinker’s purpose is simple, but it reflects a huge evolutionary leap: think, then react…. When the Jerk overpowers the Thinker’s defenses, instead of ‘think, then react,’ the Jerk responds with ‘fight or flight.’ We have become victims of what scientists call ‘emotional hijacking’” (133).

This is so common, overcoming it can be a challenge for anyone. Unreasonable expectations are a major cause of frustration and disappointment. “That’s why psychologists who specialize in goal-setting theory advocate setting goals of moderate difficulty — not so easy that we don’t have to try, but not so difficult that we get discouraged and give up” (139).

Finding and improving small problems, staying inside the Zorro Circle, can be very beneficial long-term. Japanese companies practice kaizen, which means continuous improvement, and this practice has been spread to the U.S. and other countries as well. Focusing on small, incremental improvements is a process all team members can share, and the net result over time is enormous — and much less risky than taking bold giant leaps.

Principle #6 — The 20-Second Rule

How to Turn Bad Habits into Good Ones by Minimizing Barriers to Change

The noted psychologist William James famously said that people are “mere bundles of habits” because we perform most daily tasks on autopilot, following our habits. Improving our habits can be the key to greater success in life, but how do we build new ones that last? William James recommended “daily strokes of action.” Achor quotes him: “A tendency to act only becomes effectively ingrained in us in proportion to the uninterrupted frequency with which the actions actually occur, and the brain ‘grows’ to their use.” Habits build up in the brain through frequent, consistent practice.

But starting new habits can be quite difficult. Research has shown that mere willpower is not enough — we all have a limited supply of willpower each day, and it is easily used up. Instead, Achor recommends what he calls “The 20-Second Rule.”

He learned from his own personal experiment how to make it hard for him NOT to build a new habit of practicing the guitar. He bought a stand for it and put it in the middle of his living room where he could not avoid it.

“What I had done here, essentially, was put the desired behavior on the path of least resistance, so it actually took less energy and effort to pick up and practice the guitar than avoid it. I like to call this the 20-Second Rule, because lowering the barrier to change by just 20 seconds was all it took to help me form a new life habit.” Psychologists call the energy for starting a new habit ‘activation energy.’ The secret, Achor says, is to “lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt, and raise it for habits you want to avoid” (pg. 161).

Principle #7 — Social Investment

Why Social Support is Your Single Greatest Asset

The most successful people have learned that, in times of great difficulty or crisis, instead of withdrawing into themselves, they reach out to others, Achor reports. “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” (175).

The famous Harvard Men study’s main conclusion was through “70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people matter, and matter more than anything else in the world” (176) Achor adds, “when we have a community of people we can count on — spouse, family, friends, colleagues — we multiply our emotional, intellectual, and physical resources. We bounce back from setbacks faster, accomplish more, and feel a greater sense of purpose… First, social interactions jolt us with positivity in the moment; then each of these single connections strengthens a relationship over time, which raises our happiness baseline permanently” (176).

Achor said that his own “empirical study of well-being among 1,600 Harvard undergraduates found a similar result — social support was a far greater predictor of happiness than any other factor, more than GPA, family income, SAT scores, age, gender, or race” (176).

This is not an accident but a result of evolution, he writes. “Evolutionary psychologists explain that the innate need to affiliate and form social bonds has been literally wired into our biology. When we make a positive social connection, the pleasure-inducing hormone oxytocin is released into our bloodstream, immediately reducing anxiety and improving concentration and focus…. We have such a biological need for social support, our bodies can literally malfunction without it” (177).

Achor urges people to build on the principles of the Happiness Advantage to make the world a better place. “The more we capitalize on the Happiness Advantage ourselves, the more we can impact the lives of those around us. Extraordinarily, recent research exploring the role of social networks in shaping human behavior has proven that much of our behavior is literally contagious; that our habits, attitudes, and actions spread through a complicated web of connections to infect those around us” (pg. 201). Get the Happiness Advantage book here.

Main Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay



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