Happiness precedes success, so own your happiness — @shawnachor

Book Highlights: “The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor

The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor

Happiness gets correlated with many things… health, status, fitness, wealth, and education, just to name a few. In popular culture, individuals possessing more of each of these elements are generally projected as happier. In chasing happiness, we endlessly try to be healthier, smarter, get promoted, etc, and then get confused as to why we might not be happy. Without stealing all of Shawn Achor’s thunder (he did spend a career’s worth of research on this topic after all), we have the correlation right, but the causation backwards.

“Happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement.”

The benefits of being happy

When we’re happy, we have clearer thinking, are more motivated, more pleasant and inspiring to be around, and can thus tackle greater challenges.

Just a few results correlated with happiness…

I can decide to be happy

“Happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change; it is the realization that we can”

This is merely the classic “glass half- full vs. empty” comparison, but when well-being is itself subjective, we have the control. We can actively choose to experience positive emotions or not, and train our minds to be susceptible to one or the other. In general, the two competing world views we face are:

  • Optimism = any crisis is local and temporary
  • Pessimism = any crisis is global and permanent

Control what I can

“If we concentrate our efforts on small manageable goals, we regain the feeling of control so crucial to performance.”

How much control we think we have is important. Feeling in control allows our mind to stay calm and think rationally. It is when we feel a loss of control that our “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in with an emotional response that can often be loud and dramatic. Here’s a fun example:

Darth Vader loses his patience in a great Eddie Izzard sketch

Some things we can do when we start to emotionally react:

  1. Learn to recognize when you’re feeling distress / anxiety
  2. Identify what about the situation you can control
  3. Identify one small goal you can accomplish quickly

As a quick aside, there are many intervention-type courses that often get critiqued (The Landmark Forum being one of them). While many of the critiques are valid, the main tool I took from one years ago was the ability to self-monitor, and actually catch myself creating a narrative or story that was completely false. The main thing one can actually control in any situation is how they experience it (ex. My wife isn’t returning messages because she’s mad at me for not doing the dishes vs. she’s working in a hospital basement today that doesn’t have cell signal).

We need systems, not just willpower

Our willpower weakens the more we use it.

There is a human tendency towards the path of least resistance. Each “fight” against that path takes away from our daily quota of willpower. When we are worn out, we slide towards what’s easier. Every habit, good or bad, requires a certain amount of “activation energy” to get started. Many resolutions fail because they rely solely on willpower and the activation energy of the new habit is totally draining. The trick is to lower activation energy for habits you want to adopt, and increase it for habits you want to kick. Some quick examples:

  • Make getting to the chocolate bars at home physically longer and harder than getting to the healthy snacks
  • Install a website blocker that blocks your access to distracting websites during work hours

Another aside: leisure helps as restore willpower and overall energy. However, passive, inactive leisure is only effective for about 30 minutes. After that, any restorative benefits reverse and start to work against us. Only active leisure such as games or sports truly help us relax and regenerate with increasing benefits the longer we perform the activity.


“The average employee gets interrupted from their work every 11 minutes, and on each occasion experiences a loss of concentration and flow that takes almost as many minutes to recover from.”

In the consulting work I do, this is a recurring challenge when I start working with clients. Activity is exhausting, whereas productivity can be fulfilling. There is an awesome chapter on granularity, but the general theme is to limit multitasking and set up rhythms so that you can focus on one thing at a time, uninterrupted.

Outlive a hermit

“One study found that participating in a breast cancer support group actually doubled women’s life expectancy post surgery”

Truly reaching out and deepening social bonds with family and friends is what cultivates a support net that can help us bounce back quickly in moments of trouble. This is chronicled further in the Grant Study which followed a group of individuals for 75 years, from childhood through to old age. The single most important relationship noted in the workplace is between an employee and their immediate manager → every one of us has this relationship, and could do more to build it.

Things I can do

The primary skill to develop is an overall sense of optimism. Training your brain to spot and reinforce positive experiences will develop a self-sustaining engine that radiates out from you. Conceptually, this is about focusing one’s mind… similar to when you buy a red Toyota Prius, you suddenly spot every other red Toyota Prius on the roads. There’s a cognitive “after-image” that follows you.

Apparently any lucrative hours-based occupations can become particularly challenging because of this… It is not uncommon for lawyers or consultants to report viewing their time with family as wasted or non-billable. This creates a problem when one can’t compartmentalize that perspective. Here are some habits that get our brains tuned into the lighter side of things:

  1. Meditate → there are 100+ different styles and rhythms; find one that works for you in calming daily stresses
  2. Find something to look forward to → it doesn’t matter how small or big, but something to keep you excited provides purpose and meaning
  3. Perform, and then reflect on conscious acts of kindness and gratitude → write them down at the end of the day, or discuss them with your partner (it can even be as simple as your end of day discussion being around three things you thought went well, and are grateful for)
  4. Exercise → release endorphins, get oxygen, etc.
  5. Spend money on experiencesfar more memorable than things
  6. Perform activities you excel at to generate small wins → we’re all good at something; find a way to check a few things off your never-ending list on a daily basis
  7. Invest in your social network → actively reach out and enrich your relationships in a way that you can maintain even when things get busy

Giving my colleagues a boost

At work, apparently there is a 3:1 ratio needed to balance positive and negative feelings. That is, for every pessimistic interaction, we need three optimistic ones to balance it out. That’s why a lot of a leader’s time is spent cheerleading and talking about the vision that the company is working towards. That’s why brands invest in little luxuries such as a foosball table, staff socials, etc. Some specific things that we can take away:

  • Hire happy people → Test for general worldview in your screening, as we now know that happiness precedes success, so we can’t rely on this job being the thing that makes someone happy. Grumpy people are energy vampires; keep them out!
  • Share good news at the start of meetings → this actively loosens up and relaxes the brain, allowing clearer thinking
  • When you need a colleague to pull through in something big like a presentation, positive reinforcement is far more powerful than last-minute stress → comparative studies have found a 31% improvement when using encouragement in this setting vs. “reminding everyone what’s at stake”

Contagious effects

If you surround yourself with happy people, you’ll become happier. If you can help yourself be happy, you will help everyone around you with their happiness as well. Read and share the book, and start practicing some of these positive psychology habits sooner rather than later!

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