When some of us are caught in our own storm of misfortune, we often find ourselves comparing the lives of the more fortunate people and wondering what they have that we don’t. They seemingly have it all — good health and a great job, car and house — all paid off, of course. They must be happy! But is happiness the result of success — or the instigator to success?
The idea that happiness leads to success is what Shawn Achor proclaims in his book, “The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work.” Achor skillfully weaves his own experiences with how happiness can lead to success into scientific research, which describes how the quality of our thoughts alters the physiology of our brain.
Achor first describes his personal discovery of the happiness advantage. He both attended and taught at Harvard, spending almost 12 years interacting daily with students. He noticed that while he held fast to his belief that being at Harvard was a gift and a privilege, many others became overwhelmed with the pressures of academic competition and success. They no longer appreciated attending a prestigious school; they became absorbed in being competitive and too worried about their future. Achor observed that the students “felt overwhelmed by every small setback instead of energized by the possibilities in front of them.”
The students who fretted the most had poor grades. Their academic success suffered at the hands of their incessant worry.
It was years later during a speaking tour in Africa that Achor witnessed the positive impact of appreciation. He visited a school outside of a shantytown, with no electricity or steady supply of running water. He found that the vast majority of the students spoke enthusiastically about their ability to attend school, viewing the experience as a privilege and opportunity rather than a source of drudgery and despair.
Returning to Harvard and noticing the contrast in the attitudes of the students there, Achor realized “how much our interpretation of reality changes our experience of that reality.”
Based on this idea, Achor’s book summarizes the data and research from the behavioral sciences that explains from a physiological perspective how happiness truly improves our performance.
Achor describes several examples of the impact of positive emotions. In what he terms a “Broadening Effect,” positive emotions have been found to expand our range of options, our creativity and increase our recognition and use of available resources. He also describes the “Undoing Effect” in which positive emotions mediate and minimize the negative effects of stress and anxiety.
The value of “The Happiness Advantage” lies not merely in its assertion that happiness and positive emotions increase our performance, but also in its suggestion of ways we can actually put the advantages of happiness to work in our own lives. In addition to suggesting meditation, acts of kindness, exercise, spending money on experiences — not things — and finding ways to utilize our special skills; Achor devotes a chapter to each of his seven fundamental beliefs about happiness (the first being that there are practical advantages to happiness as a state of mind).
The Fulcrum and the Lever
Achor suggests that it is entirely possible to change your performance by changing your mindset. He stated, “Our power to maximize our potential is based on two things: (1) the length of our lever –- how much potential power and possibility we believe we have, and (2) the position of our fulcrum –- the mindset with which we can generate the power to change.”
The Tetris Effect
This refers to our ability to train our brain to capitalize on opportunities and scan the environment, locating opportunities for success. In doing this, we can maximize our own personal happiness, gratitude and optimism, which, as illustrated in Principle No.1, presents us with a great advantage to succeed.
Achor pronounces the value of viewing our failures as opportunities for growth and learning, rather than as a sign of our shortcomings. He distinguishes between post-traumatic thinking versus adversarial growth.
The Zorro Circle
Based on the findings that one of the largest drivers of success is the belief that we can succeed, Achor prescribes focusing our energy first on those things that are under our immediate control. With each success we experience, our circle of influence and ability to affect change expands.
The 20-Second Rule
In what is undoubtedly my most favorite section of the book, Achor explains how to leverage human behavior in making change in our lives. He explains that our personal willpower is a finite commodity. In order to create a new habit, we are advised to put the desirable behavior on the path of least resistance; that is, to make the execution of that behavior as easy as possible while eliminating other options.
Achor reminds us that social support is our single greatest asset and offers us the greatest return on our investment, so to speak. This is especially true when times are tough. He notes that there is a strong connection between the strength of our support system and our happiness.
Shawn Achor’s writing is expressive and truly enjoyable to read. He utilizes a healthy dose of humor, at times sprinkled with a bit of self-deprecation, to keep the reader entertained rather than dutifully drudging through all the data and literature that supports his view. His examples and illustrations are spot on, as well as easily relatable to our own lives. I use the messages from this book in my work as a personal and executive coach, as well as applying them to my own life. It is well-worth the read!