Happiness and Positive Psychology
I first heard about Achor’s work through his brilliant Ted Talk. The thing that struck me about the Ted Talk was how funny it was and how obviously delighted the speaker was about the work he was doing. He clearly practices what he preached because Shawn Achor looks and sounds like a very happy man. This, more than anything, sold me on the book. Just like choosing a personal trainer who looks fit him or herself over some overweight alternative, you want your happiness expert to be a happy guy. Not only is Achor happy, as a Harvard researcher he also has the credentials. In this book he is presenting a fair amount of his own research as opposed to just taking you through one man’s personal experience. The book is written with a fun, anecdotal and playful tone but backed by some hard data, as Mark Watney would say, ‘he scienced the shit out of this thing.”
Achor’s primary thesis is that due to the data gathered from the cutting edge science of positive psychology, “we now know that happiness is the precursor to success, not merely the result. And that happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement – giving us the competitive edge that I call the Happiness Advantage.” He starts by getting into the sad reality that most of us are very unhappy with our jobs and the work we do. In fact, “A Conference Board survey release in January of 2010 found that only 45% of workers surveyed were happy with their jobs, the lowest in 22 years of polling. Depression rates today are ten times higher than they were in 1960.” This is an unhappiness epidemic. The good news is that we can do something about it. As he and other researchers have discovered, “Once our brains were discovered to have such built-in plasticity, our potential for intellectual and personal growth suddenly became equally malleable. … studies have found numerous ways we can rewire our brains to be more positive, creative, resilient, and productive – to see more possibility where we look.”
Before he takes us into the detail of how we get closer to happiness, he does us the favor of defining it first: “Happiness implies a positive mood in the present and a positive outlook for the future. Martin Seligman, pioneer in positive psychology, has broken it down to three, measurable components: pleasure, engagement, and meaning.” After that definition he pounds home the point again that, “based on the wealth of data they compiled, they found that happiness causes success and achievement, not the opposite.” In short, if you want to be successful work on being happy first.
Happiness tools and methods
What I loved about the book is that he didn’t stop there. He then takes us into some real life, helpful tips about how to get us to our happy place. Here are the biggies:
- Meditate. Meditation takes practice, but it’s one of the most powerful happiness interventions. I highly recommend Buddhify if you haven’t tried it.
- Find something to look forward to. One study found that people who just thought about watching their favorite movie actually raised their endorphin levels by 27%.
- Commit conscious acts of kindness. The important note here is that they need to be conscious, you need to make the intention to commit these acts.
- Infuse positivity into your surroundings. Look at the desks of your co-workers that have tons of pictures and memes, those folks are normally the happiest of the group.
- Exercise. If you’re not doing this already, it’s time to start. Not only does exercise pump up the endorphins, it also boosts mood and enhances work performance in many other ways.
- 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.”
- Exercise a signature strength. Do the things you are good at every once in a while to boost positivity.
This is a wonderful DIY road map to getting on the happy train. I’ve done some of these in the past but have since added several more of these arrows into my quiver. It is definitely making an impact.
He also covers the concept of the fulcrum and the lever and why that physical principle has an impact on our brains. Archimedes once said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Achor takes this into psychology, “What I realized is that our brains work in precisely the same way. Our power to minimize our potential is based on two important 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 generate the power to change.” This is another way of saying that if you look at every task you do with the mindset that you can pull something positive from it, you probably will. One of the things I liked the most about this approach was when he brought it to our jobs. “We view our work as a Job, a Career, or a Calling.” Guess which one will make you the happiest? In his consulting work, he encourages employees to “rewrite their ‘job descriptions’ into what Tal Ben-Shahar calls a ‘calling description’.” This highlights the meaning of the work that we do. When I first read this book, I did this process starting with myself. I then asked my employees to do the same. It is incredibly illuminating about what people find important. The other side of the coin of happiness is bringing it to others. He dives into the “Pygmalion Effect: when our belief in another person’s potential brings that potential to life.” Another way of saying, pass it on. He challenges all managers to ask these three questions: “Do I believe that the intelligence and skills of my employees are not fixed, but can be improved by effort? Do I believe they want to make that effort, just as they want to find meaning and fulfillment in their jobs? How am I conveying these beliefs in my daily words and actions?” The world is not fixed, it is relative and we can have a serious impact upon it.
He then dives into what he calls the Tetris effect. The Tetris effect comes about when people spend tons of time playing the game to the point that everything looks like a block to be arranged somewhere. Most of us fall into the negative Tetris effect where all we see are problems. If everything looks like a problem it is very difficult to find happiness. Achor encourages us to rewire this into the “Positive Tetris Effect: Instead of creating a cognitive pattern that looks for negatives and blocks success, it trains our brains to scan the world for opportunities and ideas that allow our success rate to grow.” If you are constantly scanning and focusing on the positive, you end up with a lot more happiness, gratitude and optimism.” The road map here is: “start making a daily list of the good things in your job, your career and your life.” At the very least, start by covering the three good things that happened today.
His next section was about Falling Up instead of Falling Down. “Study after study shows that if we are able to conceive of failure as an opportunity for growth, we are all the more likely to experience that growth…the people who can most successfully get themselves up off the mat are those who define themselves not by what happened to them, but by what they can make out of what has happened.” I found this personally true after getting broadsided with cancer and thankfully beating it. Many years after the experience, I am grateful for the disease because it helped mold me into who I am today.
The next principle he covers is what he calls the Zorro Circle or as Covey has called it your circle of influence. “Feeling that we are in control, that we are masters of our fate at work and at home, is one of the strongest drivers of both well-being and performance. …these kinds of gains in productivity, happiness, and health have less to do with how much control we actually have and more with how much control we think we have.” Back to the lever and the fulcrum, we have a lot of power by using our mindset of how we look at control in our own lives. The only way to find this control is to start small. Recognize the little things that you have absolute control over, own it, then start to expand upon it. Don’t play the victim, take responsibility. One way to do this is to make two lists, the first of the things that you do that are within your control, the second is those things that you don’t control. It is always surprising how many things fall in the first list.
Principle #6 is the 20 second rule. In countless studies we have found that we have a finite bucket of willpower and that “our willpower weakens the more we use it.” I loved this quote, “Inactivity is simply the easiest option. Unfortunately, we don’t enjoy it nearly as much as we think we do. In general, Americans actually find free time more difficult to enjoy than work. If that sounds ridiculous, consider this: for the most part, our jobs require us to use our skills, engage our minds, and pursue our goals – all things that have been shown to contribute to happiness.” He also goes on to show that we are drawn to what is easy even when we know that active leisure is much more enjoyable than sitting on your ass. The problem is that it takes action to be active, where sitting on the couch doesn’t. His advice is, “Lower the activation energy for the habits you want to adopt and raise it for habits you want to avoid.” His example is that he pulled the batteries out of his remote and instead put books in his living room. When he did this, it became much easier to read a book then getting up, grabbing the batteries to the remote and turning on the TV.
The final principle he covers is social investment. He starts off with a very powerful piece of data, “researchers have found that social support has as much effect on life expectancy as smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, and regular physical activity.” These relationship, especially at work, are your lifeline to being happy or not. “When over a thousand highly successful professional men and women interviewed as they approached retirement and asked what had motivated them the most, overwhelmingly they placed work friendships above both financial gain and individual status.” One of the most important relationships at work is the boss to employee relationship and it is critical to get this right. One of the ways to get this right is to share positive news and react with authentic positivity to those that share positive news with you. If you are a boss, master this. It seriously impacts the happiness of your employees. Finally, gratitude and sharing that gratitude with your employees is also critical to their success. Do it often and do it publicly.
What a great book. It’s rare to find such clear direction around something as murky as happiness. Definitely worth the read.