Author: Shawn Achor
APA Style Citation
Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work. New York: Broadway Books.
According to Shawn Achor, the traditional idea that if you work hard, you will be more successful, and have higher levels of happiness is contrary to the reality of how our brains work. Research on happiness has demonstrated that if you achieve success, your brain will simply move the goal post for “success” farther away. As a result, true and lasting happiness can never be found at the end of achievement because the reverse is true. If an individual is happy he or she will be more likely to achieve. Happiness actually increases levels of success by making our brains more innovative, resilient, effective, and productive. Happiness is the cause of success rather than the result. Happiness and optimism generate a competitive edge that the author calls the Happiness Advantage and the book outlines countless studies from neuroscience, economics, and business that demonstrate how happiness leads to success. Happy people experience a 23% reduction in stress, 39% better overall health, 31% greater productivity, and a 34% increase in positive social interactions. The book outlines not only the enormous advantages associated with a positive mood but also how it can be achieved.
Achor effectively makes the case for how we can program our brains to increase positivity in the present and consequently improve performance across in many areas including work, health, relationships, creativity, and energy levels. The book focuses on seven specific principles that individuals can use to generate a happiness advantage and maximize their potential.
Principle #1: The Happiness Advantage
Positive mood makes individuals more productive, engaged, creative, and efficient. Research indicates that a variety of intentional activities can increase personal happiness such as meditation, thinking about a positive future event, doing conscious acts of kindness for others, exercise, and utilizing a signature strength. Signature strengths are the positive and productive personality traits that are strong in a particular individual (see accompanying activity). Happiness levels are increased dramatically when individuals engage in activities that are directly related to signature strengths.
Principle #2: The Fulcrum and the Lever
The title of the principle comes from a quote by Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician who said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” For the author, brains work in a similar fashion. The power to maximize individual potential is based on the length of the lever (the amount of potential and control an individual believes they have) and the location of the fulcrum (the mindset of an individual). Psychologist Ellen Langer showed the power of mindset (fulcrum) in her 1979 experiment that involved a group of 75-year-old men on a week-long retreat. During the retreat, the men were asked to pretend that the year was 1959 and were aided in the illusion by period clothing and materials. After spending a week in 1959 (when they were 20 years younger), the participants were significantly more flexible, had improved hand strength and posture, and showed an improvement in vision of almost 10 percent. They also showed improved memory capacity and intelligence scores.
Achor recommends that managers ask themselves three questions every Monday to help them refocus on a growth mindset (fulcrum) to allow their beliefs about the potential of their employees take effect. These same three questions can be used by teachers to motivate students.
1. Do I believe that the intelligence and skills of my students are not fixed, but can be improved with effort?
2. Do I believe that my students want to make that effort, just as they want to find meaning and fulfillment in their assignments?
3. How am I conveying these beliefs in my daily words and actions?
According to the author, when we recognize that our reality is contingent upon our viewpoint then the idea that external events comprise only about 10 percent of our personal happiness becomes less surprising.
Principle #3: The Tetris Effect
The Tetris Effect is a phenomenon that results when an individual spends so much time on a particular activity, such as the video game Tetris, that the result is that the pattern impacts the person’s cognitions, dreams, and imagery. The phenomenon was discovered when individuals who devoted a large amount of time to playing Tetris found that they would often think about how objects in the real world would fit together as spatial objects in the game. According to the author, the Tetris Effect can either reduce or increase subjective well-being. For example, an individual may find that through practice they begin to scan the world for the negative become less and less happy. The Tetris effect can also be used to maximize happiness by training the brain to seek out, notice, and take advantage of opportunities and possibilities that arise instead of automatically seeing limitations. The difference between a negative and positive Tetris Effect was demonstrated effectively by Richard Wiseman in a study in which participants were instructed to look through a newspaper and count how many photos appeared. The participants who identified themselves as ‘lucky’ were able to finish the task in seconds while those who felt that they were ‘unlucky’ took two minutes on average. On the second page, there was a large headline stating “Stop counting, there are 43 photos”, those who considered themselves to be ‘unlucky’ were far less likely to notice this clue. Additionally, about halfway through the paper was another message stating “Stop counting, tell the experimenter that you have seen this and win $250”, but again the individuals who considered themselves ‘unlucky’ missed this opportunity. This study illustrates how training the brain to scan for the positive can improve both happiness levels and success while a negative Tetris Effect (believing one is unlucky) can cause an individual to miss opportunities.
Principle #4: Falling Up
In this principle, the idea is to find ways to turn setbacks into opportunities for growth which Achor calls capitalizing on downs to build upward momentum. This principle relates to developing resiliency and the psychological idea of post-traumatic growth. Frequently, traumatic events such as loss, chronic illness, displacement, and assault have also led to positive growth. After horrible events, some individuals experience increases in kindness, compassion, overall life satisfaction, self-confidence, and personal strength. Research into post-traumatic growth is filled with individuals who describe themselves as “bouncing forward” not merely “bouncing back”. Falling up provides examples from research on posttraumatic growth and cognitive psychology to help individuals facing a challenging situation at home, work, or school emerge from the situation stronger than ever.
Principle #5: The Zorro Circle
In the Zorro Circle, the emphasis is on learning to focus on small manageable steps in order to build the momentum needed for larger goals. The belief that one is in control of one’s own life at work, school, and home is one of the strongest predictors of well-being and performance. In one example, researchers found that allowing nursing home residents to have more control over some of the aspects of their daily lives—like caring for plants—not only did their levels of happiness improve, but their mortality rate actually dropped in half. Psychological research in goal-setting theory recommends setting goals of moderate difficulty allow individuals to have success and develop a sense of control. A practical application of the Zorro Circle can be seen in a study discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point regarding New York City officials focusing on small manageable goals to combat the rising crime rate of the 1980’s and 1990’s on subways. The problem was approached by using the Broken Windows Theory devised by sociologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling which states that minor acts of vandalism would, if left unaddressed, spiral out of control into more serious crimes. New York City officials decided to work on eliminating graffiti and cleaning up trains. Ultimately, by cleaning up the trains, one by one, officials saw positive results in the form of reduced subway crimes as the Zorro Circle spread outwards.
Principle #6: The 20-Second Rule
The 20-second rule uses psychological research to help eliminate bad habits and establish positive ones by reducing the barriers to making changes. The 20-second rule involves lowering the amount of energy required for habits you wish to foster and raising the amount of energy required for habits you wish to break. For example, this means putting barriers in the way of bad habits and making activities that you want to increase easier to start. If you want to eat healthier keep the junk food out of your house or in the most inconvenient location in your kitchen so that it would require more energy, even as little as 20 seconds, to reach. If you find that you waste too much time checking email, looking at Facebook, or checking specific websites Achor advises that you create barriers that make these activities more difficult for you to reach. For example, eliminate the automatic password and login, take the shortcuts off the desktop, remove Facebook and email from your phone, and removing distracting websites from your homepage or favorites. This according to Achor essentially buries your online distractions in the electronic equivalent of Russian stacking dolls. Cutting the activation energy required to start a new positive habit, even by as little as 20 seconds can also have a big impact. For example, the author discusses how he used the 20-second rule to build the habit of working out in the morning before work. To reduce the effort required and distractions that could prevent him from running he decided to sleep in his gym clothes with his running shoes right by the bed. This allowed him to decrease the amount of activation energy required in the morning to go run; he just needed to roll out of bed and put on his shoes. This simple first step was how he was able to build a habit of morning exercise. According to the athletes and non-athletes, he has talked to worldwide say that just the act of putting on running shows triggers your brain to believe that it is easier to work out right away than to go through the hassle of taking off your shoes. Despite the fact that taking off one’s shoes is clearly easier Achor states that, “the brain, once it has tripped toward a habit, will naturally keep rolling in that direction, following the path of perceived least resistance.” This idea can work with other types of changes individuals want to make – it is simply a matter of determining how to “just get your shoes on” for tasks related to work, school, or other interests. The less energy needed to get started (even 20 seconds) the easier it will be to make a good habit lasting.
Principle #7: Social Investment
One of the strongest influences on happiness is the strength of one’s social network. The happiest 10 percent of individuals are most clearly distinguished by the strength of their interpersonal relationships. Individuals who have strong social support networks are more productive, engaged, energized, and able to handle setbacks. Achor compares an individual’s support network to the way an offensive line protects the quarterback. One of the most important areas for social support is the relationship between an employee and a supervisor or in the case of education, teacher and student. A bad relationship between an employee and a supervisor can be destructive to both happiness and overall physical health. According to Achor, “A bad relationship with your boss can be as bad for you as a steady diet of fried foods—and not nearly as much fun.”
The Happiness Advantage ends with the Ripple Effect or how one individual’s mindset can have an impact on coworkers, friends, family members, and communities. Emotions, both positive and negative, can be contagious. Daniel Goleman describes how negative emotions from one individual can almost immediately infect a group, “Like secondhand smoke, the leakage of emotions can make a bystander an innocent casualty of someone else’s toxic state.” But the happiness advantage also means that positive emotions are contagious as well, making them a powerful tool for improving performance in the classroom or workplace. According to Shawn Achor, “Each tiny move towards a more positive mindset can send ripples of positivity through our organizations, our families, and our communities.”
Other Related Resources
Shawn Achor – The Happy Secret to Better Work
Shawn Achor’s TED talk, which has had over 11 million viewings to date, is an incredible introduction to positive psychology which students will find engaging and inspiring.
GoodThink is Shawn Anchor’s company website that has the seeks to find ways to apply academic research in cognitive and positive psychology to real world situations. Goodthink Inc. is a team of world-renowned researchers, speakers, and trainers who deliver information to organizations around the globe.
Martin Seligman and New Era of Positive Psychology
Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology discusses the overall field of psychology.
Center for Healthy Minds – University of Wisconsin, Madison
Founded by Dr. Richard Davidson, the Center for Healthy Minds conducts research on the neural bases of emotion and methods that promote well-being and human flourishing.
Website for Dr. Richard Davidson
The website of Richard Davidson, PhD of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
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