Many business books enter my radar. Most I pass by, some I skim and a select few I read. Shawn Achor’s new book The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work was one I read with great interest. Although I’ve read much about positive psychology, Shawn’s work seemed to me the most concise and practical, especially as it relates to individuals in the workplace.
I was so impressed I contacted Shawn and asked him to provide a guest blog which he graciously did. Enjoy this brief look at The Happiness Advantage and if you want to go deeper, read the book,
Most companies and schools around the world follow the same formula: If you work hard, you will become successful, and once you become successful, then you’ll be happy. This pattern of belief explains what most often motivates us in life. We think: If I just get that raise, or hit that next sales target, I’ll be happy. If I can just get that next good grade, I’ll be happy. If I lose that five pounds, I’ll be happy. And so on. Success first, happiness second.
The only problem is that this formula is backwards.
More than a decade of groundbreaking research in the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience has proven in no uncertain terms that the relationship between success and happiness works the other way around. Thanks to this cutting-edge science, 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.
Waiting to be happy limits our brain’s potential for success, whereas cultivating positive brains makes us more motivated, efficient, resilient, creative, and productive, which drives performance upward. This discovery has been confirmed by countless scientific studies, and in my own work and research on 1,600 Harvard students and dozens of Fortune 500 companies worldwide.
Take, for example, the meta-analysis of happiness research that brought together the results of over 200 scientific studies on nearly 275,000 people—and found that happiness leads to success in nearly every domain of our lives, including marriage, health, friendship, community involvement, creativity, and, in particular, our jobs, careers, and businesses.[i] Data abounds showing that happy workers have higher levels of productivity, produce higher sales, perform better in leadership positions, and receive higher performance ratings and higher pay. They also enjoy more job security and are less likely to take sick days, to quit, or to become burned out. Happy CEOs are more likely to lead teams of employees who are both happy and healthy, and who find their work climate conducive to high performance. The list of the benefits of happiness in the workplace goes on and on.
At this point you might be thinking: Maybe people are happy because they are more productive and earn higher pay. As psychology graduate students are taught to repeat ad nauseam: “Correlation is not causation.” In other words, studies often only tell us that two things are related; to find out which causes which, we need to look at it more closely and find out which came first. So which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Does happiness come before success or success before happiness?
One way psychologists attempt to answer this question is to follow people over long periods. One study, for example, measured the initial level of positive emotions in 272 employees, then followed their job performance over the next eighteen months.[ii] And they found that even after controlling for other factors, those who were happier at the beginning ended up receiving better evaluations and higher pay later on. Another study found that how happy individuals were as college freshmen would predict how high their income was nineteen years later, regardless of their initial level of wealth.[iii]
Another way to answer the chicken and egg question is to examine what happens right after you prime someone for positivity. Well it turns out that happiness gives us a real chemical edge on the competition. How? 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. And they enable us to make and sustain more neural connections, which allows us to think more quickly and creatively, become more skilled at complex analysis and problem solving, and see and invent new ways of doing things.
We even quite literally see more of what’s around us when we’re feeling happy. A recent University of Toronto study found that our mood can actually change how our visual cortex—the part of the brain responsible for sight—processes information.[iv] In this experiment, people were primed to think of positive or negative experiences, then asked to look at a series of pictures. Those who were put in a negative mood didn’t process all the images in the pictures—missing substantial parts of the background—while those in a good mood saw everything. Eye-tracking experiments have shown the same thing: Positive emotions actually expand our peripheral line of vision.[v]
Think of the edge all this gives us in the workplace. After all, who wouldn’t want to see out-of-the-box solutions, spot opportunities, and better see how to build upon the ideas of others? In today’s innovation-driven knowledge economy, business success in practically every job or profession hinges on being able to find creative and novel solutions to problems. For example, when researchers at Merck first began studying the effects of a drug called Finasteride, they were intent on finding a cure for benign prostatic hyperplasia, otherwise known as an enlarged prostate. During checkups with the research subjects, though, they learned that many of the participants were experiencing a weird side effect: They were regrowing hair. Fortunately, the Merck researchers could see the billion-dollar product hiding in the unexpected side effect, and Propecia was born.
The Happiness Advantage is why cutting-edge software companies have foosball tables in the employee lounge, why Yahoo! has an in-house massage parlor, and why Google engineers are encouraged to bring their dogs to work. These aren’t just PR gimmicks. Smart companies cultivate these kinds of working environments because every time employees experience a small burst of happiness, they get primed for creativity and innovation. They see solutions they might otherwise have missed. Famed CEO Richard Branson has said that, “more than any other element, fun is the secret of Virgin’s success.” This isn’t just because fun is, well, fun. It’s because fun also leads to bottom-line results.
[i] Lyubomirsky, S., King, L. A. & Diener, E. (2005). The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803–855.
[ii] Staw, B., Sutton, R., & Pelled, L. (1994). Employee positive emotion and favorable outcomes at the workplace. Organization Science, 5, 51-71.
[iii] Diener, E., Nickerson, C., Lucas, R. E. & Sandvik, E. (2002). Dispositional affect and job outcomes. Social Indicators Research, 229–259.
[iv] Schmitz, T. W., De Rosa, E. & Anderson, A. K. (2009). Opposing influences of affective state valence on visual cortical encoding. Journal of Neuroscience, 29, 7199–7207.
[v] Gallagher, W. (2009). Rapt. New York: Penguin, at 36.