Which comes first, success or happiness?
Conventional wisdom holds that if we work hard and perform well, we'll be more successful. And if we are successful, then we'll be happy. But according to Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage: The 7 Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, that thinking is exactly backward. In other words, happiness comes first. A happy brain performs better and breeds success. Not the other way around.
Achor is an expert on human potential, with a mission of bridging the gap between the science of happiness and performance in our everyday lives. He helped design and teach the famed “happiness” course at Harvard, one of the school's most popular classes. He now serves as the founder and CEO of Aspirant, a research and consulting firm that uses positive psychology to enhance individual achievement and cultivate a more productive workplace.
Happiness and the Brain
Why are we more productive, higher performing and more successful when we're happy? First of all, the brand of happiness Achor refers to is not the Pollyanna, everything-is-sunshine-and-roses version, a rather shallow notion related to naivete, but rather one of rational optimism, which is one of the fundamental concepts of positive psychology.
Rational optimism begins with the reality of your situation, then seeks to change the way you view your work, with a focus on the good, the strength, the positives and not the bad, the weaknesses or the negatives. Most people are familiar with Gallup's strength theory, based on the premise of positive psychology and the work of Soar With Your Strengths author Donald O. Clifton, which is focused on playing to your talents and strengths while managing around your weaknesses.
Achor's research is clear that a positive outlook opens new routes of thinking and acting. When we’re positive, our thinking is more expansive, more resourceful. We consider more alternatives, we open ourselves up to a wider range of possibilities. Our performance is therefore enhanced when we are feeling positive, as we have a greater urge to play, create, learn, relate, help, grow and achieve.
What is attractive about The Happiness Advantage is that it demonstrates and validates through research how simple little things—a kind word, a smile, a random act of kindness—can help to quickly change your brain and rewire it.
The 21-Day Challenge
For example, managers in one company increased their praise and recognition of one employee, once a day, for 21 business days in a row. Six months later, those teams, as opposed to a control group, had a 31 percent higher level of productivity. A 31 percent increase in productivity in three weeks is unheard of.
According to Achor, starting each work day by writing down three things you're grateful for, for example, actually changes the way in which your brain processes the challenges your team is about to deal with.
One of the seven positive psychology principles Achor writes about is something called The Zorro Circle, which is the small circle the legendary masked hero Zorro was taught to fight in by his sword master, Don Deigo. It was the circle that enabled Zorro to achieve his mastery. The Zorro Circle is about how limiting your focus to small, manageable goals can expand your field of power, and Achor uses it as a powerful metaphor for how we can achieve our most ambitious goals in our jobs, our careers, and our personal lives.
The concept is simple: Pick an area you know you'll be successful in. Achor recommends choosing something you already know makes you happier. Then, create a life habit out of that, by attempting to do it for 21 days in a row, so it becomes a routine part of your day.
Achor advises that it has to be something very short, small, and simple. "You don't want to be spending your entire day doing these habits, hoping for more productivity," he says. "What we really want is something short you can create every day that starts to create that pattern…allowing your brain to start to achieve that happiness advantage."
Try this, for example: when you first open up your e-mail inbox in the morning, send a two sentence e-mail praising or recognizing somebody in your circle–colleague, family member, friend.
At the end of 2008, just before the 2009 tax season, Achor worked with the large accounting firm KPMG. He took half of their tax audit managers and trained them on the principles of positive psychology. They were encouraged to create one positive habit over a 21 day period. After the training, the managers reported that they were significantly happier than the control group who had not received the training. Their job satisfaction was higher.
But short-term emotional lifts are one thing. Long-term transformation is quite another.
Achor reports that for the duration of the tax season—four months after the training—the group that was trained retained those significantly higher levels of life satisfaction, job satisfaction, as well as lower levels of stress.
The lesson seems clear: happiness first.
Matthew E. May is founder of EDIT Innovation, an ideas agency that helps simplify products, services, and process. Matt's new book, The Laws of Subtraction, will be published in October.