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The Happiness Advantage [BOOK NOTES]

Happiness is not just a mood—it’s a work ethic. When we reframe failure as an opportunity for growth, we are all the more likely to experience that growth (see: post-traumatic growth). The most successful people, in work and in life, believe that their actions have a direct effect on their outcomes.

  • General formula: If you work hard, you will become successful, and once you become successful, then you’ll be happy.
  • Positive psychology: Happiness first, success second. We become more successful when we are happier and more positive.
  • Happiness leads to success in nearly every domain, including work, health, friendship, sociability, creativity, and energy.

His story:

  • he was from Texas, applied to Harvard just for fun and was accepted, stayed for 12 more years helping students to get through difficult times
  • Noticed some patterns: Many of my students saw Harvard as a privilege, but others quickly lost sight of that reality and focused only on the workload, the competition, the stress. They fretted incessantly about their future, despite the fact that they were earning a degree that would open so many doors. They felt overwhelmed by every small setback instead of energized by the possibilities in front of them. And after watching enough of those students struggle to make their way through, something dawned on me. Not only were these students the ones who seemed most susceptible to stress and depression, they were the ones whose grades and academic performance were suffering the most.
  • Take a moment to imagine one of these students: By age one, many were lying in their cribs wearing a onesie saying “Bound for Harvard” or maybe a cute little Yale hat (in case something terrible happened). Since they were in pre-kindergarten —which in some cases they were enrolled in even before being conceived—they were in the top 1 percent of their class, and then the top 1 percent of those who took standardized testing along the way. They won awards, they broke records. And then they get into Harvard, walk confidently into that Hogwarts-like freshman dining hall on the first day of college, and have a terrible realization: 50 percent of them are suddenly below average.
  • To make matters worse, this pressure—and the depression that follows—pulls people inward, away from their friends, families, and social supports, at a time when they need the support most. They skip meals, shut themselves in their rooms or the library, emerging only for the occasional kegger (and then in an attempt to blow off steam they get too drunk to even enjoy themselves—or at least remember enjoying themselves)
  • In 2004, as many as 4 in 5 Harvard students suffered from depression at least once during the school year
  • Within one year, I had spoken to businesses in forty countries across five continents and found that the same principles that predicted success at Harvard worked everywhere I went..
  • 45% of workers are unhappy at work, mean age for first depression has decreased from 29.5 years to 14.5 years

Mistakes of traditional psychology:

  • The error of the average: “How fast does the average child learn to read in the classroom?” We then ignore the children who read faster or slower, and tailor the classroom toward the “average” child. If we study merely what is average, we will remain merely average.
  • Focusing on the negative: as late as 1998, there was a 17-to-1 negative-to-positive ratio of research in the field of psychology. In other words, for every one study about happiness and thriving there were 17 studies on depression and disorder.

Change is possible:

  • Happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change; it is the realization that we can.
  • Brain change, once thought impossible, is now a well-known fact, one that is supported by some of the most rigorous and cutting-edge research in neuroscience.4 And the implications are far-reaching. Once our brains were discovered to have such built-in plasticity, our potential for intellectual and personal growth suddenly became equally malleable.
  • People can become happier, that pessimists can become optimists, and that stressed and negative brains can be trained to see more possibility. The competitive edge is available to all who put in the effort.
  • The point is that just reading this book is not enough. It takes actual focus and effort to put these principles into practice, and only then will the returns start pouring in.

Principle #1: The Happiness Advantage

  • Martin Seligman, the pioneer in positive psychology, has broken happiness down into three, measurable components: pleasure, engagement, and meaning.
  • For Shawn Achor, happiness is the joy we feel striving after our potential.
  • “Instead of narrowing our actions down to fight or flight as negative emotions do, positive ones broaden the amount of possibilities we process, making us more thoughtful, creative, and open to new ideas.”
  • “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.”
  • “People who put their heads down and wait for work to bring eventual happiness put themselves at a huge disadvantage, while those who capitalize on positivity every chance they get come out ahead.”
  • “Even the smallest shots of positivity can give someone a serious competitive edge.”
  • “Happiness is not just a mood—it’s a work ethic.”
  • How to Improve Your Mood and Raise Your Happiness Throughout the Day
  • 1. Meditate: 
    • “Neuroscientists have found that monks who spend years meditating actually grow their left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most responsible for feeling happy.”
    • “Studies show that in the minutes right after meditating, we experience feelings of calm and contentment, as well as heightened awareness and empathy. And, research even shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness, lower stress, even improve immune function.”
  • 2. Find Something to Look Forward To: 
    • “One study found people who just thought about watching their favorite movie actually raised their endorphin levels by 27 percent.”
    • “Anticipating future rewards can actually light up the pleasure centers in your brain much as the actual reward will.”
  • 3. Commit Conscious Acts of Kindness
    • “A long line of empirical research, including one study of over 2,000 people, has shown that acts of altruism—giving to friends and strangers alike—decrease stress and strongly contribute to enhanced mental health.”
    • “Pick one day a week and make a point of committing five acts of kindness.”
  • 4. Infuse Positivity Into Your Surroundings
    • “Our physical environment can have an enormous impact on our mindset and sense of well-being.”
    • “Studies have shown that the less negative TV we watch, specifically violent media, the happier we are.”
  • 5. Exercise
    • “Physical activity can boost mood and enhance our work performance in a number of other ways as well, by improving motivation and feelings of mastery, reducing stress and anxiety, and helping us get into flow—that “locked in” feeling of total engagement that we usually get when we’re at our most productive.”
  • 6. Spend Money (but Not on Stuff)
    • “In his book Luxury Fever, Robert Frank explains that while the positive feelings we get from material objects are frustratingly fleeting, spending money on experiences, especially ones with other people, produces positive emotions that are both more meaningful and more lasting.”
    • Spending money on other people is called ‘prosocial spending,’ and also boosts happiness.
    • “Draw two columns on a piece of paper (or take ten minutes at work to create a nifty spreadsheet) and track your purchases over the next month. Are you spending more on things or on experiences? At the end of the month, look back over each column and think about the pleasure each purchase brought you, and for how long.”
  • 7. Exercise a Signature Strength
    • “Each time we use a skill, whatever it is, we experience a burst of positivity. If you find yourself in need of a happiness booster, revisit a talent you haven’t used in a while.”
    • “Even more fulfilling than using a skill, though, is exercising a strength of character, a trait that is deeply embedded in who we are.”
    • “Studies have shown that the more you use your signature strengths in daily life, the happier you become.”

Principle #2: The Fulcrum and the Lever

  • “While we, of course, can’t change reality through sheer force of will alone, we can use our brain to change how we process the world, and that in turn changes how we react to it.”
  • “Happiness is not about lying to ourselves, or turning a blind eye to the negative, but about adjusting our brain so that we see the ways to rise above our circumstances.”
  • “Our power to maximize 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.”
  • “By changing the fulcrum of our mindset and lengthening our lever of possibility, we change what is possible.”
  • “It’s not the weight of the world that determines what we can accomplish. It is our fulcrum and lever.”
  • “‘Reality’ is merely our brain’s relative understanding of the world based on where and how we are observing it.”
  • “So how exactly is it that our relative perception of what is happening, or what we think will happen, can actually affect what does happen? One answer is that the brain is organized to act on what we predict will happen next, something psychologists call ‘Expectancy Theory.’”
  • “The expectation of an event causes the same complex set of neurons to fire as though the event were actually taking place, triggering a cascade of events in the nervous system that leads to a whole host of real physical consequences.”
  • “The mental construction of our daily activities, more than the activity itself, defines our reality.”
  • “When we reconnect ourselves with the pleasure of the ‘means,’ as opposed to only focusing on the ‘ends,’ we adopt a mindset more conducive not only to enjoyment but to better results.”
  • “When faced with a difficult task or challenge, give yourself an immediate competitive advantage by focusing on all the reasons you will succeed, rather than fail. Remind yourself of the relevant skills you have, rather than those you lack. Think of a time you have been in a similar circumstance in the past and performed well.”
  • “When we believe there will be a positive payoff for our effort, we work harder instead of succumbing to helplessness.”
  • “By changing the way we perceive ourselves and our work, we can dramatically improve our results.”
  • After many years and hundreds of interviews with workers in every conceivable profession, Amy Wrzesniewski has found that employees have one of three “work orientations,” or mindsets about our work.
    • “We view our work as a Job, a Career, or a Calling. People with a ‘job’see work as a chore and their paycheck as the reward. They work because they have to and constantly look forward to the time they can spend away from their job. By contrast, people who view their work as a career work not only out of necessity but also to advance and succeed. They are invested in their work and want to do well. Finally, people with a calling view work as an end in itself; their work is fulfilling not because of external rewards but because they feel it contributes to the greater good, draws on their personal strengths, and gives them meaning and purpose.”
    • “People with a calling orientation not only find their work more rewarding but work harder and longer because of it. And as a result, these are the people who are generally more likely to get ahead.”
    • “Wrzesniewski’s most interesting finding is not just that people see their work in one of these three ways, but that it fundamentally doesn’t matter what type of job one has.”
    • “A calling orientation can have just as much to do with mindset as it does with the actual work being done.”
  • “Unhappy employees can find ways to improve their work life that doesn’t involve quitting, changing jobs or careers, or going off to find themselves. Organizational psychologists call this ‘job crafting,’ but in essence, it involves simply adjusting one’s mindset.”
  • “if you can’t make actual changes to your daily work, ask yourself what potential meaning and pleasure already exist in what you do.”
  • “Researchers have found that even the smallest tasks can be imbued with greater meaning when they are connected to personal goals and values.”
  • “Turn a piece of paper horizontally, and on the left-hand side write down a task you’re forced to perform at work that feels devoid of meaning. Then ask yourself: What is the purpose of this task? What will it accomplish? Draw an arrow to the right and write this answer down. If what you wrote still seems unimportant, ask yourself again: What does this result lead to? Draw another arrow and write this down. Keep going until you get to a result that is meaningful to you. In this way, you can connect every small thing you do to the larger picture, to a goal that keeps you motivated and energized.”
  • “You can have the best job in the world, but if you can’t find the meaning in it, you won’t enjoy it, whether you are a movie maker or an NFL playmaker.”
  • “What we expect from people (and from ourselves) manifests itself in the words we use, and those words can have a powerful effect on end results.”
  • “This phenomenon is called the Pygmalion Effect: when our belief in another person’s potential brings that potential to life.”
  • “The expectations we have about our children, co-workers, and spouses—whether or not they are ever voiced—can make that expectation a reality.”
  • “People act as we expect them to act, which means that a leader’s expectations about what he thinks will motivate his employees often end up coming true.”
  • “Every Monday, ask yourself these three questions: (1) Do I believe that the intelligence and skills of my employees are not fixed, but can be improved with effort?; (2) Do I believe that my employees want to make that effort, just as they want to find meaning and fulfillment in their jobs?; and (3) How am I conveying these beliefs in my daily words and actions?”

Principle #3: The Tetris Effect

  • “Constantly scanning the world for the negative comes with a great cost. It undercuts our creativity, raises our stress levels, and lowers our motivation and ability to accomplish goals.”
  • “Inattentional blindness”: our frequent inability to see what is often right in front of us if we’re not focusing directly on it.
  • “We tend to miss what we’re not looking for.”
  • “When our brains constantly scan for and focus on the positive, we profit from three of the most important tools available to us: happiness, gratitude, and optimism.”
  • “Psychologists call this “predictive encoding”: Priming yourself to expect a favorable outcome actually encodes your brain to recognize the outcome when it does in fact arise.”
  • “The best way to kick-start this is to start making a daily list of the good things in your job, your career, and your life.”
  • “When you write down a list of ‘three good things’ that happened that day, your brain will be forced to scan the last 24 hours for potential positives—things that brought small or large laughs, feelings of accomplishment at work, a strengthened connection with family, a glimmer of hope for the future.”
  • “A variation on the Three Good Things exercise is to write a short journal entry about a positive experience.”
  • “It’s not your age, or what you do for a living; it’s the training and consistency that count.”

Principle #4: Falling Up

  • “On every mental map after crisis or adversity, there are three mental paths. One that keeps circling around where you currently are (i.e., the negative event creates no change; you end where you start). Another mental path leads you toward further negative consequences (i.e., you are far worse off after the negative event; this path is why we are afraid of conflict and challenge). And one, which I call the Third Path, that leads us from failure or setback to a place where we are even stronger and more capable than before the fall.”
  • “Study after study shows that if we are able to conceive of a failure as an opportunity for growth, we are all the more likely to experience that growth.”
  • “By scanning our mental map for positive opportunities, and by rejecting the belief that every down in life leads us only further downward, we give ourselves the greatest power possible: the ability to move up not despite the setbacks, but because of them.”
  • “People’s ability to find the path up rests largely on how they conceive of the cards they have been dealt, so the strategies that most often lead to Adversarial Growth include positive reinterpretation of the situation or event, optimism, acceptance, and coping mechanisms that include focusing on the problem head-on (rather than trying to avoid or deny it).”
  • “The people who can most successfully get themselves up off the mat are those who define themselves not by what has happened to them, but by what they can make out of what has happened.”
  • “Things do not necessarily happen for the best, but some people are able to make the best out of things that happen.”—Tal Ben-Shahar
  • “When people feel helpless in one area of life, they not only give up in that one area; they often ‘overlearn’ the lesson and apply it to other situations. They become convinced that one dead-end path must be proof that all possible paths are dead ends.”
  • “A counterfact is an alternate scenario our brains create to help us evaluate and make sense of what really happened.”
  • Because counterfacts are invented, we actually have the power in any given situation to consciously select a counterfact that makes us feel fortunate rather than helpless. And choosing a positive counterfact, besides simply making us feel better, sets ourselves up for the whole host of benefits to motivation and performance we now know accompanies a positive mindset. On the other hand, choosing a counterfact that makes us more fearful of the adversity actually makes it loom larger than it really is.
  • “When we choose a counterfact that makes us feel worse, we are actually altering our reality, allowing the obstacle to exert far greater influence over us than it otherwise should.”
  • “Decades of subsequent study have since shown that explanatory style—how we choose to explain the nature of past events—has a crucial impact on our happiness and future success.”
  • “People with an optimistic explanatory style interpret adversity as being local and temporary (i.e., ‘It’s not that bad, and it will get better.’) while those with a pessimistic explanatory style see these events as more global and permanent (i.e., ‘It’s really bad, and it’s never going to change.’).”
  • “Virtually all avenues of success, we now know, are dictated by explanatory style.”
  • “One way to help ourselves see the path from adversity to opportunity is to practice the ABCD model of interpretation: Adversity, Belief, Consequence, and Disputation.”
  • “Adversity is the event we can’t change; it is what it is. Belief is our reaction to the event; why we thought it happened and what we think it means for the future. If we believe the former—that is if we see the adversity as short-term or as an opportunity for growth or appropriately confined to only part of our life—then we maximize the chance of a positive Consequence. But if the Belief has led us down a more pessimistic path, helplessness and inaction can bring negative Consequences. Disputation involves first telling ourselves that our belief is just that—a belief, not fact—and then challenging (or disputing) it.”
  • “Psychologists recommend that we externalize this voice (i.e., pretend it’s coming from someone else), so it’s like we’re actually arguing with another person.”
  • “When faced with a terrible prospect—for example, the end of a love affair or of a job—we overestimate how unhappy it will make us and for how long.”
  • “We fall victim to ‘immune neglect,’ which means we consistently forget how good our psychological immune system is at helping us get over adversity.”
  • “Adversities, no matter what they are, simply don’t hit us as hard as we think they will.”

Principle #5: The Zorro Circle

  • One of the strongest drivers of both well-being and performance is feeling that we are in control and that we are masters of our own fate at work and at home.
  • “Psychologists have found that 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.”
  • “The most successful people, in work and in life, are those who have what psychologists call an ‘internal locus of control,’ the belief that their actions have a direct effect on their outcomes.”
  • “Experiments show that when people are primed to feel high levels of distress, the quickest to recover are those who can identify how they are feeling and put those feelings into words.”
  • “By tackling one small challenge at a time—a narrow circle that slowly expands outward—we can relearn that our actions do have a direct effect on our outcomes, that we are largely the masters of our own fates.”
  • “Small successes can add up to major achievements. All it takes is drawing that first circle in the sand.”

Principle #6 The 20-Second Rule

  • “Common sense is not common action.”
  • William James called creating good habits “daily strokes of effort.”
  • The reason so many of us have trouble sustaining change is because we try to rely on willpower.
  • The problem is, the more we use our willpower, the more worn-out it gets.
  • “This invisible pull toward the path of least resistance can dictate more of our lives than we realize, creating an impossible barrier to change and positive growth.”
  • “Studies show that these activities are enjoyable and engaging for only about 30 minutes, then they start sapping our energy, creating what psychologists call “psychic entropy”—that listless, apathetic feeling
  • “In physics, activation energy is the initial spark needed to catalyze a reaction. The same energy, both physical and mental, is needed of people to overcome inertia and kick-start a positive habit.”
  • “It’s not the sheer number and volume of distractions that gets us into trouble; it’s the ease of access to them.”
  • “Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt, and raise it for habits you want to avoid. The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change.”
  • “By adding 20 seconds to my day, I gained back three hours.”
  • “The key to reducing choice is setting and following a few simple rules. Psychologists call these kinds of rules ‘second-order decisions,’ because they are essentially decisions about when to make decisions, like deciding ahead of time when, where, and how I was going to work out in the morning.”
  • “Rules are especially helpful during the first few days of a behavior-changing venture when it’s easier to stray off course. Gradually, as the desired action becomes more habitual, we can become more flexible.”

Principle #7 Social Investment

  • The more social support you have, the happier you are.
  • “When over a thousand highly successful professional men and women were interviewed as they approached retirement and asked what had motivated them the most, throughout their careers, overwhelmingly they placed work friendships above both financial gain and individual status.”
  • “Organizational psychologists have found that even brief encounters can form “high-quality connections,” which fuel openness, energy, and authenticity among coworkers, and in turn lead to a whole host of measurable, tangible gains in performance.”
  • “Shelly Gable, a leading psychologist at the University of California, has found that there are four different types of responses we can give to someone’s good news, and only one of them contributes positively to the relationship. The winning response is both active and constructive; it offers enthusiastic support, as well as specific comments and follow-up questions.”
  • “Interestingly, her research shows passive responses to good news (‘That’s nice.’) can be just as harmful to the relationship as blatantly negative ones (‘You got the promotion? I’m surprised they didn’t give it to Sally, she seems more suited to the job.’).
  • “Gable’s studies have shown that active-constructive responding enhances relationship commitment and satisfaction, and fuels the degree to which people feel understood, validated, and cared for during a discussion—all of which contribute to the Happiness Advantage.”