Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday #101: “The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor

Dear kids,

Here’s another installment in my happiness book summaries: The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work by Shawn Achor. I like its overview of the history of positive psychology and it’s thorough treatment of the topic. Also, it’s fun to read, and that makes me happy, too.

My Highlights:

  • In 1998, Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, announced that it was finally time to shift the traditional approach to psychology and start to focus more on the positive side of the curve. That we needed to study what works, not just what is broken. Thus, “positive psychology” was born.
  • In 2006, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar asked if I would serve as his head teaching fellow to help design and teach a course called Positive Psychology. Tal was not yet internationally well-known; his best-selling book Happier wouldn’t be published until the following spring. Under the circumstances, we thought we’d be lucky to lure in a hundred undergraduates brave enough to risk a hit on their transcripts by foregoing a credit in, say, advanced economic theory for one in happiness. Over the next two semesters, nearly 1,200 Harvard students enrolled in the class—that’s one in every six students at one of the most hard-driving universities in the world. We quickly began to realize that these students were there because they were hungry. They were starving to be happier, not sometime in the future, but in the present. And they were there because despite all the advantages they enjoyed, they still felt unfulfilled.
  • Based on my study of Harvard undergraduates, the average number of romantic relationships over four years is less than one. The average number of sexual partners, if you’re curious, is 0.5 per student. (I have no idea what 0.5 sexual partners means, but it sounds like the scientific equivalent of second base.) In my survey, I found that among these brilliant Harvard students, 24 percent are unaware if they are currently involved in any romantic relationship.
  • We become more successful when we are happier and more positive. For example, doctors put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis show almost three times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state, and they make accurate diagnoses 19 percent faster. Optimistic salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56 percent. Students primed to feel happy before taking math achievement tests far outperform their neutral peers. It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive.
  • So how do the scientists define happiness? Essentially, as the experience of positive emotions—pleasure combined with deeper feelings of meaning and purpose. Happiness implies a positive mood in the present and a positive outlook for the future. Martin Seligman, the pioneer in positive psychology, has broken it down into three, measurable components: pleasure, engagement, and meaning.
  • One of the most famous longitudinal studies on happiness comes from an unlikely place: the old diaries of Catholic nuns.10 These 180 nuns from the School Sisters of Notre Dame, all born before 1917, were asked to write down their thoughts in autobiographical journal entries. More than five decades later, a clever group of researchers decided to code the entries for positive emotional content. Could their level of positivity as 20-year-olds predict how the rest of their lives turned out? In fact, yes. The nuns whose journal entries had more overtly joyful content lived nearly ten years longer than the nuns whose entries were more negative or neutral. By age 85, 90 percent of the happiest quartile of nuns were still alive, compared to only 34 percent of the least happy quartile.
  • Research shows that unhappy employees take more sick days, staying home an average of 1.25 more days per month, or 15 extra sick days a year.
  • In one study I’m glad I never volunteered to take part in, researchers gave subjects a survey designed to measure levels of happiness—then injected them with a strain of the cold virus. A week later, the individuals who were happier before the start of the study had fought off the virus much better than the less happy individuals. They didn’t just feel better, either; they actually had fewer objective symptoms of illness as measured by doctors—less sneezing, coughing, inflammation, and congestion.
  • 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.
  • 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. But don’t worry, you don’t have to spend years in sequestered, celibate silence to experience a boost. Take just five minutes each day to watch your breath go in and out.
  • 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 percent.
  • 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.29 Sonja Lyubomirsky, a leading researcher and author of The How of Happiness, has found that individuals told to complete five acts of kindness over the course of a day report feeling much happier than control groups and that the feeling lasts for many subsequent days, far after the exercise is over.
  • Infuse Positivity Into Your Surroundings.
  • Exercise. You have probably heard that exercise releases pleasure-inducing chemicals called endorphins, but that’s not its only benefit. 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.
  • 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. 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.34 For instance, when researchers interviewed more than 150 people about their recent purchases, they found that money spent on activities—such as concerts and group dinners out—brought far more pleasure than material purchases
  • Coors Brewing Company, for example, reported a $6.15 return in profitability for every $1 spent on its corporate fitness program. Toyota saw an instant jump in productivity at its North American Parts Center when it instituted a strength-based training for employees.
  • In fact, when recognition is specific and deliberately delivered, it is even more motivating than money. Recognition can be given in traditional ways—a complimentary e-mail, or a pat on the back for a job well done. But you can also get creative with it. One of my favorite examples is the one business consultant Alexander Kjerulf cites about a Danish car company that instituted “The Order of the Elephant.” The elephant is a two-foot-tall stuffed animal that any employee can give to another as a reward for doing something exemplary. The benefits come not just in the delivery and reception of well-earned praise, but afterward as well. As Kjerulf explains, “other employees stopping by immediately notice the elephant and go, ‘Hey, you got the elephant. What’d you do?’, which of course means that the good stories and best practices get told and re-told many times.”
  • Chip Conley, CEO of a wildly successful chain of boutique hotels, makes time at the end of his executive meetings to allow one person to talk for one minute about someone in the company who deserves recognition . . . Everyone else gets a mood boost as well—they get to hear about the good work being done at their company, and then they spend the next few days thinking about the good work of other employees they’d like to recommend during the next meeting.
  • Based on Losada’s extensive mathematical modeling, 2.9013 is the ratio of positive to negative interactions necessary to make a corporate team successful.
  • In 1979, Langer designed a week-long experiment on a group of 75-year-old men.1 The men knew little about the nature of the experiment except that they would be gone for a week at a retreat center, and they could bring along no pictures, newspapers, magazines, or books dated later than 1959. When they arrived, the men were gathered into a room and told that for the next week they were to pretend as though it was the year 1959–a time when these 75-year-old men were merely 55 years young . . . After the retreat, most of the men had improved in every category; they were significantly more flexible, had better posture, and even much-improved hand strength. Their average eyesight even improved by almost 10 percent, as did their performance on tests of memory. In over half the men, intelligence, long thought to be fixed from adolescence, moved up as well. Even their physical appearance changed; random people who didn’t know anything about the experiment were shown pictures of the men both before and after the experiment, and asked to guess their age. Based on these objective ratings, the men looked, on average, three years younger than when they arrived.
  • In one of my favorite all-time experiments, Japanese researchers blindfolded a group of students and told them their right arms were being rubbed with a poison ivy plant.3 Afterward, all 13 of the students’ arms reacted with the classic symptoms of poison ivy: itching, boils, and redness. Not surprising … until you find out that the plant used for the study wasn’t poison ivy at all, just a harmless shrub. The students’ beliefs were actually strong enough to create the biological effects of poison ivy, even though no such plant had touched them. Then, on the students’ other arm, the researchers rubbed actual poison ivy, but told them it was a harmless plant. Even though all 13 students were highly allergic, only 2 of them broke out into the poison ivy rash!
  • One study of 112 entry-level accountants found that those who believed they could accomplish what they set out to do were the ones who ten months later scored the best job performance ratings from their supervisors.
  • Now fast-forward to the twentieth century, to one of the most well-known psychology experiments ever performed. A team of researchers led by Robert Rosenthal went into an elementary school and administered intelligence tests to the students. The researchers then told the teachers in each of the classrooms which students—say, Sam, Sally, and Sarah—the data had identified as academic superstars, the ones with the greatest potential for growth. [However,] when Sam, Sally, and Sarah had been tested at the beginning of the experiment, they were found to be absolutely, wonderfully ordinary. The researchers had randomly picked their names and then lied to the teachers about their ability. But after the experiment, they had in fact turned into academic superstars.
  • 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.
  • It’s for this reason that, however counterintuitive it may seem, psychologists actually recommend that we fail early and often. In his book The Pursuit of Perfect, Tal Ben-Shahar writes that “we can only learn to deal
  • You’ve probably heard the oft-told story of the two shoe salesmen who were sent to Africa in the early 1900s to assess opportunities. They wired separate telegrams back to their boss. One read: “Situation hopeless. They don’t wear shoes.” The other read: “Glorious opportunity! They don’t have any shoes yet.”
  • Imagine for a moment that you walk into a bank. There are 50 other people in the bank. A robber walks in and fires his weapon once. You are shot in the right arm. Now if you were honestly describing this event to your friends and coworkers the next day, do you describe it as lucky or unlucky?
  • 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.



Get the entire recommended reading list at Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday.


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