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

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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.

Key Takeaways

  • Happiness is important, and we know of many ways to achieve it. That’s the central message of this book. But before delving into that, the author attempts to explain what happiness is:
  • “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.”
  • The book describes the recent birth of the field of positive psychology and the author’s part in it: “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.”
  • People have less sex over the course of their lives than we think they do. Feelings that we are missing out on this experience are therefore based on inaccurate information. “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.”
  • Positivity and happiness predict success fairly reliably. “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.”
  • A study of 180 journals kept by Catholic nuns showed a correlation between emotional well-being and physical well-being: “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.”
  • The book also examines the power of belief at length. It describes a study in which 75-year-old men were asked to pretend they were 55 and the year was twenty years earlier. It seems that during the study, the men felt closer to the age they pretended to be: “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.”
  • “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.”
  • So how do we increase our happiness, then? One way is to 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.”
  • Another idea: think about something you are looking forward to. “One study found that people who just thought about watching their favorite movie actually raised their endorphin levels by 27 percent.”
  • Another: do random acts of kindness regularly. “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.”
  • And, of course, 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 on pleasurable experiences rather than on stuff. They good feelings last longer, creating good memories and hope for similar experiences in the future.
  • Recognition and feedback is extremely helpful for happiness as well. Even silly prizes and awards help us feel good about ourselves and our performance.
  • Gratitude is another powerful way to become happier: “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.”
  • Optimism is important for success, as demonstrated in the following anecdote: “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.'”
  • The book also describes how to create good habits and discourage bad ones.

About the Author

Shawn Achor is an American author, speaker, and positive psychology researcher known for his work on happiness, well-being, and positive psychology in the workplace. He earned his Bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, where he studied positive psychology under renowned psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar. He later earned a Master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School.

Achor’s research and writings primarily focus on the science of happiness and positive psychology, particularly in the context of work and organizations. He has conducted extensive research on the factors that contribute to individual and collective well-being and performance.

In addition to his books, Achor is a highly sought-after speaker, delivering engaging and informative presentations on positive psychology, happiness, and well-being. He has delivered TED Talks that have garnered millions of views, further spreading his message of the importance of cultivating happiness and positivity.


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  1. This sounds like a really interesting book, I enjoyed reading your summary of it. I noticed the mention of Robert Rosenthal’s study and I actually studied it in detail for my psychology class. It’s absolutely fascinating.