The Happiness Advantage: Why happiness always precedes success

Traditionally, happiness was seen as a destination; something that was achieved or obtained at the finish line of an unrelenting journey. Whether that journey pertained to business, family or relationships, we could always have comfort in the fact that if we just stayed on course, then happiness would be inevitable. However, if that all seems straightforward enough, then why are so many of us unhappy? Shawn Achor, researcher of positive psychology and author of The Happiness Advantage has the simple answer; we’ve just got it backwards. 

“Research shows that when we work with a positive mindset, performance on nearly every level—productivity, creativity, engagement—improves. Yet happiness is perhaps the most misunderstood driver of performance. For one, most people believe that success precedes happiness…But because success is a moving target—as soon as you hit your target, you raise it again—the happiness that results from success is fleeting.” (Achor, The Happiness Advantage)

As Achor has found, embodying a positive mindset as we move towards our goals, will not only make success more likely, but ensure any resulting happiness will not be as temporary. Adopting a positive mindset in the face of challenges is the definition of ‘The Happiness Advantage’ -that positive thinking affects outcomes for the better. The challenge for us comes down to reprogramming our mindset to welcome this new paradigm shift. 

Achor’s ‘The Happiness Advantage’ narrows down 7 simple positive psychology principles that are essential to understanding this new perspective: 


1. The Happiness Advantage


As mentioned earlier, traditionally we understood that happiness comes at the result of success, not the other way around. In his book, Achor compares this to the preconceived belief that the sun revolves around the earth, which was seen as the only “truth” for centuries. Copernicus of course refuted this notion, who instead formulated the model that the earth actually revolves around the sun. Therefore, the first step in changing our mindset to adopt this new paradigm is to drill home that achievement and success revolves around our happiness; and then comes as a result of that happiness. The happier we are, the more apt we are in achieving bigger success and higher achievement. 


2. The Fulcrum and the Lever


I want you to imagine a seesaw. On one end, there is a bag of 5 bricks, on the other is a bag of 10 bricks. The lever (or base of the seesaw) will weigh down towards the bag of 10 bricks unless you move the fulcrum away from the center so that the two sides achieve equilibrium. Achor explains that our minds can work the same way: 

“Our power to maximise 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 the fulcrum – the mindset with which we generate the power to change…simply put, by changing the fulcrum of our mindset and lengthening our lever of possibility, we change what is possible.” 


Essentially, this principle is about understanding that we have choice in our change. Our mindset is never set in stone and is in a constant state of flux that we can choose to be either positive or negative, depending on the paradigm in which we view our reality (which is also our choice!). It’s a liberating thought to know we have more control over our thoughts than we may have realised, and we can choose whether we see our challenges as problems, or more positively, as opportunities for growth. 


3. The Tetris Effect


In the Happiness Advantage, Achor mentions a study that saw a group of subjects play tetris for multiple hours a day, for 3 days. After the experiment, the participants dreamt about blocks falling from the sky and arranging them together. During their day-to-day life, they also saw Tetris blocks everywhere; consciously turning objects they saw into Tetris blocks that they “played” with in their mind. 

The learning we gain from this experiment is that our brains are creatures of habit. When we become stuck in negative habits (such as failure, stress and pessimistic thinking) we actually set ourselves up to fail. However, we can re-educate our brains to look for the good (possibility, opportunities and positivity) so we can inherently seek these positive things out and create even more positive opportunities or experiences, rather than the latter. This can be done through the repetition of positive affirmations and meditation to retrain our subconscious thoughts that can determine our paradigms without us even realising! 


5. Falling up


‘Getting back on the horse’ is an old saying that continues to hold merit in helping us understand that suffering, mistakes and struggle are all inevitable parts of life. The opportunity lies in how we view these challenges. Are they helping us become stronger or contributing to our progress? ‘Falling up’ means finding the mental path to help that helps us learn from these crises, rather than letting them defeat us. 


5. The ‘Zorro’ Circle


This principle uses the story of Zorro to explain how we can regain control of our emotions and doubts, by first focusing on bite-sized, manageable goals. Zorro was a belligerent alcoholic, who with proper training and guidance (including only fighting within a small circle drawn on the floor by his mentor), he eventually became a hero. Like Zorro, we will increase that circle over time as we develop discipline, focus and our patience. Over time you will find your circle will become larger and larger, which ultimately leads to the successful achievement or larger and larger goals. 


6. The 20-second rule


“Sustaining lasting change often feels impossible because our willpower is limited. And when willpower fails, we fall back on our old habits and succumb to the path of least resistance. We can make small energy adjustments, we can reroute the path of least resistance and replace bad habits with good ones.”

Similarly to principle #3, this principle centres around the understanding that we are what we repeatedly do. Habits are simply thoughts and actions that are repeated so frequently over a period of time that they become part of our subconscious. This principle focuses on the idea that we can make small adjustments to our unhealthy or negative habits by replacing an unwanted habit with a good one for 20 seconds a day. If we practice that conscious replacement over an extended time period, then like bad habits, we can create better ones so inherently, that they become part of subconscious thinking. 


7. Social Investment


“In the midst of challenges and stress, some people choose to hunker down and retreat within themselves. But, the most successful people invest in their friends, peers, and family members to propel themselves forward. This principle teaches us how to invest more in one of the greatest predictors of success and excellence – our social support network.” (Achor, The Happiness Advantage

This principle teaches us that moments of struggle and crisis, are the moments when we need our team and social support the most. Curating a strong social network  built on empathy, trust, respect and support, helps us tackle challenges more effectively and is an integral part of sustainable and long-lasting happiness. 


These 7 principles hopefully provide an easy-to-implement framework to achieve happiness. Instead of viewing happiness as a cultivation of future success, look inward and you will find happiness is much easier to find than you think. 


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