By Shawn Achor
If you observe people around you, you’ll find most individuals follow a formula that has been subtly or not so subtly taught to them by their schools, their company, their parents, or society. That is: If you work hard, you will become successful, and once you become successful, then you’ll be happy. This pattern of belief explains what most often motivates us in life. We think: If I just get that raise, or hit that next sales target, I’ll be happy. If I lose that five pounds, I’ll be happy. And so on. Success first, happiness second.
The only problem is that this formula is broken.
If success causes happiness, then every employee who gets a promotion, every student who receives an acceptance letter, everyone who has ever accomplished a goal of any kind should be happy. But with each victory, our goalposts of success keep getting pushed further and further out, so that happiness gets pushed over the horizon.
Even more important, the formula is broken because it is backward. More than a decade of groundbreaking research in the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience has proven in no uncertain terms that the relationship between success and happiness works the other way around. Thanks to this cutting-edge science, we now know that happiness is the precursor to success, not merely the result. And that happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement—giving us the competitive edge I call the Happiness Advantage.
Waiting to be happy limits our brain’s potential for success, whereas cultivating positive brains makes us more motivated, efficient, resilient, creative, and productive, which drives performance upward. This discovery has been confirmed by thousands of scientific studies and in my own work and research on 1,600 Harvard students and dozens of Fortune 500 companies worldwide. In this book, you will learn not only why the Happiness Advantage is so powerful, but how you can use it on a daily basis to increase your success at work. But I’m getting excited and jumping ahead of myself. I begin this book where I began my research, at Harvard, where the Happiness Advantage was born.
Discovering the Happiness Advantage
I applied to Harvard on a dare.
I was raised in Waco, TX, and never really expected to leave. Even as I was applying to Harvard, I was setting down roots and training to be a local volunteer firefighter. For me, Harvard was a place from the movies, the place mothers joke about their kids going to when they grow up. The chances of actually getting in were infinitesimally small. I told myself I’d be happy just to tell my kids someday, offhandedly at dinner, that I had even applied to Harvard. (I imagined my imaginary children being quite impressed.)
When I unexpectedly was accepted, I felt thrilled and humbled by the privilege. I wanted to do the opportunity justice. So I went to Harvard, and I stayed…for the next 12 years.
When I left Waco, I had been out of Texas four times and never out of the country (though Texans consider anything out of Texas foreign travel). But as soon as I stepped out of the T in Cambridge and into Harvard Yard, I fell in love. So after getting my BA, I found a way to stay. I went to grad school, taught sections in 16 different courses, and then began delivering lectures. As I pursued my graduate studies, I also became a Proctor, an officer of Harvard hired to lie in residence with undergraduates to help them navigate the difficult path to both academic success and happiness within the Ivory Tower. This effectively meant that I lived in a college dorm for a total of 12 years of my life (not a fact I brought up on first dates).
I tell you this for two reasons. First, because I saw Harvard as such a privilege, it fundamentally changed the way my brain processed my experience. I felt grateful for every moment, even in the midst of stress, exams, and blizzards (something else I had only seen in the movies). Second, my 12 years teaching in the classrooms and living in the dorms afforded me a comprehensive view of how thousands of other Harvard students advanced through the stresses and challenges of their college years. That’s when I began noticing the patterns.
Paradise Lost and Found
Around the time that Harvard was founded, John Milton wrote in “Paradise Lost,” “The Mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
Three hundred years later, I observed this principle come to life. 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.
Years later, in the fall of 2009, I was invited to go on a month-long speaking tour throughout Africa. During the trip, a CEO from South Africa named Salim took me to Soweto, a township just outside Johannesburg that many inspiring people, including Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have called their home.
We visited a school next to a shantytown where there was no electricity and scarce running water. Only when I was in front of the children did it dawn on me that none of the stories I normally use in my talks would work. Sharing the research and experiences of privileged American college students and wealthy, powerful business leaders seemed inappropriate. So I tried to open a dialogue. Struggling for points of common experience, I asked in a clearly tongue-in-cheek tone, “Who here likes to do schoolwork?” I thought the seemingly universal distaste for schoolwork would bond us together. But to my shock, 95 percent of the children raised their hands and started smiling genuinely and enthusiastically.
Afterward, I jokingly asked Salim why the children of Soweto were so weird. “They see schoolwork as a privilege,” he replied, “one that many of their parents did not have.” When I returned to Harvard two weeks later, I saw students complaining about the very thing Soweto students saw as a privilege. I started to realize just how much our interpretation of reality changes our experience of that reality. The students who were so focused on the stress and the pressure—the ones who saw learning as a chore—were missing out on all the opportunities right in front of them. But those who saw attending Harvard as a privilege seemed to shine even brighter. Almost unconsciously at first, and then with ever increasing interest, I became fascinated with what caused those high- potential individuals to develop a positive mindset to excel, especially in such a competitive environment. And likewise, what caused those who succumbed to the pressure to fail—or stay stuck in a negative or neutral position.
Excerpt from “The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor (Crown Business). To purchase the book visit http://www.amazon.com/Happiness-Advantage-Principles-Psychology-Performance/dp/0307591549.
Shawn Achor has spoken in 42 countries to a wide variety of audiences: bankers on Wall Street, students in Dubai, and CEOs in Zimbabwe. Prior to founding Good Think Inc., Shawn spent more than a decade at Harvard University. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and earned a Masters from Harvard Divinity School in Christian and Buddhist ethics. When the global economy collapsed in 2008, Achor was called in as an expert by the world’s largest banks to help restart forward progress. For more information, visit: www.shawnachor.com.