“The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor (Book Summary)
The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor is one of my favorite Positive Psychology books.
Published in 2010, the premise of the book is simple: Happiness fuels success, not the other way around. Chasing after success in the hopes of becoming happy once we’ve “made it” doesn’t work. Instead, we need to create happiness now and capitalize on its many benefits to become more successful.
After proving this basic premise, the book goes on to show us strategies for creating happiness, thereby increasing our chances of success.
Who is The Happiness Advantage for?
- Anyone interested in the science of becoming happier
- Anyone who wants to live a more positive, upbeat life
- Anyone interested in creating more success for themselves
1. Success—We Have It Backwards
“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 can just get that next good grade, 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.
…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.”
Success first, happiness second.
That’s what most of us believe to be true. If you’re anything like me, you have a whole list of accomplishments and skills you need to tick off before you can be happy. My list looks something like this:
- Achieve complete financial freedom
- Get married to the perfect wife
- Create a successful business
- Have the perfect beach body
- Have everything under perfect control
- Become the best version of yourself
Once I’ve got that out of the way… then I can be happy.
The only problem? This formula is backwards.
Shawn Achor reveals that decades of research have proven the exact opposite: Happiness leads to success much more than success leads to happiness.
You see, happiness and other positive mind-states turn out to be incredible performance-boosters, making us smarter, more motivated, and thus, more successful. By optimizing our mind and body’s functioning, feeling good gives us the competitive edge Achor calls the Happiness Advantage.
In his own words: “We become more successful when we are happier and more positive … 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.”
This makes delaying happiness one of the dumbest things we can do. Not only do we accept feeling miserable now, we actually limit the chances of becoming successful—the very thing that’s supposed to help us become happy. Ironic, isn’t it? We sacrifice happiness for success, only to lower our brain’s success rates.
The message is clear: Want happiness and success? Prioritize happiness now, then use its performance-enhancing effects to become more successful.
2. Happy Workers are Productive Workers
“Data abounds showing that happy workers have higher levels of productivity, produce higher sales, perform better in leadership positions, and receive higher performance ratings and higher pay.”
That’s the Happiness Advantage doing its magic. Achor shares tons of research showing that happy workers are more productive (and earn more money!) than their less happy peers.
One study, for example, measured employees’ initial happiness levels and then followed their job performance over the next eighteen months. Lo and behold, those who were happier at the beginning ended up receiving higher pay and better evaluations later on.
Another study found that the happiness levels during college predicted participants’ income level nineteen years later, regardless of their initial level of wealth.
One reason happy workers do so well is because happiness improves their physical, mental, and emotional health (see upcoming points). Research shows that unhappy employees take more sick days, missing an extra fifteen days a year on average.
3. The Health Advantage
“Happiness can improve our physical health, which in turn keeps us working faster and longer and therefore makes us more likely to succeed.”
“And again, studies have determined that happiness functions as the cause, not just the result, of good health. 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.”
So, you measure people’s happiness levels and then infect them with the cold virus. Turns out happy individuals fight off the virus better than their less happy peers and experience fewer symptoms, such as sneezing or coughing. The happier you are, the stronger your immune system.
And that’s just one example of happiness boosting people’s health.
Another famous study followed Catholic nuns from the age of twenty-two until their death. The higher the happiness level at twenty-two, the longer the nuns tended to live. By age eighty-five, 90% of the happiest quartile of nuns were still alive, opposed to 34% of the least happy quartile. On average, there was a seven-year difference between the happiest and least happy nuns!
Further studies show that happiness predicts lower blood pressure and heart rate, combats stress, boosts immune functioning, and protects from all sorts of aches and pains.
A happy life is a healthy life.
4. Primed for High Performance
“In one interesting study, researchers asked four-year-old children to complete a series of learning tasks, such as putting together blocks of different shapes. The first group was given neutral instructions: Please put these blocks together as quickly as you can. The researchers gave the second group the same set of instructions, then asked them first to briefly think about something that makes them happy … The children who were primed to be happy significantly outperformed the others, completing the task both more quickly and with fewer errors.”
The mere act of telling kids to think of something that makes them happy—thereby priming them into a state of happiness—is enough to elicit the Happiness Advantage and create a significant improvement in performance.
Similar studies came to the same conclusion. For example, students told to think about the happiest day of their lives outperformed their peers. And people who expressed more positive feelings during a business deal negotiated more successfully than those who were more neutral or negative.
The happier you are, the higher your performance levels rise. Feeling bad, on the other hand, is a surefire way to put yourself at a massive disadvantage.
5. The Undoing Effect
“In one experiment, subjects were asked to make a difficult, time-pressured speech that they were told would be videotaped and evaluated by their peers. As you might imagine, this induced considerable anxiety and measurable increases in hear rate and blood pressure … The researchers then randomly assigned the participants to view one of four different videos: Two induced feelings of joy and contentment, one was neutral, and the fourth was sad.
Indeed, the people primed with positive feelings experienced a faster recovery from the stress and its physical effects. Not only had the happy films made them feel better, but they had undone the physiological effects of stress.”
In addition to all the benefits we’ve talked about so far, happiness also provides an antidote to stress, what psychologists call the undoing effect—happiness can “undo” the negative aftereffects of stress, anxiety, or negativity in general.
As the study quoted above explains, people who were primed to feel happy recovered faster from the negative effects of stress and anxiety. Their heart rates often quelled within a few seconds, while the hearts of the neutral or negativity primed participants took up to a minute to calm down.
Oddly enough, it’s when you’re feeling bad or stressed out that you need happiness the most.
6. Change Is Possible
“As you will read over the next seven chapters, studies have confirmed numerous ways we can permanently raise our happiness baseline and adopt a more positive mindset. Since this book is about the Happiness Advantage, it’s more than a little comforting to know that 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.”
“Scientists once thought happiness was almost completely hereditary (dictated by a genetically determined “set point”). But thankfully, they have since discovered that in in fact we have fat more control over our own emotional well-being than previously believed. While we each have a happiness baseline that we fluctuate around on a daily basis, with concerted effort, we can raise that baseline permanently so that even when we are going up and down, we are doing so at a higher level.”
Yes, you can become happier.
As I explain in this article, happiness is determined by three factors: your genes, your external circumstances (income, house, car), and your thoughts and actions.
While you can’t change your genes, you can change your external circumstances and you can change your thoughts and actions.
Happiness isn’t something you’re born with. It isn’t something you have or don’t have. It’s something you create for yourself—The Happiness Advantage and other Positive Psychology books show you how to do it.
Let’s discuss some strategies for becoming lastingly happier now.
7. Regular Meditation = Permanent Happiness Boost
“Neuroscientists have found that monks who spend years meditating actually grow their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most responsible for feeling happy … Meditation takes practice, but it’s one of the most powerful happiness interventions. 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.”
If you’re not meditating yet, you’re missing out.
Meditation improves everything from happiness to stress, immune function, concentration, emotional control, relationships, productivity, and so on. As I’ve said many times before, it’s the number one best use of our time if we’re interested in creating happiness and becoming the best version of ourselves.
If you’re willing to give it a go, check out our beginner’s guide.
And don’t worry, you don’t have to spend years meditating for hours every day. As I mention in the beginner’s guide, studies show people are getting benefits from as little as five minutes a day.
8. Get Moving
“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 ‘locking-in’ feeling of total engagement that we usually get when we’re at our most productive.”
“Walk, bike, run, play, stretch, jump rope, pogo stick—it doesn’t matter as long as you get moving.”
The same thing I just said about meditation can be said about exercise: If you’re not doing it regularly, you’re missing out.
Achor mentions a study showing that exercise is more effective in beating depression than antidepressants. I first encountered that study when I read John Ratey’s book Spark. Ratey is a leading researcher on the effects of physical exercise on the brain. In his book, he shows how exercise is beneficial for everything from concentration to anxiety and depression, happiness, stress resiliency, learning, aging, addiction and so on.
Ratey writes in the book: “Exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function.”
The good news is you don’t need to become a gym rat or take up long-distance running. As Achor says: walk, bike, run, play, stretch, jump rope, pogo stick—it doesn’t matter, as long as you get moving.
In fact, engaging in an activity you enjoy might be the better idea for long-term sustainability. As Michelle Segar explains in No Sweat, we are more likely to keep up an exercise regimen if it’s something that makes us feel good.
9. Ditch the TV
“… studies have shown that the less negative TV we watch, specifically violent media, the happier we are. This doesn’t mean shutting ourselves off from the real world or ignoring problems. Psychologists have found that people who watch less TV are actually more accurate judges of life’s risks and rewards than those who subject themselves to the tales of crime, tragedy, and death that appear night after night on the ten o’clock news. That’s because these people are less likely to see sensationalized or one-sided sources of information, and thus see reality more clearly.”
Watching the news is a great way to prime yourself for misery, anxiety, depression, and a negative worldview.
If you want happiness, your best bet is to stop watching the news altogether. If that’s not an option for you, I suggest doing the following:
- Turn off alerts. There’s no reason for having mainstream news alerts turned on, period. They distract you. They kill your mood. And that’s about it.
- Delete news apps on your phone. Instead of reading the news when you’re bored, why not read something useful? Download Pocket or Instapaper, save some of our articles, and read those instead.
10. Money Can Buy Happiness
“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. For instance, when researchers interviewed more than 150 people about their recent purchases, they found that money spend on activities—such as concerts and group dinners out—brought far more pleasure than material purchases like shoes, televisions, or expensive watches.”
I’ve written a full article on the science of money and happiness.
While merely having more money won’t make you happier, there are certain ways of spending your money that can make you a lot happier. In total, there are six ways of spending your money that will contribute to your happiness. They are:
- Buy experiences, not goods. As Achor explains here, spending money on experiences makes you happier than spending it on material goods like shoes, watches, or televisions.
- Buy many small pleasures instead of a few big ones. Rather than saving for a new car, spend your money on a piece of clothing you like or treat yourself to a latte macchiato at your favorite coffee shop.
- Spend money on others, not yourself. Studies show that spending money on other people—so-called prosocial spending—makes you happier than spending it on yourself.
- Buy now, consume later. Book your holidays months in advance. Buy yourself some treat, but only eat it after your workout. Delaying consumption creates anticipation, a proven happiness booster.
- Spend money to buy time. Buying time allows you to replace misery-inducing activities (e.g., cleaning the house) with happiness-boosting ones (e.g., going to a concert).
- In general, spend your money on happiness-boosting activities. Get a personal trainer, join a meditation class, or book a trip to Disneyland with your family.
As you see, money—if spent wisely—can be a huge asset on your journey to more happiness and success.
If you enjoyed this summary, you’ll probably enjoy similar books on the science of happiness and achievement, such as…
- The How of Happiness by Sonja L. This is, hands down, the most complete book on the science of happiness out there.
- The Happiness Track by Emma Seppälä. With a very similar premise to The Happiness Advantage, this one’s all about taking the happiness track towards success (rather than the other way around).
- Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman. This is another classic Positive Psychology book about the science of creating a happier and more fulfilling life.
- The Happy Life Formula by Nils Salzgeber. This is my own book on the science of happiness, explaining how happiness can help us become not only happier, but also healthier and more successful.
And if you want more summaries like this one, check out Blinkist for instant access to 2,000+ summaries of the best nonfiction and self-help books ever.
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