THE BLOG

The Science of Happiness

04/16/2015 07:26 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2015

What makes you happy?

This question is not as easy as it might seem.

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According to Shawn Achor in the Happiness Advantage, most Americans find free time harder to enjoy than work. Yes, you read that right. It's easier for most of us to be successful than to be happy.

Why do we have a hard time enjoying free time?

Guilt. Fear. Pressure. In today's age of achievement, we put a tremendous emphasis on success and very little importance on happiness.

We are trained to be effective and successful, but we are not given skills to be happy. click to tweet

And this is a huge problem. Shawn Achor calls this the happiness myth:

The Happiness Myth:

If we work hard and become successful, we will be happy.

From a young age, most of us are taught that if we work hard, then we will be successful; and once we are successful, we will be happy. I am completely guilty of this myth. I used to live by what I call the 'when-then' mindset.

  • When I get an 'A', then I'll be happy.
  • When I get this house, then I'll be happy.
  • When I finish this program, then I'll be happy.

We have this mindset all wrong. In fact, our ideas about happiness are completely backwards! More than 200 scientific studies on nearly 275,000 people found that people who start off happy are more likely to succeed; people who start off unhappy are more likely to fail. Here is the happiness truth:

The Happiness Truth:

If we are happy, we are more successful

Happiness helps our productivity, our immune system, our creativity, our income and our effectiveness.

Happiness gives us a huge competitive advantage-and it has great side-effects.

One study followed college freshmen for 19 years after graduation. The researchers found that those students who were happier in college had a higher income than their unhappy classmates 19 years later.

I chose the Happiness Advantage for our March Science of People Club and I couldn't be happier because the tips and science in this book are phenomenal.

Here is what you need to know about happiness right now:

1. Happiness Baseline

Research has found that all of us have a kind of happiness baseline-that we have a typical amount of happiness during our lives. However, with the right effort we can INCREASE our happiness baseline:

"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." - Shawn Achor

No matter who you are, what your experiences are or how you think, you can learn how to be happy-and it is absolutely a learned skillset.

  • Change Your Mindset: Happiness doesn't just happen to you. Happiness is a lifestyle.

2. Your Mental Fulcrum

How can you change your mindset? How can you learn to be happier? Achor calls this the Fulcrum and the Lever principle.

You change your performance by changing your mindset.

Greek mathematician Archimedes said, "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world."

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Your mindset is the fulcrum and the length of the lever is your potential power. If you move your mindset to be more positive, the lever of possibility lengthens, which leads, as empirical studies have shown conclusively, to eventual success.

3. Happiness Habits

"Each activity listed below not only gives us a quick boost of positive emotions, improving our performance and focus in the moment; but if performed habitually over time, each has been shown to help permanently raise our happiness baseline." -Shawn Achor

  • Write a thank you email to an employee or friend.
  • When you meditate, even just five minutes a day, it rewires your brain to "raise our levels of happiness, lower stress, and improve immune function."
  • Set up something to look forward to-it can be as small as a chocolate after lunch or seeing a friend this weekend. Knowing you have this coming up releases dopamine in your brain as if you are actually doing it. In other words, you benefit from the reward before actually getting the reward.
  • Commit conscious acts of kindness by doing one nice thing for someone every day. Buy coffee for the person behind you in the drive through or help someone else bag their groceries at checkout.
  • Make your environment inspiring. How can you infuse positivity into your surroundings? A beautiful pen? A nice walk mid-day? A better ringtone? Make an effort to surround yourself with things that make you smile.
  • Exercise whenever you can-I know we have heard this one before. But even small walks a few times a week results in significant improvements in mental health.
  • Spend on experiences. Research shows that spending money on experiences and activities rather than on material purchases makes us happier in the moment and over time. Look at your credit card statement over the past month- what did you spend more on?
  • See #9 below, which is the most important happiness habit.

4. Find Your Thing

My favorite part of the book was actually a rather small section called "Signature Strengths." Researchers told people to focus on a signature strength and focus on exercising it every day. This is more than just "pursuing your passion." It's the daily practice of utilizing your natural born strengths. This can be anything from organizing to cracking jokes to making small talk.

Happiness Quiz:

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, most of us have no idea what makes us happy. Here in our lab, we find this fact amazing and we want to do some research on it.

Will you help us?

The 3 minute quiz will help you identify your happy triggers and help us dig a bit deeper into the happiness question.

5. The Tetris Effect

The Tetris Effect found that our brains love to find patterns. In one study, participants who had to play tetris for 3 hours a day began to dream in tetris patterns and see tetris shapes in their mind all day long. We do this pattern finding with many things in our life. For example, IRS employees are trained to look for mistakes 8 hours a day on forms. When they leave work, they can't help but keep looking for mistakes and errors. You need to train your brain to recognize positive patterns. Here's how:

  • Whenever you have a positive experience put a star next to the event or time in your calendar.
  • Journal about positive experiences at the end of every day.
  • Talk about the highlight of your day over dinner.
  • Think of three positive things in your life before you check your email.

In this way, you can retrain your brain to spot patterns of positivity rather than patterns of failure.

6. Falling Up

I learned a new phrase in this chapter:

Post-Traumatic Growth

When you learn from failure and train yourself to capture growth after an apparent failure.

Michael Jordan was cut from his High School Basketball team. Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper for not being creative enough. The Beatles were turned away by a record executive who said that guitar groups were on their way out. They didn't let failure stop them. Why should you?

Don't bounce back, bounce forward.

"Things do not necessarily happen for the best, but some people are able to make the best out of the things that happen." -Tal Ben-Shahar

Study after study shows that if we are able to conceive of a failure as an opportunity for growth, we are all the more likely to experience that growth.

Don't define yourself by what happens to you, define yourself by what you make out of what happens to you.

7. The Zorro Circle

In the classic movie Zorro, the main character has to master everything in a small circle during his training. As he gets better, his circle gets bigger and bigger. Achor argues that in the face of overwhelming odds, we can regain control by beginning with small manageable goals. In other words, we should find small circles of control in our life and focus on making those small areas as good as they can be. Control brings us happiness and fixing small problems helps us fix bigger ones.

  • As humans, we crave the feeling that we are in control because it helps us see ourselves as masters of our own fate. Whether this is in social or professional spaces, it is one of the strongest drivers of both happiness and performance.
  • Interestingly, happiness has less to do with how much control we actually have and more with how much control we think we have. Hence the importance of small circles of control that we pick and work on purposefully.

8. The 20-Second Rule

Happiness has barriers. The 20-second rule is all about how to minimize the blockers of happiness by turning bad habits into good ones. It's about lowering activation energy for good habits and making it really hard for yourself to engage in bad ones. Right now think of the things that cause you moments of frustration or minimize your productivity. These can be both big and small.

Now think of ways that you could prevent these blockers from coming up and put the better habit in a path of least resistance. For example, I want to improve my mile time. Snacking is a huge barrier to me and I mindlessly eat. I got rid of all the snacks in my kitchen that do not require assembly. I only kept the healthy ones (carrots, grapes) that are grab-able. I also realized I would get anxious whenever I saw a push notification from my email so I turned it off and put it in a folder in my phone so it is harder to open mindlessly. But, I moved my meditation app to the home screen. I also leave my workout clothes out next to my desk so I can change easily.

9. Make Social Investments

This chapter made me the most excited. This is the principle that stumped me for the longest time and when I finally figured it out, it completely changed my life:

Our happiness is directly connected to the strength of our social connections and support network.

Achor says that investing in social relationships is the most important of all the happiness principles.

We typically think about investing in our stock portfolio or our savings account, I want you to think about investing in your social capital or your friend account. Strong relationships help our immune function, our happiness and our work success.

I thought that the chapter was a little skimpy on how to do this because social intelligence is not an easy thing to grasp. My favorite tip on building your social IQ is to embrace the idea of:

Stop Being Boring:

  • Abandon boring social scripts. Chatter, meaningless conversations and small talk breed shallow, unfulfilling relationships. If you really want to connect with someone try asking them real questions and giving them unscripted, uncanned answers.

10. The Ripple Effect

The tips in the Happiness Advantage don't just benefit you, they benefit everyone in your life. Our emotions are contagious. When we have a more positive mindset, increase our happiness and invest in our joy, it runs off on others.

Increase your happiness and bring more joy to the world.