Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be. – Abraham Lincoln
“If I work harder, I’ll be more successful. And if I’m more successful, then I’ll be happier.” This is the way most of us think. But happiness expert Shawn Achor says we have it all wrong.
Our brains are simply too adept at moving goal posts. “You can get great grades in school, but then you have to get better grades so you can get into a better school and then get a good internship and then a good job and then go back to school. And you can’t be happy yet, because then you have to rise up in the ranks, and then your children have to do well.”
The myth that success leads to happiness reflects a broader assumption that our external world predicts our well-being. But really, “If I know everything about your external world, I can only predict 10 percent of your longtime happiness,” says Achor. Of course, most of us know this is true. My friends and I had a great time while living in dilapidated surroundings and eating Ramen during our college years. And you only need to skim through a copy of US Weekly to recognize that mansions, Lamborghinis, and Oscar nominations don’t ensure bliss.
Yet still the meme that success leads to happiness endures, and Achor says it has detrimental effects. “If happiness is on the other side of success, your brain never gets there. What we’ve done is we’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon as a society.”
Moreover, he insists that we have it exactly backward. Success doesn’t lead to happiness; happiness leads to success. “Thanks to cutting-edge science, we know that happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement — giving us the competitive edge that I call the happiness advantage.” Achor cites numerous studies showing that happiness raises intelligence and boosts performance.
So are you doomed if you tend to see half-empty glasses? Happiness is not something that happens to us,” says Achor. He insists we can reprogram our brains to be happier with five simple practices:
1. Write down three things you’re grateful for every day. Your brain will retain the pattern of looking for positive things in your surroundings.
2. Spend five minutes a day journaling about a positive thing that happened to you. Your brain responds the same way to visualization and experience, so you can double your good experiences.
3. Meditate. Focusing on your breath, even for two minutes a day, trains your brain to single-task.
4. Exercise. It reinforces that your behaviors matter, which is a key predictor of success.
5. Perform conscious acts of kindness. Achor advises writing a two-sentence email first thing in the morning praising or recognizing someone in your environment: a co-worker, family member, or friend. A strong social support network is a big predictor of happiness.
Achor warns that no one should expect to be happy all the time. “That’s a disorder.” But by taking the above steps, “We can reverse the formula for happiness and success and not only create ripples of positivity, but create a real revolution.”
Learn more about Shawn Achor’s research:
- The Happy Secret to Better Work – TED
- Why a Happy Brain Performs Better – Harvard Business Review
- Big Think Interview
- The Happiness Advantage
- Scientifically Proven Advice for Becoming Happier – BlogcastFM
What do you think? Is it time for us to reverse the formula for happiness and success? Have you reprogrammed your brain to be happier? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.