The Happiness Advantage: Linking Positive Brains to Performance

Shelley Yates, Communications Senior Advisor
December 5, 2018

Shawn Achor, Harvard researcher and positive psychology expert, recently spoke at the 1st Global National Conference about the connection between happiness and success.

He made a distinction between pleasure, which is the short-lived emotion felt when laughing or smiling, and joy, a longer-lasting sense of satisfaction, when explaining what it means to be happy.

“Happiness is the joy you feel moving toward your potential,” Achor said.

He explained that while pleasure may detract from one achieving one’s goals, joy does the opposite because it is born out of rational optimism. Whereas irrational optimism denies the reality of the world around it, rational optimism recognizes the influence that one’s behavior and the behavior of those around them has on outcomes.

Achor conducted an informal experiment in which the audience broke into pairs, where one smiled at the other who tried not to smile. Invariably, everyone would end up smiling while being smiled at, demonstrating the effect other’s emotions have on our own.

He explained, “Not only do smiles and yawns spread, but feelings of negativity, stress, uncertainty and anxiety we can pick up like secondhand smoke…The entirety of our potential is predicted by the height of the individuals around us as well.”

Achor dove into two key points from his latest book, Big Potential, which was distributed to all conference attendees. The first concerns an experiment that showed that people viewed hills as shorter when they had someone to climb it with them, demonstrating how one’s reality changes in response to the environment of potential. The second concerned MIT research that showed that lightning bugs that lit up in sync with one another (as opposed to individually and randomly as they normally do) raised their success rate at mating from 3 percent to 82 percent, demonstrating how working together in pursuit of each individual’s potential actually makes each party more successful. He later added that social connection is the greatest predictor of the success of a team.

He said, “We don’t live in a survival of the fittest world like we thought we did. We actually live in a survival of the best fit with the ecosystem of potential around us…finding a way to link up your potential to the potential of others around us actually raise people’s success rates within the midst of it.“

Achor said that only 10 percent of your long-term variability of happiness is predicted by external factors like how much money you make, where you live, the weather, and so on. The other 90 percent is predicted by how your brain processes these external factors.

He cited several studies that showed that optimism—not education, intelligence or experience—was the highest predictor of increased sales across industries, but he cautioned against the traditional thought process of working harder makes one more successful, which in turn creates happiness. He says this limits happiness to a result of success, and it also makes it so that every time you achieve success, you raise the bar for next success. He says happiness needs to be the fuel for success, not the reward we never actually get for achieving success.

Achor said, “If you view the world through the same pattern for too long, your brain keeps it even if it stops working for you.”

He explained that happiness is something you can cultivate, as long as you change the pattern you view the world through. For example, if you were to write down three things you were grateful for each day and stick them in a jar, you would experience the gratitude three times: as you experience it, as you write it down and as you reflect on it later as the jar fills. This exercise in gratitude increases one’s optimism and happiness, which in turn encourages success.

Stay tuned to as we share more exclusive insights like this from our National Conference 2018 speakers in the coming weeks.