the happiness advantage

“The lens through which your brain views the world shapes reality—and if we can change the lens, we can change reality.” –Shawn Achor, TED Talks

Everyone knows that success breeds happiness—or does it? According to some recent research, it’s actually the other way around: happiness breeds success.

In a recent TED Talk, psychologist Shawn Achor explains why working to achieve happiness is a game that’s impossible to win. Instead, we need to be happy first, and that will lead to better work and higher productivity.
Here’s what Achor and his team found through an eight-year study of happiness and its ties to success, and how you can create happiness in the workplace that propels your team to productive and successful new heights.

Beyond the “Cult of Average”

Early in the talk, Achor discusses the traditional foundations for professional research. First, a question is posed that requires a researched answer. The question might be something like, “How long does it take an employee to learn Task A in Setting B?” The researcher will automatically alter the question slightly, and set out to discover “How long does it take an average employee to learn Task A in Setting B?” The resulting research will focus on the average performance, and will discount the “outliers”—subjects who performed far above or far below the average.

In this happiness study, Achor decided to escape the cult of average. Since the goal was to discover what factors resulted in above-average performance, productivity, and success, the study focused on the outliers instead of the “normal” performance bracket.

During his speech, Achor stated, “If we study what is merely average, we will remain merely average.” Therefore, the goal of this research was to elevate the average and bring everyone above the curve, instead of conforming to average expectations.

Finding a Happy Place

Achor and his team carried out most of this eight-year study at Harvard University. Harvard is a world of the privileged and elite—the freshman dining hall looks like a scene straight out of Hogwarts University from the Harry Potter films. During the talk, Achor said people would often ask him why he wasted his time studying happiness at Harvard, when the students there had nothing to be unhappy about.

The key to the answer, Achor said, lies in the question—which assumes that the external world is predictive of happiness. The study found that external factors only account for 10 percent of long-term happiness. The other 90 percent is dependent on the way an individual’s brain processes that external world.

For the majority of students at Harvard, no matter how happy they were about the privilege of being accepted to the school, “…two weeks later, their brains were focused on the competition, the stresses, the workloads, the hassles, the complaints,” Achor said.

The Solution: Happiness First

Most of today’s organizations, including schools and businesses, follow the same formula for success. Achor states this formula as: “If I work harder, I’ll be more successful, and if I’m more successful, then I’ll be happier.” But his research has shown why this formula only makes success harder, and even elusive.

Each time a person succeeds, their idea of what success looks like also changes. If they’ve landed a good job, they have to get a better job. If they’ve hit a sales target, they have to aim for a higher target. “Success” is always just around the corner—and because happiness depends on success, no one ever gets there.

By turning the formula around and supplying happiness first, you can foster success. If you can raise an individual’s level of positivity in the present, that person experiences what Achor calls a “happiness advantage.” A mind at positive performs significantly better than at negative, neutral, or stress, with increased intelligence, creativity, and energy levels, and achieves a productivity boost of up to 31 percent.

The study found that placing happiness ahead of success improves every business outcome, from job security and loyalty to productivity, resilience, sales performance, and more. So the secret to having more productive employees is to make them happy first.

Create a workplace culture that is positive, motivational, and promotes happiness, and your organization will achieve the “happiness advantage.” Happiness will drive your success—instead of the other way around.

What are you doing to create happiness in your workplace?

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