“…study after study shows that happiness precedes important outcomes and indicators of thriving.” ~ Shawn Achor
As a long-time student of happiness and well-being I had no choice but to buy the book, The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. Of course the truth is, I did have a choice—just like every single one of you. But as a major focus of the book explains, even though most of us realize we can take steps to improve our ongoing feelings of happiness, and grow a “happiness advantage,” we still sometimes avoid it or resist it altogether. The reason we avoid this type of thriving, and what we can choose instead is well worth the time to explore.
Shawn Achor makes a convincing case for a happiness advantage. Not only did he teach a “famed” Happiness Course at Harvard University, he also founded a corporation named “Good Think” to share his research with the world and spends much of his time teaching about happiness around the world. Achor’s major premise is that the world usually teaches a backwards approach to happiness. Instead of thinking we can only “be” happy after the successful conclusion of certain activities, we should realize that happiness is the fueling cause that leads to successful outcomes of any type. He says, “By becoming more positive, our brain becomes more engaged, creative, energetic, resilient and productive. The result is an advantage over our entire lifetime—improving success at work, creating better health, better relationships with our loved ones, and creating a happier home.”
Sounds good right? Then why on earth wouldn’t every single one of us jump on board with that? Why wouldn’t we all want to learn and start to practice the tools that are available? According to Achor a big problem is that our focus has been on curing depression rather than studying happiness. Achor says that even “as late as 1998…for every one study about happiness and thriving there were 17 studies on depression and disorder.” Unfortunately, even if you eliminate depression or relieve anxiety, that doesn’t mean you’ve helped a person become happy or learn to thrive in the world. Or, as Achor continues, “If all you strive for is diminishing the bad, you’ll only attain the average and you’ll miss out entirely on the opportunity to exceed the average.” It’s one thing to climb out of depression and quite another to live a life of on-going joyful well-being.
While Shawn Achor is not the only person who studies and teaches in the burgeoning field of “Positive Psychology,” he did have the advantage of using Harvard students as subjects for his research. Not only were they a captive audience, he found that they suffered extreme pressure to succeed and “nearly half of all students suffer from depression so debilitating they can’t function.” Using what he learned from the percentage of students who actually thrived and excelled in spite of the pressure, Achor is now spreading the word through his book, website and lectures. However, even though positive psychology and related best practices are growing and becoming more known, those of us who actually claim to be life-long students of happiness are still relatively small.
So what are just a few significant points that Achor teaches about the understanding and choice of a happiness advantage?
#1 Know you have a choice. It’s essential that before you learn anything you must believe you have a choice about becoming happier. Obviously unless you are open to the idea that you can learn about and improve your happiness level, you won’t even try. Achor points to the studies by Carolyn Dweak that explore a “growth mindset versus a set mindset” that I wrote about in a previous post. Achor says, “Once we realize how much our reality depends on how we view it, it comes as less of a surprise that our external circumstances predict only about 10% of our total happiness.” That’s why a scientist named Sonja Lyubomirsky prefers the phrase, “creation or construction of happiness to the more popular ‘pursuit’ since research shows that it’s in our power to fashion it for ourselves.” So ask yourself, do you really believe you can decide and then learn to become happier?
#2 Look for the Third Path. Most of us are unaware of, or forget, that there is a third option whenever we are faced with adversity or crisis. According to Achor, when bad things happen most of us believe we only have two choices: a) a desire to return to the situation before it happened or “normalcy” or, b) psychic distress or PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Instead Achor says, there is actually another path to choose—and this is the one that leads us from failure or setback to a place where we are even stronger than we were before the fall. Achor says, “our ability to find the Third Path is the difference between those who are crippled by failure and those who rise above it.”
This Third Path is one that can actually lead to “Post-Traumatic Growth.” That’s right. The opposite of the very serious negative consequence of trauma named PTSD, Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG) is when trauma serves to spur profound positive change in many, many individuals. Psychologists call this experience either Post-Traumatic Growth or Adversarial Growth and it has only been studied and documented within the last 25 years. The type of growth associated with this “syndrome” are increases in spirituality, compassion for others, openness, and even eventually overall life satisfaction. “These are the people who actually use adversity to find the path forward. They speak not just of “bouncing back,” but of bouncing forward,” says Achor. Just knowing that some people experience PTG rather than the much more publicized PTSD is empowering to me. Just knowing that some people can go through extreme trauma and come out on the other side in a positive way is valuable to us all.
#3 Change Your Explanatory Style. The life of every person on the planet is a series of ups and downs. But if you ask one person over another about whether those events were lucky or unlucky you would receive many different answers—even if the people experienced the same exact experience. That’s because we all “invent” a story that helps us to evaluate and make sense of what is happening. What’s critical is to remember we are “inventing” or “making up” that story to begin with—and we can look for ways to make the story positive rather than negative.
According to Achor, decades of studies show that “explanatory style—how we choose to explain the nature of past events—has a crucial impact on our happiness and future success. People with an optimistic explanatory style interpret adversity as being local and temporary.” On the other hand, those who take a pessimistic approach are convinced it’s only going to get worse. Pessimists often spiral into helplessness, while the optimists are stimulated toward higher performance. We each have the power to learn to tell positive and constructive stories about the circumstances in our lives and increase our overall wellbeing and life meaning.
At no time does Achor imply or pretend that bad or horrific things don’t happen to us as humans. What he does is convincingly remind us that working towards and “constructing” a happy life is a choice that we can make. And by recognizing the value of the choice, we can set ourselves up with an advantage that will benefit us in everything we do.
The above are only three of the suggestions I picked out of this book to focus on in this post but there are many more. What I realize when I read books like this is that the ideas are there and available to us all, but unless we are willing to take the time and work on ourselves on a daily basis, the good news of even the most positive of psychology won’t make much difference. Do I believe I can improve my happiness, and how willing am I to give up stories of drama in exchange for empowerment? Do repeatedly tell the same negative stories over and over without taking the time to “tell a more positive story”?
Every day it is important to remember that we have the ability—and the response-ability to work on ourselves in the most positive way—especially if we want to live SMART 365.