More than a decade of groundbreaking research in the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience has proven in no uncertain terms that the relationship between success and happiness works the other way around. Thanks to this cutting-edge science, we now know that happiness is the precursor to success, not merely the result. And that happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement—giving us the competitive edge that I call the Happiness Advantage.
If we study merely what is average, we will remain merely average.
Extraordinarily, as late as 1998, there was a 17-to-1 negative-to-positive ratio of research in the field of psychology. In other words, for every one study about happiness and thriving there were 17 studies on depression and disorder.
I have sat for more than a half hour individually with over 1,100 Harvard students—enough caffeine to get an entire Olympic team disqualified for decades. I then took these observations and used them to design and conduct my own empirical survey of 1,600 high achieving undergraduates—one of the largest studies on happiness ever performed on students at Harvard.
Meanwhile, positive psychology researchers had finished a “meta-analysis,” a study of nearly every scientific happiness study available—over 200 studies on 275,000 people worldwide. Their findings exactly matched the principles I was teaching—that happiness leads to success in nearly every domain, including work, health, friendship, sociability, creativity, and energy.
The point of this book is to arm you with that research, so that you will know exactly how you can use the principles of positive psychology to gain a competitive edge in your career and in the workplace.
In the 1970s, the Dalai Lama claimed that mere thought could change our brain structure. Even without the aid of modern brain scans and fMRIs, Western scientists knew this was ridiculous. While it might be comforting to believe our brains can change, they said, it was only a myth. And certainly, if the brain could change, it couldn’t do so through mere thought or force of will alone. For most of the twentieth century, it was a commonly held notion in the most esteemed research circles that after adolescence our brains were fixed and unyielding. Neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain is malleable and can therefore change throughout our lives, was essentially the “Western Unicorn.”
Happiness implies a positive mood in the present and a positive outlook for the future.
Barbara Fredrickson, a researcher at the University of North Carolina and perhaps the world’s leading expert on the subject, describes the ten most common positive emotions: “joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love.”5
Researchers gave subjects a survey designed to measure levels of happiness—then injected them with a strain of the cold virus. A week later, the individuals who were happier before the start of the study had fought off the virus much better than the less happy individuals. They didn’t just feel better, either; they actually had fewer objective symptoms of illness as measured by doctors—less sneezing, coughing, inflammation, and congestion.
Meditate. Neuroscientists have found that monks who spend years meditating actually grow their left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most responsible for feeling happy.
Then there’s what might be thought of as the reverse placebo effect, which is in many ways even more fascinating. In one of my favorite all-time experiments, Japanese researchers blindfolded a group of students and told them their right arms were being rubbed with a poison ivy plant.3 Afterward, all 13 of the students’ arms reacted with the classic symptoms of poison ivy: itching, boils, and redness. Not surprising … until you find out that the plant used for the study wasn’t poison ivy at all, just a harmless shrub. The students’ beliefs were actually strong enough to create the biological effects of poison ivy, even though no such plant had touched them. Then, on the students’ other arm, the researchers rubbed actual poison ivy, but told them it was a harmless plant. Even though all 13 students were highly allergic, only two of them broke out into the poison ivy rash!
The mental construction of our daily activities, more than the activity itself, defines our reality.
Tal Ben-Shahar has pointed out that the term “deadline” is about as negative as you can get.
Job, Career or Calling
Yale psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski has made a living out of studying how the mental conceptions we have of our jobs affect performance. After many years and hundreds of interviews with workers in every conceivable profession, she has found that employees have one of three “work orientations,” or mindsets about our work. We view our work as a Job, a Career, or a Calling.
Job: People with a “job” see work as a chore and their paycheck as the reward. They work because they have to and constantly look forward to the time they can spend away from their job.
Career: By contrast, people who view their work as a career work not only out of necessity, but also to advance and succeed. They are invested in their work and want to do well.
Calling: Finally, people with a calling view work as an end in itself; their work is fulfilling not because of external rewards but because they feel it contributes to the greater good, draws on their personal strengths, and gives them meaning and purpose. Unsurprisingly, people with a calling orientation not only find their work more rewarding, but work harder and longer because of it. And as a result, these are the people who are generally more likely to get ahead.
The Pygmalion Effect
Now fast-forward to the twentieth century, to one of the most well-known psychology experiments ever performed. A team of researchers led by Robert Rosenthal went into an elementary school and administered intelligence tests to the students. The researchers then told the teachers in each of the classrooms which students—say, Sam, Sally, and Sarah—the data had identified as academic superstars, the ones with the greatest potential for growth.
They asked the teachers not to mention the results of the study to the students, and not to spend any more or less time with them. (And, in fact, the teachers were warned they would be observed to make sure they did not.)
At the end of the year, the students were tested again, and indeed, Sam, Sally, and Sarah posted off-the-chart intellectual ability. This would be a predictable story, except for an O. Henry-type twist at the end.
When Sam, Sally, and Sarah had been tested at the beginning of the experiment, they were found to be absolutely, wonderfully ordinary. The researchers had randomly picked their names and then lied to the teachers about their ability. But after the experiment, they had in fact turned into academic superstars.
So what caused these ordinary students to become extraordinary? Although the teachers had said nothing directly to these children and had spent equal amounts of time with everyone, two crucial things had happened. The belief the teachers had in the students’ potential had been unwittingly and nonverbally communicated. More important, these nonverbal messages were then digested by the students and transformed into reality. This phenomenon is called the Pygmalion Effect: when our belief in another person’s potential brings that potential to life.
Psychologist Robert Emmons, who has spent nearly his entire career studying gratitude, has found that few things in life are as integral to our well-being. Countless other studies have shown that consistently grateful people are more energetic, emotionally intelligent, forgiving, and less likely to be depressed, anxious, or lonely. And it’s not that people are only grateful because they are happier, either; gratitude has proven to be a significant cause of positive outcomes. When researchers pick random volunteers and train them to be more grateful over a period of a few weeks, they become happier and more optimistic, feel more socially connected, enjoy better quality sleep, and even experience fewer headaches than control groups.
Think You’re Lucky? You Probably Are
Wiseman asked volunteers to read through a newspaper and count how many photos were in it. The people who claimed to be lucky took mere seconds to accomplish this task, while the unlucky ones took an average of two minutes. Why? Well, on the second page of the newspaper a very large message read: “Stop counting, there are 43 photos in this newspaper.” The answer, in short, was plain as day, but the unlucky people were far more likely to miss it, while the lucky people tended to see it. As an added bonus, halfway through the newspaper was another message that read, “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.” The people who had claimed to be unlucky in life again looked right past this opportunity.
List of 3 Good Things
When you write down a list of “three good things” that happened that day, your brain will be forced to scan the last 24 hours for potential positives—things that brought small or large laughs, feelings of accomplishment at work, a strengthened connection with family, a glimmer of hope for the future.
In just five minutes a day, this trains the brain to become more skilled at noticing and focusing on possibilities for personal and professional growth, and seizing opportunities to act on them. At the same time, because we can only focus on so much at once, our brains push out those small annoyances and frustrations that used to loom large into the background, even out of our visual field entirely.
This exercise has staying power. One study found that participants who wrote down three good things each day for a week were happier and less depressed at the one-month, three-month, and six-month follow-ups.
The most successful decisions come when we are thinking clearly and creatively enough to recognize all the paths available to us, and accurately predict where that path will lead. The problem is that when we are stressed or in crisis, many people miss the most important path of all: the path up.
As my mentor Tal Ben-Shahar likes to say, “things do not necessarily happen for the best, but some people are able to make the best out of things that happen.”
Decades of subsequent study have since shown 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 (i.e., “It’s not that bad, and it will get better.”) while those with a pessimistic explanatory style see these events as more global and permanent (i.e., “It’s really bad, and it’s never going to change.”). Their beliefs then directly affect their actions; the ones who believe the latter statement sink into helplessness and stop trying, while the ones who believe the former are spurred on to higher performance.
Optimistic Salespeople Win
So when Seligman was brought on to help solve the problems the salespeople were having at MetLife, one of the first things he looked at was their explanatory style. And indeed, testing revealed that the agents with more optimistic styles sold 37 percent more insurance than those with pessimistic ones, and that the most optimistic agents actually sold fully 88 percent more than the most pessimistic ones.
Furthermore, agents who were more optimistic were half as likely to quit as were the pessimists. This was the answer MetLife was looking for. They decided to hire a special force of agents picked solely on the basis of explanatory style. And it paid off.
The next year, these agents outsold their more pessimistic counterparts by 21 percent; during the second year, by 57 percent. Aware it had struck gold, MetLife decided to completely overhaul its hiring practices from that day on. If would-be agents failed the regular industry test but scored well in an evaluation of explanatory style, MetLife hired them anyway. And if they passed the industry test but had a low score on explanatory style, the company rejected them, no matter how smart they seemed.
The results: Within only a few years, MetLife’s turnover had plummeted while its market share had increased by almost 50 percent.
The Zorro Circle
Hour after hour, Alejandro is forced to fight only within this small circle. As Don Diego wisely tells his protégé, “This circle will be your world. Your whole life. Until I tell you otherwise, there is nothing outside of it.”
Neuroscientists have found that financial losses are actually processed in the same areas of the brain that respond to mortal danger.
Experiments show that when people are primed to feel high levels of distress, the quickest to recover are those who can identify how they are feeling and put those feelings into words. Brain scans show verbal information almost immediately diminishes the power of these negative emotions, improving well-being and enhancing decision-making skills.13
What Can You Control? What Can’t You?
Once you’ve mastered the self-awareness circle, your next goal should be to identify which aspects of the situation you have control over and which you don’t.
When I worked with the Shanghai manager and his colleagues I mentioned in the last chapter, I asked them to write out all their stresses, daily challenges, and goals, then to separate them into two categories: things that they have control over and things they don’t.
Anyone can do this simple exercise on a piece of paper, an Excel spreadsheet, or even on a napkin over post-work martinis. The point is to tease apart the stresses that we have to let go of because they’re out of our hands, while at the same time identifying the areas where our efforts will have a real impact, so that we can then focus our energy accordingly.
In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle discusses how the strategy of “finding and improving small problems” has helped businesses flourish. The practice (often referred to as kaizen, which is Japanese for “continuous improvement”) involves a focus on tiny, incremental changes—improving efficiency on a production line, for instance, by shifting a trash bin one foot to the left. As Coyle points out, each tiny fix can add up to over a million tiny fixes each year.
Lead Copywriter Practicing Zorro Circle
As with other clients, I had her make two lists—what she could control and what she couldn’t. As often happens, she was surprised, I might say shocked, to see how much of her daily life fell into the former column. She managed a team of eight people, all talented copywriters who looked to her for instruction and guidance. She was in charge of leading the creative meetings that brainstormed ideas for each client. She may not have been a top executive, but every word the firm placed on a client’s advertisement was in her hands. So for her first Zorro Circle, we set the following goal: to improve only the copy that she herself wrote. Recommitting herself to this manageable goal not only helped her focus her energies on something she could handle; the best part was that, once her own performance improved, her circle of influence really did expand.
As Aristotle put it, to be excellent we cannot simply think or feel excellent, we must act excellently.
One of the life habits I wanted to create was exercising in the morning. I knew from numerous research studies that exercise in the morning raises your performance on cognitive tasks and gives your brain a “win” to start a cascade effect of positive emotions. But information is not transformation,
Positive outliers already know this to be true—indeed, it’s what makes them positive outliers. In a study appropriately titled “Very Happy People,” researchers sought out the characteristics of the happiest 10 percent among us.4 Do they all live in warm climates? Are they all wealthy? Are they all physically fit? Turns out, there was one—and only one—characteristic that distinguished the happiest 10 percent from everybody else: the strength of their social relationships.
This is why I often ask managers to write an e-mail of praise or thanks to a friend, family member, or colleague each morning before they start their day’s work—not just because it contributes to their own happiness, but because it very literally cements a relationship.
In fact, studies have shown that when three strangers meet in a room, the most emotionally expressive person transmits his or her mood to the others within just two minutes.