The Happiness Advantage: A Book Review

Written by

July 27, 2014

When we started our Lady Docs Corner Cafe website last year, I planned to have many discussions on issues related to mental illness. We did not, however, keep up with this promise and did not venture into this aspect of medicine too much. During this time, I went to a lecture organized by Sidwell Friends for high school parents, given by the President of the American Pediatric Psychiatry Association, on the topic of depression in adolescents. Since then, many tragic incidences have occurred nationwide and in our local communities, from suicides to crimes committed by young adults with mental illnesses. It has become frequent news of college campuses or high schools with massacres by young killers who often end up killing themselves. Two weeks ago I read on the front page of the Washington Post, “The Man in the House,” a true story about a man whose life and those of his loved ones were transformed tragically because of his mental illness. I was so moved by this story and it stayed in my mind for days afterward. Personally, I think mental illness is as serious as physical illness, and I am disturbed at how politicians and our society as a whole have paid little attention to it. Mental stability is crucial to happiness; and isn’t the “search” for happiness the core of our existence? Marsha, Linda and I have recently decided it is time to address some issues in mental health.

I remember watching psychologist Shawn Achor’s interview one day on a popular talk show. He seemed to be nice, enthusiastic and had a high level of energy, not to the point of jumping off the couch like Tom Cruise when Cruise was talking about his then fiancee, now divorced wife, Katie Holmes. I decided to read Achor’s book The Happiness Advantage, released in 2010. Achor, as many of you know, has been quite famous for being a “happiness consultant” to many Fortune 500 companies. He is the CEO and founder of Aspirant, a research and consulting firm that uses positive psychology to improve workplace culture and individual potential.

I agree with Achor that there had been too much attention on the “negative psychology.” It was time to study the “happy” people and learn how they got to be that way! As late as 1998, for every study of happiness, there were 17 studies on depression and similar disorders. There was so much knowledge about misery, Achor stated, but so little about how to thrive. In 1998, Dr. Mark Seligman found “positive psychology” and urged his colleagues to change the direction of their study i.e. to study what works, not what is broken.

Shawn Achor, who went to Harvard as an undergraduate, was invited to be a fellow in the psychology department where he had the opportunity to conduct research on more than six thousand Harvard students on the subject of happiness. In closely observing these superiorly intelligent and highly successful and competitive students, he was able to formulate the seven principles of positive psychology that lead to success and effective work performance. Achor is very good at giving concrete and realistic examples to show us how we all can be trained to master these seven principles. His writing is quite witty, and his choice of words is simple. It is a fast read and the information is very useful. Below is the summary of Achor’s seven principles of positive psychology: 

  1. The Happiness Advantage: People with positive emotions are more successful at work and in life. Achor shows numerous studies and examples how happiness precedes success and not the other way around as often believed by the majority of us. He gives some techniques to train our brain to “capitalize” this happiness advantage such as meditation, finding something to look forward to, committing a conscious act of kindness, exercise, infusing positivity into our surroundings, spending money on “to do” things instead of “to have things”, and exercising a “signature strength” by identifying and practicing your top positive traits.
  2. The Fulcrum and the Lever: In a very clever way, Achor shows us how the world is not fixed and the reality is relative. With our mindset and attitude, we can change the outcome of our action. The results can be achieved by our perception of the task.
  3. The Tetris Effect: In this very important chapter, Achor gives us practical tips on how to train our mind to recognize the positives in our life and our surrounding to find happiness. Again, it is how you view the world that affects your performance. He cites how lawyers have 3.6 times more likely to suffer major depression than the normal population. Their training to pick up flaws or mistakes can turn them into “negative” people. Their critical manner, Achor believes, make them more critical of their own lives and problems. The goal of positive tetris effect is to focus on looking for positive things and avoid “inattention blindness.”
  4. Falling Up: Without failing, Achor states, we might not achieve greater success. Achor advises us to view our failures as an opportunity to learn and grow to move “upward,” thus the term “falling up.” He believes we are the makers of our own fate. He advises us to train our mind toward positive “counterfact” i.e. by creating scenarios with positive outcomes out of our circumstances. Negative counterfact, on the other hand, makes us overestimate our problem or “blow it out of proportion” and thus creates a sense of helplessness which leads us to failure.
  5. The Zorro Circle: In this chapter, Achor shows how successful people are more likely to believe their actions directly affect the outcomes. They do not blame it on the “external forces” in a helpless way. He advises us to start in small, manageable steps to avoid being overwhelmed. Small successes eventually lead to major achievements. You can’t sprint your way to a marathon, he wisely reminds us.
  6. The 20 – Second Rule: All of us have habits, good and bad. Anchor points out that when we want to change a habit or behavior, we will be much more likely to succeed if we make sure that the desired behavior is ‘“as easy as possible” to adopt. In his words, place the behavior “on the path of least resistance.” By making it less difficult to do, you lower the barriers to change and have a better chance of success. Lowering the barrier to change might take 20 seconds or even less (or it might take more) but Achor describes this often simple process “lowering the activation energy” for the new behavior. He shares a classic example of trying to exercise first thing in the morning. To make this as easy as possible (lowering the barriers), he started wearing his exercise clothes to sleep and placing his sneakers right next to the bed. In the morning, all he needed to do was roll out of bed and into his sneakers!
  7. Social investment: A Social Support network, in Achor’s words, is the most important factor in the creation of happiness. People with strong social bonds deal better with stress and perform better at work. Achor cited an incredible Harvard Men Study conducted since 1930 in which 268 men were followed throughout their lives for 40 years. The researchers found the one thing the happiest 10% of these men had in common was social relationships. Social support, he emphasizes is our single greatest asset!

Most of what Achor wrote might appear to be of common sense. I agree with him, however, that common sense is not so commonly found in many people. Achor’s statistics of Harvard students with depression were astounding. He cited a 2004 Harvard Crimson poll finding that “4 out of 5 Harvard students suffer from depression at least once during the school year, and nearly half of all students suffer from depression so debilitating that they can’t function.” Like Achor, I see many unhappy people around me, whether their lives are viewed “amazing” by most of us. They complain often about what they don’t have or can’t have or can’t achieve without realizing that happiness, like Achor points out using many scientific studies, should precede success and achievement or, at least, the feeling of achievement and not the other way around. He was very wise in reminding us that we do not need to “pursue” happiness; it can be “created.”

Leave a Comment