In Sight

The Happy Secret to Better Work

Positive psychology research reveals happiness fuels success, not vice versa.


Happiness fuels success, not vice versa, says positive psychology expert Shawn Achor. “If we can find a way of becoming positive in the present,” he says, “then our brains work even more successfully as we’re able to work harder, faster and more intelligently.”

Photo: Good Think Inc.

by Shawn Achor

I applied to Harvard on a dare. I didn’t expect to get in, and my family had no money for college. When I got a military scholarship two weeks later, they let me go. Something that wasn’t even a possibility became a reality. I assumed everyone there would see it as a privilege as well, that they’d be excited to be there. Even in a classroom full of people smarter than you, I felt you’d be happy just to be in that classroom.

After graduating, I became an officer to counsel students there through the difficult four years. And in my research and my teaching, I found that these students, no matter how happy they were with their original success of getting into the school, two weeks later their brains were focused, not on the privilege of being there, nor on their philosophy or physics, but on the competition, the workload, the hassles, stresses, complaints.

What does a Harvard student possibly have to be unhappy about? Embedded within that question is the key to understanding the science of happiness. Because what that question assumes is that our external world is predictive of our happiness levels, when in reality, if I know everything about your external world, I can only predict 10 percent of your long-term happiness; 90 percent of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world. And if we change it, if we change our formula for happiness and success, we can change the way that we can then affect reality. What we found is that only 25 percent of job successes are predicted by IQ; 75 percent of job successes are predicted by your optimism levels, your social support and your ability to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat.

Your brain at positive is 31 percent more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed.

I talked to a New England boarding school, probably the most prestigious one, and they said, “We already know that. So every year, instead of just teaching our students, we have a wellness week. And we’re so excited. Monday night, we have the world’s leading expert speak about adolescent depression. Tuesday night, it’s school violence and bullying. Wednesday night is eating disorders. Thursday night is illicit drug use. And Friday night we’re trying to decide between risky sex or happiness.”

I said: “I’d be happy to speak at your school, but that’s not a wellness week, that’s a sickness week. You’ve outlined all the negative things that can happen, but not talked about the positive.”

The absence of disease is not health. Here’s how we get to health: We need to reverse the formula for happiness and success. In the last three years, I’ve traveled to 45 countries, working with schools and companies in the midst of an economic downturn. And I found that most companies and schools follow a formula for success, which is this: If I work harder, I’ll be more successful. And if I’m more successful, then I’ll be happier. That undergirds most of our parenting and managing styles, the way that we motivate our behavior.

And the problem is it’s scientifically broken and backward for two reasons. Every time your brain has a success, you just changed the goal post of what success looked like. You got good grades, now you have to get better grades; you got into a good school and after you get into a better one, you got a good job; now you have to get a better job, you hit your sales target, we’re going to change it. And if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there. We’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon, as a society. And that’s because we think we have to be successful, then we’ll be happier.

But our brains work in the opposite order. If you can raise somebody’s level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage, which is your brain at positive performs significantly better than at negative, neutral or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise. In fact, we’ve found that every single business outcome improves. Your brain at positive is 31 percent more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed. You’re 37 percent better at sales. Doctors are 19 percent faster, more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis when positive instead of negative, neutral or stressed.

Which means we can reverse the formula. If we can find a way of becoming positive in the present, then our brains work even more successfully as we’re able to work harder, faster and more intelligently. We need to be able to reverse this formula so we can start to see what our brains are actually capable of. Because dopamine, which floods into your system when you’re positive, has two functions. Not only does it make you happier, it turns on all of the learning centers in your brain allowing you to adapt to the world in a different way.

The full talk can be viewed at

“Finding Happiness in Your Work”

Second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda said that the most important thing is to first become indispensable wherever you are. Instead of moaning that a job differs from what you’d like to be doing, he said, become a first-class individual at that job. This will open the path leading to your next phase in life, during which you should also continue doing your best. Such continuous efforts are guaranteed to land you a job that you like, that supports your life and that allows you to contribute to society.
Then, when you look back later, you will see how all your past efforts have become precious assets in your ideal field. You will realize that none of your efforts and hardships have been wasted. Mr. Toda taught that this is the great benefit of the Mystic Law.
•    •    •
My experience was that I wanted to be a newspaper reporter, but my poor health prevented me. Today, however, I have become a writer who can hold his own in the literary world.
At one point, I worked for a small publishing company. Because of its limited personnel, I had to work very hard—but to the extent that I did, I gained practical experience.
After the war, I worked for the Kamata Industries Association [established in 1946 for the promotion of small- to medium-sized businesses in Kamata, Ota Ward, Tokyo]. It, too, was a small operation, but what I went through on that job gave me a chance to really look at myself. Everything I learned back then is of value to my life now. The important thing is to develop yourselves in your present situations, to take control of your growth. (Discussions on Youth, p. 77)


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