The world’s leading positive psychology expert and bestselling author Shawn Achor is the winner of over a dozen distinguished teaching awards at Harvard University, where he delivered lectures on positive psychology in the most popular class at Harvard, and has become one of the world’s leading experts on the connection between happiness and success. His TED talk is one of the most popular of all time with over 4 million views.
The therapist Kathy Caprino reached out to Shawn to learn more about how our brains in “positive” mode versus negative, neutral or stressed actually give us an enormous advantage in life and work, and how we can influence our minds to embrace more happiness through our daily actions. This Happiness Advantage as Shawn calls it can be the difference between leading a fulfilling, joyful and successful life and living far beneath our potential.
Shawn explained that our society’s most commonly held formulas for success are broken. Conventional wisdom holds that if we work hard we will be more successful, and if we are more successful, then we’ll be happy. We think, “If I can just find that great job, or win that next promotion, lose those ten pounds, or (fill in the blank), then happiness will follow.”
But Shawn’s extensive research and other recent discoveries in the field of positive psychology have shown that this formula is completely backward: Happiness fuels success, not the other way around. When we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive at work. This isn’t just an empty mantra. This discovery has been borne out repeatedly by rigorous research in psychology and neuroscience, management studies, and the bottom lines of organizations around the world. Shawn now spends his time teaching, advising and lecturing at top organizations on how we can – in five easy steps — reprogram our brains to become more positive in order to gain a competitive edge at work and create more success, happiness and reward in our lives.
Caprino asked Shawn what she wanted to know about happiness and success. Here are his answers:
What specifically impacts our happiness and how can we shift it?
The three greatest predictors of happiness are optimism (the belief your behavior will eventually matter), social connection, and how we perceive stress (as a challenge or as a threat). If we want to raise happiness we need to make both mindset and behavior shifts.
What are the five key steps that we can take each day to increase our experience of happiness?
1) Bring gratitude to mind– Write down three NEW things that you are grateful for each day
2) Journal – About a positive experience you’ve had recently for 2 minutes once a day
3) Exercise – Engage in 15 minutes of mindful cardio activity
4) Meditate – Watch your breath go in and out for 2 minutes a day and
5) Engage in a random, conscious act of kindness – Write a 2-minute positive email thanking a friend or colleague, or compliment someone you admire on social media
Do these steps for 21 days, and you will begin to see a lasting shift in your mindset towards more positivity.
How are you using this information to increase the success of organizations and leaders?
Happiness is a choice, but leaders and companies can make that choice easier by providing education about how to raise positivity in the workplace, creating social engagements, authentically praising individuals. My job is to use the science to convince companies to realize that the greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged workforce. Those that realize that, focus helping cultivate positive work environments which results in the happiness advantage.
What is the Happiness Advantage exactly?
Your brain works significantly better at positive than at negative, neutral or stressed. Every single business and educational outcome improves when we start at positive rather than waiting for a future success. Sales improve 37% cross-industry, productivity by 31%, you’re 40% more likely to receive a promotion, nearly 10 times more engaged at work, live longer, get better grades, your symptoms are less acute, and much more.
As an expert in positive psychology, what do you know about happiness that the rest of us don’t?
Genes and environment will define your happiness, UNLESS you make conscious changes to your mindset and habits. If you do the latter, your happiness will no longer remain under the tyranny of your genes, childhood and environment.
In the end, happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change. It is the belief that we can.
Yoga can be an invigorating, stress-relieving form of exercise that offers a multitude of physical and psychological benefits. With so many types, it can be hard to distinguish between them. Our list of the top health benefits of yoga offers an explanation on each type of yoga benefits and how to choose the yoga practice that suits you:
Ashtanga: derived from ancient yoga teachings, this is a sequence-style of yoga that links each movement to a breath. Rigorous in practice, ashtanga performs poses in a specific order, nonstop. The breathing technique in ashtanga is designed to center the mind and control breath flow throughout the body while enhancing flexibility and strength.
Bikram/Hot Yoga: both heated up in rooms 95-100 degrees, these types of yoga will certainly get you sweaty and challenged. Bikram takes you through a series of 26 poses, while hot yoga may be more varied up. The heat aids in flexibility and detoxification – classes are popular and vastly expanding!
Hatha: any type of yoga that teaches poses can be classified as hatha, providing you with an introduction to the basic postures and movements. You choose the place and style according to where you’re at. Any class deemed “hatha” is a great starting point for new yogis.
Kundalini: with a spiritual and philosophical approach, kundalini will enhance your mind and body awareness. Energy flow is directed towards the poses while meditation, breathing techniques, and chanting are incorporated to keep you grounded.
Kripalu: gentle in nature, kripalu focuses on self-empowerment in a three-part practice. Making kripalu a regular part of your routine will put you in touch with your body as you allow it to teach you, leading you to self-discovery.
Iyengar/Anusara: featuring various props (bolsters, blankets, straps, and blocks), Iyengar is a meticulous style of yoga focused on nailing the correct alignment in each pose. Be prepared to maintain form- the pace is slow and poses are often held for a minute or longer. For a more light-hearted version, try Anusara. Fast-growing and friendly to beginners, its classes are upbeat and accepting to those out-of-shape.
Restorative: soothing and relaxing, restorative yoga will rejuvenate you more than a nap or night on the couch. With as few as five poses in one class, this class is ideal for injury or stress rehab. Head to the studio for restorative yoga (“yin”) next time you need a psychological cleanse.
Vinyasa: similar to ashtanga and hatha, vinyasa centralizes poses around the sun salutation while maintaining a synchronized breath matched to 12 poses. Friendly to beginners and advanced yogis, vinyasa will strengthen your core and create connection between movement and breath. Look forward to the final relaxation pose, savasana, at the end of each class.
Power Yoga: taking you from one pose to the next, power yoga recruits every muscle in the body, revving up your metabolism and resulting in higher calorie burn. Although it is deemed the most athletic yoga style, power yoga is tough even for athletes. You may also hear it referred to as “vinyasa flow” due to its fluidity in movement.
Prenatal: perfect for moms-to-be, this practice improves posture, core strength, and breathing technique while relieving pregnancy pain. It is a safe and smart form of exercise to stay in shape while expecting, and a wonderful opportunity to share parenting tips!
Other popular yoga practices not mentioned include sivananda, jivamukti, and viniyoga – there are many others out there. You can’t go wrong with yoga – any style is sure to reap benefits!
From the bestselling author of “Learned Optimism” and “Authentic Happiness” comes a relentlessly optimistic guidebook on finding and securing individual happiness.
This book will help you flourish.
With this unprecedented promise, internationally esteemed psychologist Martin Seligman begins “Flourish” his first book in ten years and the first to present his dynamic new concept of what well-being really is. Traditionally, the goal of psychology has been to relieve human suffering, but the goal of the Positive Psychology movement, which Dr. Seligman has led for fifteen years, is different it´s about actually raising the bar for the human condition.
“Flourish” builds on Dr. Seligman´s game-changing work on optimism, motivation, and character to show how to get the most out of life, unveiling an electrifying new theory of what makes a good life for individuals, for communities, and for nations. In a fascinating evolution of thought and practice, “Flourish” refines what Positive Psychology is all about.
While certainly a “part” of well-being, happiness “alone” doesn’t give life meaning. Seligman now asks, what is it that enables you to cultivate your talents, to build deep, lasting relationships with others, to feel pleasure, and to contribute meaningfully to the world? In a word, what is it that allows you to “flourish”? Well-being takes the stage front and center, and Happiness (or Positive Emotion) becomes one of the five pillars of Positive Psychology, along with Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment or PERMA, the permanent building blocks for a life of profound fulfillment.
Thought-provoking in its implications for education, economics, therapy, medicine, and public policy the very fabric of society “Flourish” tells inspiring stories of Positive Psychology in action, including how the entire U.S. Army is now trained in emotional resilience; how innovative schools can educate for fulfillment in life and not just for workplace success; and how corporations can improve performance at the same time as they raise employee well-being.
With interactive exercises to help readers explore their own attitudes and aims, “Flourish” is a watershed in the understanding of happiness as well as a tool for getting the most out of life. On the cutting edge of a science that has changed millions of lives, Dr. Seligman now creates the ultimate extension and capstone of his bestselling classics, “Authentic Happiness “and “Learned Optimism.”
Does happiness matter? People react to this question in surprisingly different ways. Some suggest that there are far more significant things to worry about; others see happiness as vitally important and something that every human being ultimately wants in life. To explore this conundrum, we need to start by looking at what happiness actually means.
Happiness relates to how we feel, but it is more than just a passing mood. We are emotional beings and experience a wide range of feelings on a daily basis. Negative emotions – such as fear and anger – help us to get away from danger or defend ourselves. And positive emotions – such as enjoyment and hope – help us to connect with others and build our capacity to cope when things go wrong.
Trying to live a happy life is not about denying negative emotions or pretending to feel joyful all the time. We all encounter adversity and it’s completely natural for us to feel anger, sadness, frustration and other negative emotions as a result. To suggest otherwise would be to deny part of the human condition.
Happiness is about being able to make the most of the good times – but also to cope effectively with the inevitable bad times, in order to experience the best possible life overall. Or, in the words of the biochemist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard: “Happiness is a deep sense of flourishing, not a mere pleasurable feeling or fleeting emotion but an optimal state of being.”
One popular misconception about happiness is that happy people are somehow more likely to be lazy or ineffective. In fact research shows the opposite is true: happiness doesn’t just feel good, it actually leads to a wide range of benefits for our performance, health, relationships and more.
For example, economists at Warwick University showed different groups of people either a positive film clip or a neutral film clip and then asked them to carry out standard workplace tasks under paid conditions. The people who were primed to feel happy were 11% more productive than their peers, even after controlling for age, IQ and other factors. Similarly, researchers at Wharton Business School found that companies with happy employees outperform the stock market year on year and a team at UCL has discovered that people who are happy as young adults go on to earn more than their peers later in life.
In healthcare, doctors who are happy have been found to make faster and more accurate diagnoses, even when this happiness was induced simply by giving them the small gift of a sugary sweet. In education, schools that focus on children’s social and emotional wellbeing experience significant gains in academic attainment as well as improvements in pupil behaviour. Happiness has also been linked to better decision-making and improved creativity.
So, rather than success being the key to happiness, research shows that happiness could in fact be the key to success.
But it doesn’t just help us function better: happiness also brings substantial benefits for society as a whole. For example, a review of more than 160 studies found “clear and compelling evidence” that happier people have better overall health and live longer than their less happy peers. They are around half as likely to catch the cold virus and have a 50% lower risk of experiencing a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack or stroke.
Happier people are also less likely to engage in risky behaviour – for example, they are more likely to wear seat belts and less likely to be involved in road accidents. Happier people are even more financially responsible, tending to save more and have more control over their expenditures.
But perhaps most importantly of all, people who are happier are more likely to make a positive contribution to society. In particular, they are more likely to vote, do voluntary work and participate in public activities. They also have a greater respect for law and order and offer more help to others.
There is even evidence that happiness is contagious, so that happier people help others around them to become happier too. An extensive study in the British Medical Journal followed people over 20 years and found that their happiness affected others in their networks across “three degrees of separation”. In other words, how happy we are has a measurable impact on the mood of our friend’s friend’s friend.
When it comes to the happiness of society as a whole, however, the sad truth is that in recent decades we have become substantially richer but no happier. The positive benefits of higher incomes have been undermined by rising inequality and falling levels of trust and social cohesion. We’ve also reached the point where mental ill health is one of our greatest social challenges – causing more of the suffering in our society than either unemployment or poverty.
This is why increasing numbers of policymakers and leaders are now calling for measures of progress to be based on human wellbeing and happiness, not just economic factors such as growth in GDP. In the UK, the government has introduced a programme to measure national wellbeing, and influential figures – including former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell – are calling for wellbeing to become the overall measure of prosperity and the main guide to public policy.
This shift towards prioritising happiness is important because this also reflects what the majority of people want. In a YouGov poll commissioned by Action for Happiness, a majority (87%) of UK adults said they would prefer a society with the “greatest overall happiness and wellbeing”, rather than the “greatest overall wealth” (8%). The findings were consistent across all regions, age groups and social classes.
So happiness does matter – the scientific evidence is compelling. The pursuit of happiness is not some fluffy nice-to-have or middle-class luxury; it’s about helping people to live better lives and creating a society that is more productive, healthy and cohesive. As Aristotle said: “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”
Of course, being happy is not some magical cure-all. Happy people still get sick and lose loved ones – and not all happy people are efficient, creative or generous. But, other things being equal, happiness brings substantial advantages.
Perhaps the most powerful insight of all comes, not from the research, but from the responses I’ve heard from many hundreds of parents when asking them what they want above all for their children. Nearly all say something like: “I really just want them to be happy.”
Happiness is the thing we want most for the people we love the most. That’s why it matters so much.