Sunday Snippet: Shawn Achor on Success and Happiness

“Every time your brain has a success, you just changed the goalpost 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.”

If there is just one characteristic that unites all of humanity, it’s that we all just want to be happy. Different people may define happiness in different ways, but the end objective is fundamentally the same. The challenge is figuring out how to get there. For many of us, we go about life with the assumption that we will be happy when we achieve a certain level of success or we attain a certain status. As Shawn Achor points out, this is completely and utterly wrong.

The biggest problem with this line of thinking is that we have this unfortunate habit of constantly redefining what success really means. We keep telling ourselves that we will be happy when when we get a better job or buy a nicer house… but what happens when we actually get that new job or house? We move the goal. We dangle a new carrot in front of us, perpetually keeping happiness just out of reach.

A Harvard graduate and a corporate trainer, Shawn Achor is also the author of such books as The Happiness Advantage. He is perhaps best known as an advocate for the power of positive psychology and he speaks extensively on the subject. And if we keep putting happiness just “over the cognitive horizon,” we’ll never quite get it. We’ll just keep working toward the next goal, only to move it a little further along.

We’ll try all sorts of techniques to boost our productivity — like utilizing timed, structured work sessions — or to improve our chances at grabbing that carrot so we can finally be happy. But that’s the wrong way to go about it. As it turns out, happiness is not a byproduct of success; success is a byproduct of happiness.

“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.”

In his TED Talk embedded below, Shawn Achor cites several statistics to back up this claim.

It is said that we are 31% more productive when we are positive than when we are negative, neutral or stressed. Sales people are 37% more effective. Doctors are able to diagnose more quickly and more accurately. When you are happy, all the learning centers in your brain are activated. This makes you better able to adapt to the world. This makes you more capable of achieving greater things.

And then you can be both happy and successful. Just remember that happiness has to come first. Don’t make it contingent on grabbing some carrot on a stick.