Book Review: Lessons from The Happiness Advantage

I wanted to preface this post by saying that if you feel out of control in your own life, or still don't believe that happiness is a skill that must be practiced, then you absolutely NEED to read this book.

In Achor’s, The Happiness Advantage, he begins by challenging the traditional idea that once we achieve success, then we will be happy. Instead, he argues the complete opposite: that happiness is, in fact, the precursor to success. He asserts that there exists a “happiness advantage” and outlines seven principles that readers can implement in order to capitalize on this advantage. The principles include:

1. The happiness advantage

2. The fulcrum and the lever

3. The Tetris effect

4. Falling up

5. The Zorro circle

6. The 20-second rule; and

7. Social investment.

First, he begins by providing evidence that supports that happy people are more likely to make better decisions, avoid cognitive biases, work more productively, and be more creative.

Secondly, he argues that our brain acts like a fulcrum and a lever, where we can maximize our power and ability to achieve new possibilities as long as we are able to adopt a positive mindset.

In the third principle, Achor asserts that our brain’s filter tangibly affects the way we perceive the world. In an interesting study, tax auditors, who spend around 8 to 14 hours a day scanning tax forms for errors, end up unintentionally priming their brain to look for errors in their everyday lives – like their dinner being overcooked, mistakes their husband or wife has made or their child’s poor grades. Thus, in this chapter, Achor puts forth the idea that this relationship can also work in reverse, where if we train our brains to pick out the positives – through the practice of gratitude – then we will be able to notice more positives and opportunities present in our daily life.

In the fourth principle, falling up, Achor asserts that our mistakes, misfortunes, and failures have the potential to propel us to reach new heights.

The fifth principle argues that we have the capability to manage large, tasks, goals, and objectives as long as we adjust for them within our circle of control.

In the sixth principle, Achor argues that we must lower the activation energy of desirable habits, so we do not rely on short-lived willpower, and the seventh principle articulates the importance of social investment for cultivating happiness. Lastly, Achor notes that our happiness, or lack of, has the power to affect people 3 degrees apart from us, so when we maximize our own happiness, it positively affects others.

I think that the beginning of the book does a very effective job of highlighting the negative nature of psychological research. Personally, his “wellness week” example was very powerful for me, as he mentioned that the “wellness week” topics included eating disorders, depression, drugs and violence, and risky sex. Upon reading this example, it didn’t catch my eye because this is how a lot of university health, wellness, and orientation initiatives are structured. However, he is right in pointing out that this setup resembles more of a “sickness week” than a “wellness week”. Although these topics are important to discuss, there is still a lack of discussion about how to be well and flourish. Achor makes an excellent point in mentioning that the absence of depression does not result in happiness, thus research in positive psychology is necessary in order to give us as a society the skills to be happy and perform our best.

Overall, the step-by-step guide that Achor lays out in the book simply and effectively outlines the precise actions that one must practice in order to capitalize on the happiness advantage. The principles that stood out to me as being especially powerful are the Tetris effect, the Zorro circle, and the 20-second rule because Achor gave very clear exercises that can be done in order to practice these principles. For example, putting the TV remote a 20-second walk away from you to encourage picking up a book, cleaning a small area of your desk before cleaning your whole office; and practicing gratitude each day at the dinner table to train your brain to pick out the positives in your day. Additionally, not only are these suggestions clear, but they are also easy to implement and effective. Personally, this year I started keeping my own gratitude journal, and when I started I would stare at the blank page for at least a few minutes trying to think of even one good thing that happened in my day. However, after about a week – and especially after months – I can now come up with good things about my day immediately.

However, regarding the Tetris effect, Achor goes into depth about how particular jobs require their employee to excel at picking out the negatives, such as in the tax auditor example. Although Achor moves on to discuss the efficacy of practicing gratitude to train the brain to instead focus on the positives, he does not address if practicing gratitude outside of work affects the tax auditor’s performance inside of work. I would have liked him to mention if there can exist a duality, where the tax auditor can be effective at picking out errors while also picking out positives in his or her own life. Upon reading this chapter, I started to think about some of the strengths that being highly critical gave me. Then, I remembered that I am very strong in developing arguments for my philosophy classes because creating a good philosophical argument requires one to consider any and all possible counter-arguments or critiques and address them in the context of the argument being put forth. I wonder if training my brain to focus on the positive through practicing gratitude can negatively affect my ability to critique arguments in an academic setting.

In a complementary TEDx talk entitled You Don’t Find Happiness, You Create It, by Katarina Blom, she, like Achor, defends the idea that happiness is a skill that can be practiced. Blom asserts that it is much easier, and much more realistic, to practice actions that lead to increased happiness rather than try to focus on “positive thinking”. This is similar to Achor’s motivation argument in the 20-second rule, where he argues that it is much easier to start a healthy habit by making it physically easier for yourself (i.e. putting a book on your nightstand to encourage you to read before bed), rather than relying on your brain’s motivation to remind you to keep up the habit. Thus, both Achor and Blom agree that physical intervention is much more effective than relying on your intrinsic thought processes.

Blom also, like Achor, defends that quality relationships are a crucial component of one’s happiness. Both Achor and Blom assert the importance of having quality relationships, equating the effect of relationships on our happiness and well-being as synonymous with the effect of exercise and a quality diet on our health. The studies referenced by Blom and Achor conclude that these people are happy because they have quality relationships, however, I wonder if the inverse relationship plays a larger role – that these people have quality relationships because they already are happy.

To give a personal example, in the past, my boyfriend and I would regularly have petty or unnecessary fights. However, one day my boyfriend was listening to a podcast, where the speaker said that he keeps a gratitude journal that’s dedicated to his wife and it has helped their relationship immensely. So, my boyfriend and I decided that we would keep gratitude journals for each other, where we would write one thing we were grateful for each other for every day. After we started doing this, our number of fights dropped significantly; and we have never felt more emotionally connected. In this case, we already had a close relationship, but once we both took the time to practice seeing the positives in each other and worked on our own mindset, the quality of our relationship significantly increased. Further, I also simply believe that people want to have relationships with happy people. So, perhaps it’s more so that happy people have higher quality relationships because they are happy, rather than quality relationships making them happy.

To conclude, both the book and TEDx talk agree that happiness is a skill that improves with practice, particularly through the practice of gratitude and the formation of quality relationships. Achor goes a bit further to argue that an internal locus of control, the formation of healthy habits, and experiencing failure and trauma also contribute to one’s happiness. Both Achor and Blom recognize that the happiness of individuals not only benefits the individual themselves but also entire organizations. Additionally, Achor defends that not only does the happiness advantage affect one’s own well-being and performance in and outside of work, but the happiness advantage has the power to spread to those around us.

Have you read The Happiness Advantage? What were your thoughts?

Link to TEDx Talk:

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