The 7 Principles in The Happiness Advantage

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Happiness Advantage" by Shawn Achor. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the 7 principles from The Happiness Advantage? What benefits can they bring to your life?

In The Happiness Advantage, 7 principles for positivity and happiness are introduced. Following these 7 principles will improve your mindset, relationships, career, and more.

Learn about the 7 principles from The Happiness Advantage and their benefits below.

The Happiness Advantage: 7 Principles for Success

In The Happiness Advantage, 7 principles for happiness and success are introduced, based on Shawn Achor’s research and personal anecdotes.

Here’s an in-depth look at each of The Happiness Advantage 7 principles for success:

Principle #1: Reap the Benefits of Happiness 

The first of the 7 principles introduced in The Happiness Advantage covers how to reap the benefits of happiness. The benefits of being happy are deeper than feeling good—happiness has measurable, lasting effects on your mind and body:

  1. Positive emotions release dopamine and serotonin, which make you feel good while also activating your brain’s learning centers. This effect improves your ability to think quickly and creatively, analyze, problem-solve, organize and store new information, and be open to new ideas.
  2. Positive emotions also reduce stress and anxiety in a phenomenon psychologists call “the undoing effect.” Some amount of stress is inevitable in life and in work, but when a stressful situation is imminent—for example, you have to make a presentation at an important meeting this afternoon—you can mitigate that stress by focusing on happy memories or watching a funny video. 
  3. Happiness improves your physical health. In one experiment, researchers surveyed participants about their levels of happiness, and then injected them with the cold virus. The following week, researchers found that the happier participants fought off the virus more quickly and had fewer objective symptoms than their less happy peers. 

Your happiness fluctuates all the time, but you can actually take steps to permanently raise your happiness baseline. Consider incorporating some of these happiness-building activities into your day-to-day routine: 

  • Meditating: Five minutes of meditation a day can make you more calm and aware, and, in the long term, permanently rewire your brain for greater happiness, boost your immune system, and lower your stress. 
  • Building up positive anticipation: Getting excited about an upcoming event activates your brain’s pleasure centers as much as actually having the experience. Think about experiences you’re looking forward to, and make plans that you can get excited about.
  • Giving back: People who perform acts of kindness are much happier than people who don’t. One day each week, try to perform five acts of kindness—they can be small and simple, but they should be deliberate. 
  • Cultivating a positive environment: Your surroundings impact your mindset, so fill yours with things that make you happy, such as pictures of loved ones. 
  • Exercising: Exercise releases feel-good endorphins in your brain, increases motivation, reduces stress and anxiety, and promotes focus. 
  • Investing in experiences: Spending money on activities (such as musical events and group dinners) or on other people creates more meaningful and enduring happiness than spending money on yourself. 
  • Tapping into your talents: Using a skill that you excel at or making the most of an ingrained character trait (such as a love of learning) can lower depression and increase happiness. 

The cognitive, emotional, and physical benefits of positivity mean that it also promotes productivity and success at work: Happy employees are more focused and innovative, suffer from less stress, and call out for fewer sick days. Managers and executives are in the best position to promote happiness because they can influence company policies and culture, they interact with many people, and they set an example for their employees. Company leaders can make their employees happier and more productive by: 

  • Providing services such as health benefits, gym memberships, and on-site daycare.
  • Frequently recognizing and encouraging employees’ good work. This can be as simple as a “well done” email or a brief recognition at the end of a meeting. In fact, scientists have determined that employees perform best when they hear three to six positive comments for every negative comment. 

Principle #2: Leverage the Power of a Positive Mindset

Sometimes, the biggest obstacles to happiness and success are your own persistent, negative thoughts. Your mindset strongly impacts your perceptions, efforts, and actions, and you can leverage it to achieve happiness and success. You can’t be sad and happy at the same time: Your brain has a limited capacity to process the many aspects of your experiences and surroundings, so it filters your awareness through a positive or negative lens. This choice dictates your perception of the world, and perception defines your reality. 

Your mindset also impacts your work performance—for example, you can alter your perspective of tedious, daily tasks to increase your engagement and motivation. If you’re dreading a meeting that you perceive as a waste of time, find something you can gain from the experience: Maybe it’s an opportunity to observe your manager’s leadership style or to practice your active listening skills. 

Let’s examine three ways in which you can improve your mindset to raise your performance: 

  1. Believe in your ability. Research shows that an employee’s confidence of her own ability to perform her job well is a better predictor of her actual job performance than her training or skill level. Be confident in your skills and talents.
  2. Believe in your ability to improve. People with a “fixed mindset” believe that their skills and capabilities are immutable, which leads to underperformance. By contrast, people with a “growth mindset” understand that exerting effort will lead to improvement, which leads to greater motivation, more effort, and, ultimately, better results.
  3. Reframe how you think about work. When you view your work as a calling—no matter what it is—you recognize its innate value, the unique skills you bring to it, and how it promotes your personal life goals (even in small, subtle ways). 

Not only can your mindset impact your own outcome, but believing in someone else’s potential can actually help manifest that success. This phenomenon—known as the Pygmalion Effect—is evident in workspaces: Research shows that if a manager believes employees are internally motivated (and not just in it for the paycheck), the workers’ outcomes improve. Managers and other leaders who understand this power invest in the company’s success when they can look at every interaction with colleagues and employees as an opportunity to recognize their skills, encourage them, and promote positivity. 

Principle #3: Train Your Brain to See the Positive

In order to reap the wide-ranging benefits of happiness and a positive mindset, how do you train your brain to focus on the positive instead of the negative? Your brain’s filter works as well as your email’s spam filter: Sometimes it tosses aside important information, and you have to reprogram it. When you develop a negative thought pattern, not only are you focusing on the negative, but you’re actively not seeing the positive. By contrast, when you implement a positive thinking pattern, you’ll be more likely to notice and capitalize on opportunities, which will contribute to your success, reinforcing your positivity and creating a virtuous cycle. A positive thinking pattern raises your:

  1. Happiness, which brings the performance advantages we’ve talked about
  2. Gratitude, which raises your emotional intelligence, energy, and capacity to forgive, while lowering anxiety, loneliness, and depression
  3. Optimism, which makes you inclined to set more ambitious goals, work harder to achieve those goals, persevere when facing obstacles, and be better able to manage stress and overcome challenges 

Mental exercises can reprogram your brain to notice positive scenarios and opportunities. In order to train your brain to see the positive, try one of these strategies: 

  1. Every day, take five minutes to write a list of three things in your life that make you happy or grateful.
  2. Three times a week, spend 20 minutes writing about a positive experience. 

The goal of a positive thinking pattern is not to have irrational optimism or turn a blind eye to problems that need improvement. Rather, by adding a positive tint to your view of the world, you can maintain awareness of problems and concerns, while choosing to prioritize a positive perspective. In other words, recognizing and having gratitude for the good in your life is actually the best mechanism for creating more positive outcomes.

Principle #4: Learn and Grow Through Adversity

As much as you may be able to improve your positive mindset, it can be particularly difficult to be optimistic in the face of adversity. When you confront a challenge, you have three options:

  1. Keep circling around the problem, which will result in no change. 
  2. Make bad choices that create further negative consequences, thereby putting you in an even worse position than before. 
  3. Take the setback as an opportunity to build resilience, improve your abilities, and increase your fortitude. This is the Third Path, or the act of “falling up.”

Adversity is inevitable, but, if you stay positive during challenging times, you will not only carry on, but also learn and grow through the process. Instead of seeing failure as something to avoid or endure, when you learn to fall up, failure becomes an invaluable opportunity for growth. Many companies and organizations highly value failing early and often because those failures provide opportunities to learn before investing too heavily in a particular model, project, or approach. 

In order to find a way to fall up, look at adversity as a building block for your personal growth, rather than an obstacle in your path. To change your mindset, examine it:

  1. What counterfacts do you use? A counterfact is a hypothetical alternative scenario that you use to frame reality. For example, if you get shot in the arm, your counterfact determines whether you consider yourself unlucky for getting shot or lucky for not having been shot in the head. You have the power to create your counterfact—a counterfact that encourages positivity brings the motivation and performance benefits that we’ve discussed, while a negative one distorts your perspective to make obstacles seem greater than they actually are. 
  2. What is your explanatory style, or the way in which you make sense of a challenging event? People with an optimistic explanatory style view adversity as specific and temporary, while people with a pessimistic one view adversity as widespread and permanent (this view leads to learned helplessness). 

Practice is key in learning how to find and follow the Third Path to success. When you are faced with a challenge, follow the ABCD model:

  1. A is for adversity, which is the challenging event or situation. Accept that you can’t change it. 
  2. B is for belief, which is how you interpret the event. How do you explain why this happened and how it will impact your future? Do you use a positive or negative explanatory style? 
  3. C is for the consequences you’ll face as a result of the challenging situation. Your consequences actually depend more on your belief than the adversity: Positive explanatory style (believing that the problem is short-term and a learning opportunity) increases the likelihood of positive consequences, while pessimistic framing (believing that the problem is permanent and disastrous) leads to negative consequences.
  4. D is for disputation. When you catch yourself facing pessimistic beliefs and negative consequences, dispute it. Remind yourself that your belief is dictating this outcome, and that you can change your belief to a more optimistic one. Pretend that you’re disputing a friend’s pessimistic belief—challenge the basis for the belief, and consider other possible interpretations. If you’re confronting a truly significant problem, try decatastrophizing, or acknowledging that you’re facing a real challenge while reassessing whether it’s as bad as you first thought. Things might be bad but they are rarely as bad as your mind makes them out to be. 

Principle #5: Stay in Control Through Incremental Achievements

In order to fall up, you have to feel that you have some control over your fate—but control can seem elusive when you’re stressed and overwhelmed. Regain a feeling of control by tackling one small, manageable goal at a time. 

There are two lenses through which you can interpret your control: 

  1. People who have an internal locus of control believe that they can have a direct impact on their futures. When these people face a challenge or setback, they reflect on how they could have performed better, and then they improve for future situations. 
  2. People who have an external locus of control blame events and circumstances on external forces, over which they have no control. This perspective leads to learned helplessness because if you don’t feel that you have any control, then it doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do—so, why bother? People with this view not only shirk the blame for failures, but they also deny credit for successes, which robs them of the feelings of confidence and commitment that come with achievement. 

Feeling a sense of control is one of the biggest factors in both happiness and success. However, your sense of control can fly out the window when you feel overwhelmed. When you experience stress or fear, your emotional brain—which is responsible for survival reflexes like the fight-or-flight response—takes over. This emotional hijacking is problematic when the trigger is not life-threatening, but rather something more mundane, like a stressful project at work. Emotional hijacking impedes your decision-making, problem-solving, and communication skills, which makes it more difficult to tackle the task at hand and exacerbates stress and anxiety, creating a vicious cycle.

When you’re on the verge or in the grip of an emotional hijacking, take an incremental approach to your problem. By tackling small, manageable goals, you not only make incremental progress, but you also gain confidence, knowledge, and resources along the way that help you continue your effort. For example, if you have a backlogged email inbox, start by responding only to new emails. Then, address emails from the day before, and then the day before that. Limit the time you allot to this project each day in order to break the large task into bite-sized chunks. This process helps to calm the emotional brain’s panic and instead tap into your problem-solving abilities. 

The key is to start small. Follow these steps: 

  1. Raise your self-awareness by acknowledging your emotions and articulating how you’re feeling, either by talking with someone or journaling. Research shows that the act of putting your feelings into words actually tames the power of negative emotions. 
  2. Identify what you can control and what you can’t. Once you’ve verbalized what is causing you stress, make a list on a piece of paper or a spreadsheet of the aspects that you can affect and those that are beyond your control. Let go of your concerns about the things you can’t impact, and focus your energy on the areas you can control. 
  3. Look at the list of things you can control, and create one small goal that you can accomplish right away. This small achievement won’t fix the whole problem, but it will give you a sense of accomplishment, control, and motivation to continue. 
  4. Pick another small goal, and accomplish that. Repeat this process—progressively taking on larger tasks—until you’ve resolved the issue.

Principle #6: Create Positive Habits

Whether it’s thinking positively or exercising daily, there’s no use in knowing that you should do something if you don’t actually do it—but having the knowledge doesn’t make it any easier to carry out. People have limited willpower, and even small acts like avoiding a donut in the break room tax your willpower, so you may not have any left at the end of the day when you get home, and you have to choose between jogging and watching TV. When your willpower wears thin, your behavior naturally returns to the easiest and most familiar patterns: your habits.

Habits are actions that you perform so often that you don’t have to consciously think about them, and they don’t tap your willpower. For example, when you brush your teeth each morning, you don’t have to consciously remember that you’re supposed to brush daily, or think about the steps you have to take (such as grabbing the toothbrush and squeezing the toothpaste). Brushing your teeth is such a strong habit that it requires no thought or willpower. Since you can’t always rely on willpower to help you to make good choices, turn healthy behaviors into habits. 

When you’ve chosen a behavior that you want to turn into a habit, do it regularly and frequently. The early stages require the most diligence and willpower, because you’re still in the process of ingraining the action to make it a habit. Try these strategies to increase your chance of successfully creating a habit: 

  1. Minimize the activation energy—the motivation and momentum—required to do the action. For example, if you’re trying to make a habit of playing the guitar daily, minimize the effort required to get the guitar out and ready to play. Instead of storing the guitar in the closet, keep it on a stand in the middle of the room, where it’s both in plain view and within reach. 
  2. Reduce the activation energy to takes 20 seconds or less. Although 20 seconds is not much, when your willpower is low, even minimal activation energy can be enough to deter you and derail your habit formation.
  3. Increase the activation energy required to do bad habits—you can even flip the 20-second rule to increase the barriers to doing undesirable behaviors. For example, if you want to cut down on the amount of TV you watch, take the batteries out of your remote and put them in a drawer that’s at least a 20-second walk from the couch. 
  4. Create rules that support your habit formation. For example, if you’re trying to create a habit of exercising first thing in the morning, make rules about what time you’ll get up, whether you’ll run or go to the gym, and how long you’ll exercise. Every decision you make throughout the day—including minor decisions like these—wears down your willpower, physical stamina, ability to focus, tenacity, and mental agility. Setting rules preserves your willpower and gives you less wiggle room to stray from your commitment. 

Principle #7: Optimize the Benefits of Social Connections

The final principles of the 7 principles from The Happiness Advantage are about optimizing the benefits of social connections.

When you have a daunting, stressful project on your plate, you may be inclined to hunker down and isolate yourself from seemingly superfluous social interactions—eating lunch at your desk, working nights and weekends, and canceling social time with friends and family. However, people need social connection for their productivity and personal well-being, so when you avoid social interaction in order to focus on your project, you’re unwittingly creating a bigger obstacle between you and the finish line. Social bonds increase your: 

  • Energy
  • Engagement
  • Happiness
  • Productivity
  • Resilience 
  • Sense of purpose

Furthermore, the positive effects of social interactions are twofold: 

  1. At the moment of interaction, you experience a jolt of happiness.
  2. Each interaction with someone strengthens that relationship, and as the relationship improves, your happiness baseline rises. 

The benefits of social support are crucial at work, where chronic stress and pressure can have insidious effects. Employees who reap the benefits of social support perform better, even when they have to work longer hours and maintain focus under difficult conditions. Social bonds:

  • Increase innovation and creativity 
  • Correlate with employees’ individual learning behavior, meaning that they invest more time in trying to improve their skills and efficiency 
  • Motivate workers (more than the promise of money and status)
  • Increase employee engagement
  • Prolong employees’ ability to focus 

Companies can take actions big and small to foster environments that increase social connection—for example, Google keeps its cafeterias open past business hours to make it easier for employees to eat and socialize together. Managers and executives can use simple strategies to forge a culture in which social bonds can flourish organically. These tactics include: 

  • Encouraging employees to interact and socialize. Organize the office space in a way that promotes natural connection and community, and schedule meetings face-to-face, whenever possible. Additionally, introduce new hires to other employees around the office. 
  • Promoting strong relationships between bosses and employees, which increase workers’ productivity as well as their tenure at the company. 
  • Initiating and encouraging non-work-related conversations among colleagues. Make eye contact and say hello when you pass coworkers in the hall, and make a point to learn one new thing about a colleague each day. 
The 7 Principles in The Happiness Advantage

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Happiness Advantage summary:

  • How happiness isn’t the result of success, it’s the cause of it
  • The benefits of happiness—from increased creativity to improved health
  • Strategies for adopting a positive mindset and raising your happiness baseline

Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in English Literature. Growing up, she enjoyed reading fairy tales, Beatrix Potter stories, and The Wind in the Willows. As of today, her all-time favorite book is Wuthering Heights, with Jane Eyre as a close second. Elizabeth has branched out to non-fiction since graduating and particularly enjoys books relating to mindfulness, self-improvement, history, and philosophy.

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