What makes you happy?

This question is not as easy as it might seem.

According to Shawn Achor in The Happiness Advantage, most Americans find free time harder to enjoy than work. Yes, you read that right. It’s easier for most of us to be successful than to be happy at work.

Why do we have a hard time enjoying free time?

Why Happiness Is Important

Guilt. Fear. Pressure. In today’s age of achievement, we put a tremendous emphasis on success and very little importance on happiness. We are trained to be effective and successful, but we are not given skills to be happy.

And this is a huge problem. Shawn Achor calls this:

The Happiness Myth

If we work hard and become successful, we will be happy.

From a young age, most of us are taught that if we work hard, then we will be successful; and once we are successful, we will be happy. I am completely guilty of this myth. I used to live by what I call the ‘when-then’ mindset.

  • When I get an ‘A’, then I’ll be happy.
  • When I get this house, then I’ll be happy.
  • When I finish this program, then I’ll be happy.

We have this mindset all wrong. In fact, our ideas about happiness are completely backwards! More than 200 scientific studies on nearly 275,000 people found that people who start off happy are more likely to succeed; unhappy are more likely to fail.

How to Be Happy at Work

If we are happy, we are more successful

Happiness helps our productivity, our immune system, our creativity, our income and our effectiveness.

Happiness gives us a huge competitive advantage–and it has great side-effects.

One study followed college freshmen for 19 years after graduation. The researchers found that those students who were happier in college had a higher income than their unhappy classmates 19 years later.

Here is what you need to know about happiness right now:

1. Happiness Baseline

Research has found that all of us have a kind of happiness baseline–that we have a typical amount of happiness during our lives. However, with the right effort we can INCREASE our happiness baseline:

“It’s more than a little comforting to know that people can become happier, that pessimists can become optimists, and that stressed and negative brains can be trained to see more possibility.” – Shawn Achor

No matter who you are, what your experiences are or how you think, you can learn how to be happy–and it is absolutely a learned skillset.

Change Your Mindset: Happiness doesn’t just happen to you. Happiness is a lifestyle.

2. Your Mental Fulcrum

How can you change your mindset? How can you learn to be happier? Achor calls this the Fulcrum and the Lever principle.

You change your performance by changing your mindset.

Greek mathematician Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”

Your mindset is the fulcrum and the length of the lever is your potential power. If you move your mindset to be more positive, the lever of possibility lengthens, which leads, as empirical studies have shown conclusively, to eventual success.

3. Happiness Habits

“Each activity listed below not only gives us a quick boost of positive emotions, improving our performance and focus in the moment; but if performed habitually over time, each has been shown to help permanently raise our happiness baseline.” -Shawn Achor

  • Write a thank you email to an employee or friend.
  • When you meditate, even just five minutes a day, it rewires your brain to “raise our levels of happiness, lower stress, and improve immune function.”
  • Set up something to look forward to–it can be as small as a chocolate after lunch or seeing a friend this weekend. Knowing you have this coming up releases dopamine in your brain as if you are actually doing it. In other words, you benefit from the reward before actually getting the reward.
  • Commit conscious acts of kindness by doing one nice thing for someone every day. Buy coffee for the person behind you in the drive through or help someone else bag their groceries at checkout.
  • Make your environment inspiring. How can you infuse positivity into your surroundings? A beautiful pen? A nice walk mid-day? A better ringtone? Make an effort to surround yourself with things that make you smile.
  • Exercise whenever you can–I know we have heard this one before. But even small walks a few times a week results in significant improvements in mental health.
  • Spend on experiences. Research shows that spending money on experiences and activities rather than on material purchases makes us happier in the moment and over time. Look at your credit card statement over the past month- what did you spend more on?
  • Read 5 more ways to live the good life.

4. Find Your Thing

My favorite part of the book was actually a rather small section called “Signature Strengths.” Researchers told people to focus on a signature strength and focus on exercising it every day. This is more than just “pursuing your passion.” It’s the daily practice of utilizing your natural born strengths. This can be anything from organizing to cracking jokes to making small talk.

Happiness Quiz:

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, most of us have no idea what makes us happy. Here in our lab, we find this fact amazing and we want to do some research on it.

Will you help us?

The following 3 minute quiz will help you identify your happy triggers and help us dig a bit deeper into the happiness question:

5. The Tetris Effect

The Tetris Effect found that our brains love to find patterns. In one study, participants who had to play tetris for 3 hours a day began to dream in tetris patterns and see tetris shapes in their mind all day long. We do this pattern finding with many things in our life. For example, IRS employees are trained to look for mistakes 8 hours a day on forms. When they leave work, they can’t help but keep looking for mistakes and errors. You need to train your brain to recognize positive patterns. Here’s how:

  • Whenever you have a positive experience put a star next to the event or time in your calendar.
  • Journal about positive experiences at the end of every day.
  • Talk about the highlight of your day over dinner.
  • Think of three positive things in your life before you check your email.

In this way, you can retrain your brain to spot patterns of positivity rather than patterns of failure.

6. Falling Up

I learned a new phrase in this chapter:

Post-Traumatic Growth

When you learn from failure and train yourself to capture growth after an apparent failure.

Michael Jordan was cut from his High School Basketball team. Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper for not being creative enough. The Beatles were turned away by a record executive who said that guitar groups were on their way out. They didn’t let failure stop them. Why should you?

“Things do not necessarily happen for the best, but some people are able to make the best out of the things that happen.” —Tal Ben-Shahar 

Study after study shows that if we are able to conceive of a failure as an opportunity for growth, we are all the more likely to experience that growth.

Don’t define yourself by what happens to you, define yourself by what you make out of what happens to you.

7. The Zorro Circle

In the classic movie Zorro, the main character has to master everything in a small circle during his training. As he gets better, his circle gets bigger and bigger. Achor argues that in the face of overwhelming odds, we can regain control by beginning with small manageable goals. In other words, we should find small circles of control in our life and focus on making those small areas as good as they can be. Control brings us happiness and fixing small problems helps us fix bigger ones.

  • As humans, we crave the feeling that we are in control because it helps us see ourselves as masters of our own fate. Whether this is in social or professional spaces, it is one of the strongest drivers of both happiness and performance.
  • Interestingly, happiness has less to do with how much control we actually have and more with how much control we think we have. Hence the importance of small circles of control that we pick and work on purposefully.

8. The 20-Second Rule

Happiness has barriers. The 20-second rule is all about how to minimize the blockers of happiness by turning bad habits into good ones. It’s about lowering activation energy for good habits and making it really hard for yourself to engage in bad ones. Right now think of the things that cause you moments of frustration or minimize your productivity. These can be both big and small.

Now think of ways that you could prevent these blockers from coming up and put the better habit in a path of least resistance. For example, I want to improve my mile time. Snacking is a huge barrier to me and I mindlessly eat. I got rid of all the snacks in my kitchen that do not require assembly. I only kept the healthy ones (carrots, grapes) that are grab-able.  I also realized I would get anxious whenever I saw a push notification from my email so I turned it off and put it in a folder in my phone so it is harder to open mindlessly. But, I moved my meditation app to the home screen. I also leave my workout clothes out next to my desk so I can change easily.

You might also consider changing your physical surroundings as studies show this affects your mental health.

9. Make Social Investments

This chapter made me the most excited. This is the principle that stumped me for the longest time and when I finally figured it out, it completely changed my life:

Our happiness is directly connected to the strength of our social connections and support network.

Achor says that investing in social relationships is the most important of all the happiness principles.

We typically think about investing in our stock portfolio or our savings account, I want you to think about investing in your social capital or your friend account. Strong relationships help our immune function, our happiness and our work success.

I thought that the chapter was a little skimpy on how to do this because social intelligence is not an easy thing to grasp. My favorite tip on building your social IQ is to embrace the idea of:

Stop Being Boring:

  • Abandon boring social scripts. Chatter, meaningless conversations and small talk breed shallow, unfulfilling relationships. If you really want to connect with someone try asking them real questions and giving them unscripted, uncanned answers.
  • More tips on not being boring here.

10. The Ripple Effect

The tips in the Happiness Advantage don’t just benefit you, they benefit everyone in your life. Our emotions are contagious. When we have a more positive mindset, increase our happiness and invest in our joy, it runs off on others.

Increase your happiness and bring more joy to the world.

11: You Are In Control

It may seem counterintuitive, but yes, you are in control of your happiness. Usually, I hear people say, “Oh, I wish I could be happier”, or “I’m controlled by my mood.” But research has shown that about fifty percent of our happiness can be attributed to our genetics, forty percent to our purposeful activities, and ten percent to temporary circumstances.

So, that small portion, the ten percent, includes environmental factors such as:

  • Occupation
  • Marital status
  • Health

And the forty percent of your purposeful activities include your:

  • Behavior
  • Mindset
  • Day-to-day activities

Bottom Line: Forty percent of your happiness is within your control. I’ll teach you how you can harness that great potential in the next few steps.

12: Happiness Baseline

One way you can increase your happiness level is first by taking our happiness baseline test.

Grab a pen and paper and rate these five areas of your life on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being “not so happy”, and 10 being “I’m very happy.”

Once you have those numbers, add them up and divide them by 5. Here is an example of what it might look like:

  • Family = 6
  • Career = 5
  • Friendships = 9
  • Health = 8
  • Day-to- Day = 6______________________

= 34/5 = 6.8

So 6.8 is your baseline number. This number gives you a snapshot of where your happiness lies. In our studies, we’ve found that the average happiness rating is around a 6. If you scored a 5 or below on the scale, don’t fret—you have so much greatness waiting for you. If you scored between 6 and 8, you still can improve on those numbers to get to a 10.

Know that no matter where you are on the happiness scale, you still can wake up each morning happy and ready to face the day. In our research, the people who scored the highest on the baseline test generally said they genuinely were happy to wake up in the morning. Whereas the people who scored below average tended to wake up with dread or doubt regarding how their day was going to turn out.

13: Happiness Experiments

How can you wake up every morning excited?

One way you can bring more joy to your morning is doing what I like to call ‘happiness experiments.’ These are my favorite things to do. They can be something you’ve always wanted to try but never have marked off the bucket list. Think of a place you’ve never been, a food you’ve yet to taste, or a person you’ve been dying to hang out with. These experiments will help you get enthusiastic about the day. If you are not sure where to start, here are a few statements to get you thinking:

  • I think that doing ____ might be fun.
  • I think that spending time with ____ might be wonderful.
  • I have been wanting to do or try ____.

The happiest people in our study were able to accurately tell us specific activities, people, and times. Whereas the unhappy people shared vague ideas such as, “I’m excited to hang out with a friend”, or “I am excited to just relax.” So with these experiments, I want you to pick a specific time, place or person.

14: You Are Not Alone

In our study, the happiest people had a “partner in joy,” someone with whom they shared many of their experiences. This was either a spouse, a close friend, a parent, or a child.

These people might say, “I really have been wanting to try this Barre fitness class. I’m going to call up my friend for us to go at 4 p.m. on Friday.” When we are able to run our experiments with our partners in joy and are able to get it on the calendar, it will increase our hope and curiosity, which are the two major factors of happiness.

The anticipation for X event is what truly gets us excited. Even though you might have that event scheduled on the calendar weeks in advance, you will wake up every morning, marking off the calendar, thinking, “I am __ day(s) away from doing this activity, I can’t wait.” Now, this doesn’t have to be a major event such as a fitness class; it can be something as small as trying a new recipe or reading a book.

15: Gratitude

Gratitude is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves. When you offer gratitude for anything, it makes you feel more awe, joy, and excitement. I recommend trying a gratitude totem. This is a symbol or a reminder of something. Your gratitude totem is something that you will see on a daily basis. Here’s one example: There is a red light near my house that is timed to turn red each time I approach. Seriously, every time I pull up to the light, it turns red. So, I decided one day to turn that light into my gratitude totem. Every time I stop at the light, I think of one thing for which I am grateful.

If you need a little help discovering your gratitude totem, here are a few examples to get you thinking:

  • Who is one person you see every morning? Spouse or friend.
  • What place do you visit regularly? Coffee shop, gym, etc.
  • What is one item you look at every morning? A light, a car, a building, etc.
  • Here’s one more easy way to be more grateful.

Finding your gratitude totem is a unique way of reminding yourself of the wonderful and grateful things in your life.

Get Serious About Your Happiness

The search for happiness is your key to greater success. Do you know what makes you happy and how to get more of it? Most of us have no idea what drives our internal joy triggers. In this course you will learn that happiness is concrete and achievable. More importantly, happiness has tremendous benefits for every area of our life.
Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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