Review of “The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor

The Happiness AdvantageUp until the late nineties psychology was overly focused on the “sickness model” and treating mental illness. In The Happiness Advantage¬†Shawn points out, “as late as 1998, there was a 17-to-1 negative-to-positive ratio of research in the field of psychology. In other words, for every one study about happiness and thriving there were 17 studies on depression and disorder.” The shift from sickness to wellness in the past 10 years has been dramatic. Search Amazon for books on happiness and you’ll find over 22,000!

The cover of the January-February 2012 Harvard Business Review featured a yellow smiley face with dollar signs as crinkles at each end of the smile. Superimposed on the face is the title “The Value of Happiness: How Employee Well-Being Drives Profits.” The introductory page to a section of articles on happiness proclaims:

“…emerging research from neuroscience, psychology, and economics makes the link between a thriving workforce and better business performance absolutely clear. Happiness can have an impact at both the company and the country level. And the movement to measure national well-being on factors other than GDP could be game changing: As we know, what gets measured gets managed. We’ve learned a lot about how to make people happy. We’d be stupid not to use that knowledge.”

I am torn on how to review and rate The Happiness Advantage. I was originally drawn to the book by its sub-title, “The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work.” I am constantly looking for evidence of how “soft skills” produce hard results. We use this in our retreats and workshops to go through the heads of “hard-nosed and results-focused” operational executives and managers to get at issues of the heart.

The Happiness Advantage does have a fair bit of strong research showing the positive impact of employee happiness/satisfaction on organizational results (see my next blog post). For example, Shawn produces powerful evidence that social support and nurturing relationships are major happiness factors. This is followed by an MIT study where researchers followed 2,600 employees at IBM for a year and showed that people with the strongest social connections had the highest performance. He also cites research showing that it takes a ratio of 2.9013 to 1 positive to negative interactions to make a team successful. A ratio of 6 – 1 creates optimum teamwork. When a global mining company was coached to increase their ratio from 1.15 to 3.56 positive to negative interactions production and performance increased by 40%!!

However, The Happiness Advantage is primarily aimed at increasing personal happiness. With Shawn’s conversational writing style, solid research base, and plenty of engaging examples (such as his years helping his students at Harvard increase their happiness) the book is very useful. The Seven Principles form the book’s core chapters and is a good framework:

  • The Happiness Advantage - retrain our brains to capitalize on positivity and improve productivity and performance.
  • The Fulcrum and the Lever – adjust our mindset (fulcrum) to give us the power (lever) to be more fulfilled and satisfied.
  • The Tetris Effect – spot patterns of possibility to see and seize opportunities wherever we look.
  • Falling Up – finding the mental path that leads up and out of failure and teaches us how to be happier and more successful from it.
  • The Zorro Circle – regain emotional control when overwhelmed by challenges by focusing on small manageable goals and gradually expanding our circle.
  • The 20-Second Rule – by making small energy adjustments we can reroute the path of least resistance and replace bad habits with good ones.
  • Social Investment – avoid retreating within ourselves during tough times and invest more in building our social support network to propel ourselves forward.

But as the old proverb teaches, “it’s good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.” The field of positive psychology is rapidly moving beyond happiness to well-being and on to flourishing. This is a much deeper, lasting, and ultimately more fulfilling place. Happiness is a byproduct of well-being and flourishing but not the end goal. The founder of Positive Psychology (and the field’s rock star), Martin Seligman’s book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, is at the forefront of this radical rethinking of the flood of happiness research. Another excellent book that’s more toward well-being and flourishing and surpasses the personal growth advice in The Happiness Advantage is Barbara Frederickson’s Positivity.

So I’ll rate The Happiness Advantage 3.5/5. It doesn’t quite live up to its sub-title and deals with one dimension of our emotional health and well being. On the other hand, it is an entertaining summary of happiness research and applications. And its seven principles are well proven methods for dealing with life’s setbacks, navigating difficult change, building resilience, and increasing optimism and happiness.

In reading and reviewing The Happiness Advantage, I was struck – once again – by the point that whether for our own personal growth or leading others, it’s not what we know that makes us effective. It’s applying that knowledge that matters.¬†

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