The Happiness Advantage Summary (Shawn Achor)

It seems like there are entire self-help sections of bookshops dedicated to the topic of happiness.

It’s unsurprising. Now daily survival has been assured for a significant proportion of humanity, we fortunate ones have a new focus: life optimisation.

Whereas our ancestors toiled through a hard day of manual labour simply to get food on the table, we’re now more concerned with how to enjoy our sliver of time on this little rotating sphere called Earth.

Enter positive psychology and The Happiness Advantage, which focuses on the evidence underpinning an outlook which might be considered polarising to many.

Overall, I found this a fascinating read, providing extremely actionable advice.

Here are the highlights…

The Happiness Advantage Summary

– Positive psychology studies successful outliers to see which of their strategies we can adopt.

– There’s a common myth that when you become successful, then you become happy.

– It’s actually the other way around. A study of nuns diaries in 1917 showed upon examination that the nuns with happier entries went on to live longer, more successful lives.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven or hell, a hell of heaven.” John Milton

– Our interpretation of reality changes our experience of that reality, so when we flip our mindset and look for the positive, that’s what we find.

– When we’re exposed to so much negativity around us, it’s no surprise that we harbour these feelings.

– Doctors make quicker, more accurate diagnosis when primed to feel positive

– In today’s world, we sacrifice happiness for success, only to lower our chances of success.

Seven Principles

  • The happiness advantage
  • The fulcrum and the lever
  • The Tetris effect
  • Falling up
  • The Zorro circle
  • The 20-second rule
  • Social investment

Neuroplasticity – you can change your brain, and the results are lasting

– Happiness – subjective well-being/the experience of positive emotions (pleasure, engagement and meaning). Pursuing pleasure alone is not enough.

– Negative emotions narrow thoughts and actions – good in life-threatening scenarios in an evolutionary sense.

– The evolutionary purpose of positive emotions is the ‘broaden and build’ theory – to be more thoughtful, creative and open to new ideas. Positive emotions help us to gather and consolidate our social connections and resources.

– Biological effect – positive emotions release dopamine and serotonin to improve learning, memory and creativity.

We see more of what’s around us when we’re happy. Positive emotions change how our visual cortex processes information.

– Study – when participants were primed for negativity, they didn’t see substantial parts of pictures compared to positively primed groups.

– Being primed with positive thoughts before a task improves performance in many studies, even with 4-year-olds.

– Why? In addition to broadening intellect and creativity, positive emotions also provide a swift antidote to physical stress and anxiety – called ‘the undoing effect’.

– We have a happiness baseline that we fluctuate around, but with enough effort, we can raise that baseline permanently.

Proven Ways to Increase Happiness

  • Meditate
  • Find something to look forward to anticipation can equal the reward itself
  • Commit conscious acts of kindness
  • Infuse positivity into your surroundings
  • Exercise
  • Spend money on experiences, ideally involving other people
  • Exercise a signature strength

– In the workplace, provide frequent recognition and encouragement – teams perform 31 % better. More motivating than money.

– Make an effort to adopt a more positive tone and facial expression – it will rub off on those around you.

The Losada Line – 2.9 ratio of positive to negative interactions necessary to make a corporate team successful. Takes three positive comments to fend off the effect of one negative one. Rise above the line, ideally to a ratio of 6-1, and teams produce their best work.


– External reality (environment) important, but the power of mindset to shape our external reality may be more important.

Placebo effect – works because of expectancy theory. Expectations create brain patterns that can be just as real as those created by the real world.

– Therefore, the mental construction of our daily life, more than the life itself, defines our reality.

– How you perceive your reality, defines your reality, on both a mental and physical level.

– The way you look at any event is so important. Extract the positive out of everything.

– Believing that you can be successful increases chances that you will be.

– Always focus on and think about your strengths to improve performance during difficult tasks

– Once we realise how much our reality depends on how we view it, it comes as less of a surprise that our external circumstances predict only about 10% of our total happiness.

– There are three ways to see work – as a job, a career or a calling. It does not matter what job you have. A cleaner can view their role as a calling.

– Job crafting – change your mindset to view it more as a calling. The more we can align our daily tasks with our personal vision, the more likely we are to see work as a calling.

– Priming, being positive and focusing on someone’s skills has a positive effect on their performance.

Pygmalion effect – when our belief in another person’s potential brings that potential to life. Study – teachers were primed to believe that certain children were gifted and through non-verbal cues, these children excelled. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, people act as we expect them to act.

– As science has shown, when we believe we can do and achieve more (or when others believe it for us), that is often the precise reason we do achieve more.

The Tetris Effect

Cognitive afterimage – Tetris effect. Only scanning for the negative in the world around you is very detrimental. In this way, even a paradise can become a hell.

– Jobs that require critical analysis or mistake spotting (accountancy for example) reinforce this behaviour. You can begin to overestimate your problems.

“My experience is what I agree to attend to.” William James

– We only remember one of every hundred bits of info we’re exposed to in order to prevent cognitive overload. Spam filter in our brains can delete the positive information.

– Gorilla experiment – inattentional blindness. This selective perception is why, when we’re looking for something, we see it everywhere, including negativity.

– Positive tetris effect: happiness, gratitude and optimism. Gratitude fuels happiness and optimism fuels work performance.

– Expecting positive outcomes makes them more likely to arise. Luck study – Richard Wiseman.

Predictive encoding – priming yourself to expect a favourable outcome encodes your brain to recognize the outcome when it does arise. How to do it? Write down three positive things that happened in the last 24 hrs. Study shows that after a week, people were still happier 6 months later. Re-enforce ability to scan for the positives.

– Journaling about a positive experience is at least as effective as journaling about hardships/worries. Positive effect amplifies with others.

– However, you can have too much positivity until it becomes maladaptive. Reasonable optimism is preferable.


– If we conceive of failure as an opportunity for growth, we are more likely to experience that growth. Post-traumatic growth – there are people who use adversity to their advantage.

Learned helplessness – in dogs and humans.

– Change your counterfact – I was shot in the arm. At least it wasn’t my head.

– Change your explanatory style – interpret adversity as local and temporary.

Immune neglect – we forget how good our immune system is at helping us overcome adversity. Amputees, lottery winners and happiness levels. We never feel as bad as we think we will.

Control and Action

– If we concentrate our efforts on small, manageable goals, we regain the feeling of control so crucial to performance. Start small and expand.

– Control one of the strongest drivers of well-being and performance.

– It’s not the amount of control we actually have, but the amount we think we have.

– Internal locus of control – higher performance. The belief that your actions have a direct effect on your outcomes.

– External imposed deadlines and pressure at work increase risk of heart disease by 50%.

Stress – cortisol production – amygdala takes over prefrontal cortex – emotional hijacking. How do you regain control? Journal feelings or speak to a friend.

– Society is focused on massive transformations all at once. Huge goals. Recipe for failure.

– Small daily wins better.

Kaizen – Japanese word for continuous improvement. Focus on tiny, incremental changes.

– Common sense is not common action.

– Without action, knowledge is meaningless.

“To be excellent, we cannot simply think or feel excellent, we must act excellently.” Aristotle

Action is the hardest part.


“We are bundles of habits.” William James

– The key to sustaining positive change is to turn each desired action into a habit. Make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.

– Habits are like financial capital – forming one today is an investment that will automatically give out returns for years to come.

How to form a habit?

“Daily strokes of effort.” William James

– Cells that fire together, wire together. No age limit on neuroplasticity.

– Willpower is a depleting resource and therefore not a great way to form a habit.

– We don’t enjoy inactivity as much as we think we do. Americans find it harder to enjoy free time than work.

– Passive leisure activities – TV/Facebook are only enjoyable for around 30 mins. Then they lead to psychic entropy – an apathetic, listless feeling.

– Active leisure has been shown to be more enjoyable but requires more activation energy to get started.

– Average employee gets interrupted every 11 mins and it takes as many mins to regain the flow.

– To cement a positive habit, reduce activation energy required – place guitar in the middle of the room for example. For bad habits, increase activation energy required. Example provided – organ donors having to opt out of the scheme.

– Self-control a limited resource that’s weakened with overuse and too much choice.

– Second order decisions. Decisions about when to make decisions.

Social Support

– Social support most important factor for happiness. Oxytocin released when making new social connections.

– Men and women with few social ties 2-3 times more likely to suffer major depression. Loneliness as bad as some diseases. Participating in breast cancer support group doubled life expectancy post surgery.

– Those who withdraw from the people around them cut off every line of protection they have at the moment they need them most.

– More social connections – more productive/creative at work.

– Social contact need not always be deep to be effective. Every additional email contact at IBM worth an extra $ 948 in revenue.

– Glue guys in sports. Keep a team cohesive. Invest in their social relationships.

The Ripple Effect

– Heart rate monitor near a bad boss. Over a 15 year study, those who had a difficult relationship with their boss were 30% more likely to suffer from coronary heart disease. Same as a steady diet of fried foods.

– Employees with good boss relationships beat the client average revenue by 588 dollars per month.

– Capitalization. Sharing upbeat news with someone. Four different ways of replying and only one of them continues positively to the relationship. The winning response is active and constructive, with follow up questions. Just saying ‘that’s nice’ can be as harmful to the relationship as a negative response.

– Habits cross-pollinate and fuel one another.

– You affect those around you (and even their connections) in a ripple effect. Mirror neurons – copied feelings become copied actions.

– The amygdala can read and identify an emotion in another person’s face within 33 milliseconds and prime us to feel the same. That way emotions can jump from person to person. That way, negativity can infect a group.

– Group affective tone – group emotions.

– Smiling first makes you happy – changing your behaviour first can be effective – fake it until you make it.

– It’s why sitcoms use a laugh track.

– Study – one person (undercover) in a group task instructed to be positive – spread through group and improved performance.

– When you spend time with a close friend, your monitor neurons are firing and you feel in sync.

– Students sharing dorms with better students improved their grades.

– Looking someone in the eye improves rapport

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