December, 2013

Success brings happiness, right? In fact there is evidence that it’s the other way round: be happy and you are more likely to be successful. The ‘happiness first’ philosophy undermines everything the well-brought-up leader has been trained to believe: eat your dinner before you can have your dessert, work hard and then you can go out to play.

If you can be successful simply by going around with a smile on your face let’s hear more about it…

“Most of us assume that success will lead to happiness, but in fact we have got it backwards,” says Shawn Achor, founder of the corporate strategy firm GoodThink and author of The Happiness Advantage. Achor says that his work with business services firm KPMG and pharma giant Pfizer, and studies he has conducted with Yale University’s psychology department  have shown that far from happiness being the result of success, it actually precedes it.

Achor explains: “Happiness is perhaps the most misunderstood driver of performance. Most people believe that success precedes happiness. They think, “Once I get a promotion, I’ll be happy,” or, “Once I hit my sales target, I’ll feel great.” But because success is a moving target, as soon as you hit your target, you raise it again, so the happiness that results from success is fleeting.”

Instead, Achor says that creating happiness and pursuing meaning in the present significantly increases our success rates in the long run – and women leaders in particular need to stop and take notice.

“Women leaders have sometimes even greater pressure to succeed quickly and early in their lives, which causes many to pursue happiness and success backwards.  We have found that women in their 20s to 40s are particularly prone to falling into the trap of believing that if they work harder, then they will be more successful, and only then will they be happy.

“But by their 50s, many have experientially learned that the formula is flawed. As I outlined in The Happiness Advantage, if you increase your successes your whole life, your happiness essentially flatlines.”

Achor cites a study where workers were asked to write down a list of all their projects and stressors. “Women in the 50 year old bracket were found to have significantly fewer projects going on, yet they ranked each with much more meaning. This is not an indication to do less – women often find themselves with both professional and familial obligations that outstrip their finite time. But when we believe that success will bring happiness we are more inclined to multitask on a ton of different, lower-interest projects, and miss out on the meaning embedded in those relationships at work and at home,” he says.

As well as encouraging happiness in themselves, Achor says leaders can use it to increase team performance – and profits.

He says: “The best leaders are those that increase social cohesion, which is a strength many women leaders excel at.  In the Happiness Advantage, I included research which shows that neither collective IQ on a team nor years of experience are as highly predictive of the profitability of that team as social cohesion.  The deep and broader the social support leaders can create at work, the greater the value they add to the company and the more meaning we feel at work.”

So how do you encourage happiness in your organisation?

Achor says that the greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain.  “If we want successful companies, leaders need to live and breathe this belief,” he says, advising that leaders can quickly inject an organisation with happiness by providing multiple daily examples of “happiness hygiene.”

Practical steps Achor recommends to increase happiness for yourself and your team include:

  • Once a day for a month, think of one meaningful experience you had over the past 24 hours and for two minutes write down every detail you can.  The brain can’t tell much difference between visualisation and actual experience, so your brain literally doubles the most meaningful part of your day and you’re more likely to remember it. Then your commute, emails, meetings all wrap around that node of meaning.
  • Start the day thinking about three things you are grateful for. This literally rewires the way your brain processes your day.  You slowly become an expert at optimism.
  • Create what positive psychology researcher Michelle Gielan calls the “power lead,” starting work conversations with a positive comment such as, “I’m so happy to have my coffee” or, “I’m having a great day, how about you?” instead of telling people how busy and swamped you are.  This changes your interactions and your brain follows your words. The more you say you’re sick or tired, the more sick and tired you feel – the same is true for happiness.
For more practical tips see THE HAPPINESS ADVANTAGE and BEFORE HAPPINESS, and shawnachor.wpengine.com where people have blogged about their experiences trying to implement these changes.  It also collects stories of people who would like to share the impact that these habits have made on their lives. {end}