I've been reading Shawn Achor's book, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work (2010). Achor is one of the leading practitioners of the movement that has come to be known as "positive psychology," and his particular specialization is (as the subtitle of his book suggests) its application in work-settings.
Many scoff at the field of "positive psychology," in large part because of its very name. It conjures up images of people who are way, way, way too happy and cheery (and who we all secretly suspect of overindulging in various pharmaceuticals on the sly), people who think that all we need to do is "accentuate the positive" and there will be no such thing as depression.
People who seem to seek to deprive us--and the world at large-- of our trademark snark.
This isn't that. (Thank god.)
The field of positive psychology began when psychologists began to realize that the preponderance of psychological studies deal with illness, with helping people who are depressed or otherwise struggling with mental or behaviorial issues.
Positive psychologists argue that this has skewed the discipline of psychology as a whole. Because the fact is, people are, at various times in their lives, happy and successful. They aren't always sad and depressed and struggling.
And some people appear to be happy and successful for long periods of time. Others show a remarkable amount of strength, resilience and optimism, even in the face of serious adversities, such as life-threatening injuries, illness, grief, and unemployment. They may not be "happy," per se, but they are doing a damn good job of coping with some serious life-shit (to put it bluntly), and it would be a disservice to simply categorize (or treat) them as if they are (because they implicitly "should be") "depressed."
The argument positive psychologists make is that, in order to better understand how and why human beings flourish, instead of simply studying the negative side of human psychology, we need to study its positive attributes and examples, in order to better understand what underlies these attitudes and behaviors.
So this is Achor's background and his task: to examine and inform us about how and why some people achieve success and happiness at work, and why that success and happiness (Achor and other positive psychologists actually prefer the term "flourishing" rather than "happiness," since it is weighted with fewer preconceived notions) often translates into other aspects of an individual's life.
Achor's The Happiness Advantage in particular identifies seven key principles that consistently underlie the behaviors and attitudes of successful workers, even during times of large-scale layoffs and economic crisis (Achor situates the context of his book in the global economic collapse of 2008).
Although Achor gives each of these principles a catchy label to make it more memorable, I'm going to eschew the labels and just get to the gist.
1) People who flourish have a brain that is "primed" to experience happiness. In effect, they take advantage of neuroplasticity, the way in which the brain's neural pathways and synapses can be modified by changes in behavior, environment, and/or thinking.
As Achor points out, this can be accomplished in any number of ways: through meditation, by engaging in random acts of kindness, by consciously creating a more positive environment or surroundings, by exercising, by finding something to look forward to, by engaging in activities that we know will tap into our individual, character strengths and even--surprise, surprise--by spending money.
The caveat with spending money, however, is that it shouldn't be spent on stuff. Instead, research has shown that money (when available) can bring happiness when it is spent on doing things, not on "having" things. Studies have shown that "prosocial spending"--that is, spending money in ways that enable you to do things and/or connect with others--produces stronger and more positive emotions than the purchase of material objects, which produces only a temporary "high."
2) People who flourish have a mindset that selects and filters for positive experiences, even in the face of adversity. As Achor argues, we can't change reality, and sometimes reality kinda sucks (don't I know it).
At the same time, however, we can choose how we react to these (occasionally sucky) realities by "adjusting our brain so that we see the ways to rise above our circumstances" (63).
As a friend of mine once told me during a particularly challenging period of my life, "Keep your eye on the prize. Look towards the horizon."
3) People who flourish avoid focusing on--and thus creating--patterns of stress and negativity in their lives. Achor uses an interesting example to explain this one. As anyone who has played video games for several hours knows, they can have an odd effect: you think you begin to "see" the patterns of the game in the world around you or you find yourself thinking about your surroundings in the context of the game you've just been playing (for a bit too long, perhaps).
This is because this is what the human brain does: it scans the world for what it has practiced seeing and processing. So, if you've played the game of negativity for a bit too long, chances are, those are the patterns that you will see in the world around you, patterns of stress and negativity.
4) People who flourish opt for mental pathways that lead them up and out of suffering, defeat or crisis. Psychologists have begun to study the concept of "Post-Traumatic Growth"--instead of simply focusing on PTSD, they look at examples of human resilience (and eventual flourishing) in the wake of traumatic events. Achor notes that
People's ability to find the path up rests largely on how they conceive of the cards they have been dealt, so the strategies that most often lead to Adversarial Growth include positive reinterpretation of the situation or event, optimism, acceptance, and coping mechanisms that include focusing on the problem head-on (rather than trying to avoid or deny it) (110).5) People who flourish focus on mastering small, manageable tasks and goals, particularly when they are at risk for being overwhelmed by life's challenges and/or making irrational, ill-timed, or ill-conceived decisions about how to respond to them. They have, Achor argues, "an internal locus of control"--a "belief that their actions have a direct effect on their outcomes" (130)-- that helps to ground them.
By contrast, people who have have an "external locus" tend to see the events of their lives as dictated by outside forces over which they have little or no control. (In short, they play the blame-game on a regular basis.)
6) People who flourish cultivate good habits and actively work to eliminate the bad. As I mentioned in an earlier post ("Life-By-Numbers"), cravings tend to last no longer than 15 minutes, so if we can find a way to wait out a craving, we can eventually adopt better behaviors.
Similarly, Achor argues that new patterns of behavior can be instilled in as little as 20 seconds (in some cases) if we rely, not on willpower (which doesn't work), but on putting good habits on "the path of least resistance." If you make it easy to do the things you want to do ("lower the barrier to change" ) and simultaneously make it just a bit harder to do the things you don't want to do, you can change your patterns of behavior for the better.
7) People who flourish have a strong network of social support that they can draw on in times of stress. In short, they have a posse: people that they know they can count on when the going gets tough, because these are relationships that they have actively promoted and cherished when the going wasn't so tough.
If, after reading all of this, it sounds like happiness is a lot of work, well, yes, in a way, maybe it is.
But I think that, if you consider an activity or time when things worked well for you, it is probably the case that at least one of the principles was operating somewhere in that mix.
No one would deny that there are numerous advantages to happiness; the drawbacks of unhappiness, by contrast, are legion.
So why not invest, at least in a small way, in making an effort to opt for happiness?