Why Our Ideas about Work and Happiness Are Backwards

Happiness researcher Shawn Achor starts off his TEDxBlomington talk, “The happy secret to better work,” with a story about a unicorn.

When his sister was five, she fell off the top of a bunk bed in the midst of an intense game of war with Achor, then seven years old. Just as she was about to erupt into tears and wake their parents, Achor quickly interrupted her: she had miraculously landed on all fours, he said, so she must be a unicorn.

The tears stopped in their tracks as she contemplated this new reality of life as a unicorn.

The lesson here (beyond how brothers can manipulate their sisters) is that our internal reality – her perception of herself as a unicorn – can shape our experience as much as our external reality – her painful fall.

Yet our traditional views of happiness and work don’t recognize this truth. We assume that external realities such as work success will determine our happiness, when in fact they account for a small portion.

“90 percent of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world but by the way your brain processes the world,” says Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage. “It’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality.”

The problem is the hedonic treadmill, the idea that we get accustomed to any success we experience and simply set new goals. When Achor worked at Harvard, he observed that students soon got over the thrill of being accepted to an Ivy League school and started focusing on the workload, stress, and competition.

Instead, we need a new view: it’s happiness that leads to success. Happiness can boost our intelligence, creativity, and energy. Happiness increases your job security, job retention, resilience, productivity (by 31 percent), and sales skills (by 37 percent). Happiness reduces rates of burnout and turnover.

And this isn’t all touchy-feely hooey. Dopamine, the happiness hormone, also turns on learning centers in your brain. “Your brain at positive performs significantly better than it does at negative, neutral, or stressed,” Achor explains. This is the “happiness advantage.”

To become more positive, Achor suggests five proven techniques which, done for 21 days, can rewire your brain for happiness.

  • Write down three new things you’re grateful for. Your brain learns to hone in on the positives in the world.
  • Journal about one positive experience. It will feel like you’re reliving it.
  • Exercise. You teach your brain that your behavior matters.
  • Meditate. It reduces the noise in your brain and allows you to focus.
  • Do random acts of kindness.

Watch Achor’s hilarious, illuminating, and snappy 12-minute talk below:

[ted id=1344]

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Written by:
Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.
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