Why do so many of us equate happiness with success? This is the subject of a (frankly hilarious) TED talk by psychologist Shawn Achor, that makes the astute assessment that as long as we do this, we’ll never be satisfied. Effectively, it’s because we keep moving the goalposts. If you get an amazing job, you’ll want an even better one. If you’re promoted, you want to move up again, and so on.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the problem is, it’s unlikely to make you happy. However, the reality is that happy people are more motivated and productive. This touches on issues we’ve discussed in previous articles; for example, the notion that an understanding boss is a better manager. Often, positivity breeds productivity and happy staff are a more effective team.
Therefore, happiness and success have a connection, but perhaps we need to reorient our perspective in order to maximise this effect. This is what Shawn calls the “happiness advantage”.
The moving goal post phenomenon
Today’s mindset is that we should be a human doing, not a human being. Persistence, tenacity and motivation are the keys to success and as long as we’re doing things, we’ll succeed. But the problem with this philosophy is that success is a constantly evolving idea, not a set goal. Therefore, the goalposts are always moving and we’re never really satisfied.
Shawn uses an example. He applied to Harvard on a dare, and to his surprise, got in. Once he was there, he felt overwhelmed by the sense of privilege to have been accepted to such a prestigious school. However, he noticed a phenomenon around him; his fellow students also felt privileged to begin with, thus soon wore off. Instead, they were overwhelmed by the pressure to get good grades, graduate with the highest possible honours, and get the best possible job. Before they knew it, they were very stressed and certainly not happy.
So, we assume that success is the key to happiness. But our perceptions of success are always changing, so we can never reach happiness. This, Shawn says, is a problem – because happiness precedes success. In his experience, he estimates that 75% of professional successes are dictated by your optimism, social support, and your ability to see stress as a challenge, not a threat. This is because happy people are productive people – his analysis suggests that your brain at “positive” is 31% more productive. Herein lies the happiness advantage.
Boosting the positive to be more productive
Shawn goes on to explain that there are simple things you can do to flip your perception of happiness and success, and gain the happiness advantage. He suggests spending two minutes a day for three weeks thinking about optimism and success. Every day, write down three new things you are grateful for. After a while, the effects will be long term.
This is something we can do personally; but, as mentioned, optimism is also about social support. As leaders, we can do more to support our teams and make them happier. This links back to our discussion about empathy in the workplace. If we can be more encouraging, empathetic and supportive of our teams, we can gain the happiness advantage for everyone – and reap the benefits in regard to productivity.