The Happiness Advantage

First, let me list the reasons why you should watch this talk:

“So one of the very first things we teach people in economics and statistics and business and psychology courses is how, in a statistically valid way, do we eliminate the weirdos. How do we eliminate the outliers so we can find the line of best fit? Which is fantastic if I’m trying to find out how many Advil the average person should be taking — two. But if I’m interested in potential, if I’m interested in your potential, or for happiness or productivity or energy or creativity, what we’re doing is we’re creating the cult of the average with science.”

“[…] most companies and schools follow a formula for success, which is this: If I work harder, I’ll be more successful. And if I’m more successful, then I’ll be happier. […] every time your brain has a success, you just changed the goalpost of what success looked like. […] What we’ve done is we’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon as a society. And that’s because we think we have to be successful, then we’ll be happier.

But the real problem is our brains work in the opposite order. If you can raise somebody’s level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage, which is your brain at positive performs significantly better than it does at negative, neutral or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise.”

Shawn Achor is damn funny.

Now, the comment.
I personally feel that anxiety keeps me from doing my best work – or just leads me down the path of procrastination, preventing me from doing any work at all. So, based on my personal experience and the scientific evidence I’m aware of, I tend to agree that feeling good – in the flow – helps us work better. But I also think that work needs to be an instrument to achieve happiness. Either because of intrinsic gratification or because of its impact on our social status and ability to acquire things that also make us happy.

So, on the one hand we would have carpe diem – seize the day. The opposite team would be seizing the day… after today, that is, the future. It seems, from Shawn’s talk, that the first guys would be really happy and productive, and the second group not really. But if we live only with the present in mind, we might end up making really bad choices for our future (for more about that, check Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and other work), and that’s not predictive of happiness in the long run.

Which leads me to the point I’m trying to make. The traditional view that effort leads to happiness isn’t wrong. We need that drive to keep us going. The anticipation of a positive achievement is in itself a happy psychological event (thanks to dopamine, among other things). The problem comes when we focus only on long-term goals that take us months, years or even decades to achieve. And then the days seem to get longer and duller, depending on our personal resilience and perspective of events. And we might even start questioning our life choices, because the pleasure we’re able to derive from the present seems to be rarer each day that goes by. And we also tend to increase exponentially the amount of chocolate ingested.

Living in the present is about setting short-term goals and focusing on one thing at a time. You know, basically the opposite of our multitasking short attention span post-modern society. Being in the flow is about feeling completely absorbed in the current task or event. We’re frequently ‘in the flow’ when we’re watching a really great comedian or having sex – but not necessarily when watching a really great comedian having sex. It also can happen while we’re working… I’m told. No, really, when it happens to me is usually when this difficult (some would say impossible) mix is achieved: I see a purpose in what I’m doing; I don’t see the task as too easy or extremely difficult; I believe I’m doing a good job and that I can add something relevant; I have a sense of autonomy and I’m able to expand my creative horizons. Quite a hard recipe to put together, I know. But it helps if you start with a positive attitude. And that’s where Shawn & co. come in.

Reality. It’s out there, but who really knows what it is? According to agents Mulder and Scully, aliens know, it seems. Anyway, I’m digressing. Again. What I’m trying to say is that how we perceive things has a real impact on our feelings and attitudes. The bad news is, how we perceive things can be totally different than how things really are. The good news is, how we perceive things can be totally different than how things really are! Confused? The same mechanisms that allow us to perceive a neutral event as something negative also allow us to see it in a positive light. Let me stress something here: a neutral or ambivalent event. A funeral is not something we should be trying to see in a positive light. Unless we believe in an afterlife much better than this one (72 virgins might make it for some).

How we perceive an ambivalent reality has a lot to do with the glasses we’re wearing. Remember how everything seems so much worse when you’re feeling sick and in pain? That feeling is as biological as it is psychological. What about when someone gets high – no, not you, I know you don’t do drugs – and keeps laughing for no apparent reason? Our thoughts can be curbed as much by external events as by our biological state. But there’s a vice versa to that. Thoughts influence other biological events occurring in the body as well. And they can also influence external events – by means of actions that we decide to take.

Since it’s almost time for me to go to bed, I’ll wrap it up for you: get some exercise; invest in meaningful relationships; eat well (a little of everything and too much of nothing); try to focus on one thing at a time; get some more exercise; have (safe) sex; laugh (out loud and on the inside as well); reflect on what you do and try to find a sense of meaning for your actions; keep your expectations at a reach level (not necessarily low, but no mission impossible either); and try not to think too much about how we’re all going to die no matter what.

And basically, live in the present – with the future in mind.


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