Mind over matter


How putting happiness first can increase your odds of success.

The formula seems easy enough. It you work harder, you’ll achieve your goals and be successful. The next logical step on this journey is happiness.

But what if everything you’ve been taught about happiness and success was turned completely upside down? Imagine putting our happiness first and not only achieving your goals but doing it with far less effort.

Shawn Achor, Harvard researcher and author of “The Art of Happiness” says everything you’ve learned about the correlation between success and happiness isn’t just wrong, it’s the reason so many people fail to hit their goals.

Anchor points out a common but flawed mindset that has become pervasive: pinning happiness to specific goals. Have you ever convinced yourself that getting a promotion, losing weight, buying a new car or getting a raise will make you happier? It doesn’t work because the goalpost keeps moving and you never quite get there.

“Achieving happiness means a mindset shift”, Achor says. “If we view the world through the same pattern for too long, our brain will keep that pattern even it it’s not working.”

“At Harvard we found that if someone raises their success goals for the next five years, happiness levels flatline,” Achor says. “However, happiness levels rise when you deepen someone’s social connections, increase their optimism and raise their levels of gratitude.”

Anchor and his team of researchers found that happiness can actually be a choice. More importantly, when you choose to be happy, every conventional indicator of success improves as a result.


Achor and his team spent years looking into how people can raise their happiness levels and as a result, their odds of success. This led to a stunning discovery: the immense power of gratitude.

“We asked a group of people to write down three things they were grateful for every day,” Achor says. “By day three people were repeating the same three things so there was no change/ However, if you think of three new and different things every single day for a period of twenty-one days, it works!”.

Participants wrote down not only three things they were grateful for every day, but why. Achor says writing down the ‘why’ is just as important as the ‘what’.

The exercise showed that simply taking some time to be grateful can move people higher up on the happiness scale than expected. For instance, a low-level pessimist could become a low-level optimist in just twenty-one days. By continuing the gratitude exercise, that low-level optimist can become highly optimistic.

Prior to this experiment, the conventional wisdom was that if you’re born a pessimist, you’ll die a pessimist. The gratitude test shows that’s just not the case.


Ask yourself where you are on a scale of very psssimistic to very optimist

Write down three things you are grateful for and why, every day for twenty-one days

Think about the small wins and the people who helped you get there

Keep a journal to log your progress

How has your optimism improved?


Happiness is not something that happens in isolation. That does not mean however, that people with more friends or extroverted people are happier. The simple act of expressing joy or compassion can raise the spirits of those around you.

“Our brains are designed to be wirelessly connected.,” Achor says. “We don’t just process the world, we are co-processing the world with other people. Happiness, joy, meaning optimism, we don’t own those feelings. Those are things we share with other people.”

People become more creative when they are around creative people. They are funnier around certain people. Introverts who are surrounded by more introverted people act like an extrovert in that group. The traits we view as individual are actually deeply interconnected.

“If you were to scan my brain while I was smiling. portions of my brain would show that I’m smiling," Achor says, ‘but if you scan my brain when I’m not smiling, but then you flash up an image of someone else smiling, small portions of my brain will start to activate as if I’m smiling. But I’’m not smiling, the person on the image is smiling. However, before I can stop myself, when I see the image, my brain drops a chemical called dopamine into my system and this raises my levels of happiness, causing me to smile.”

While smiles are contagious, so is stress, negativity and anxiety. Just like second-hand smoke, second-hand stress can take a toll on your health. On the other hand, second-hand optimism can help raise the spirits of those around you.

In one experiment, Achor and his team chose people who express a high level of joy, compassion and happiness and put them in a group with people showing signs of depression. The results were remarkable. People showing signs of depression smiled more and became more upbeat. An act as simple as smiling when walking into a room can change the whole dynamic of a situation.

“We put happiness books in the self-help section of a bookstore,” Achor says, “but happiness, when you try to create it yourself, is limited. The only way to see the majority of your potential is to connect with other people. Choose to shine brighter together rather than in competition and comparison with others. When you do this, your success rate will be so much better.


Be the first one to smile when you walk into a tense situation and watch the dynamic shift

Think about new ways to work together with people and share in their success, as opposed to competing with them

Seek out positive, funny and creative people and see what their presence sparks in you


Your brain receives eleven million pieces of information every second of your life but can only process forty per second. Achor says if you’re scanning for the negatives, hassles, complaints and threats, you’re stealing from the part of your brain that deals with gratitude, connection and optimism.

Luckily, your daily gratitude list, emphasis on teamwork and increased connectivity has already put you on the path towards a dramatic mindset shift. Keep your goals in mind but celebrate the small wins along the way. Did you ran an extra mile, nail that business presentation or make a new connection? Give yourself the acknowledgement you deserve.

More importantly, don’t let setbacks put you back in the mindset of scanning for negatives. Be grateful, open to others and smile more. This could be your best year yet.

“Scientifically, happiness can actually be a choice. And when we make that choice, everything else in life soars: Education, Sales, Energy, Productivity, Grit, Resilience, Performance and Health.”


Kate Bickford