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By Eric Barker
October 15, 2014
IDEAS
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

We all want to be more successful.

But everything you read probably sounds like a lot of work. Isn’t there a scientifically proven method that’s a little more… fun? There is.

Shawn Achor is the bestselling author of The Happiness Advantage and for years at Harvard he studied exactly that: happiness.

He gave an extremely popular (and, in my opinion, the all-time funniest) TED talk.

And his ideas even attracted the attention of Oprah Winfrey, who filmed aninterview with him.

What’s so special about Shawn’s work? His research shows that success doesn’t bring happiness — happiness brings success.

He did what a lot of researchers never do: instead of scrubbing the freak outliers from the data he aggressively studied them.

He wanted to know what people with happiness superpowers do that we don’t.

Here’s Shawn:

Shawn believes (and his research shows) that you can do things to be happier. And being happier will make you more successful.

I gave Shawn a call to find out what he’s learned. Want more joy and success in your life? Here’s what Shawn had to say.

1) Success Brings Happiness? No. Happiness Brings Success.

We all chase success hoping it will make us happy:

  1. I’ll be happy once I get that promotion.
  2. I’ll be happy once I get that raise.
  3. I’ll be happy once I lose 15 pounds.

But the research shows that isn’t true. You achieve a goal and you’re briefly happier… but then you’re looking toward the next big thing.

What Shawn’s research showed was when you flip the formula and focus on increasing happiness, you end up increasing success.

Here’s Shawn:

MET Life saw such great results among happy salespeople that they tried an experiment: they started hiring people based on optimism.

And that was even if those people performed poorly on the standard industry “aptitude test.” What was the result?

How can this be? Shawn explained that intelligence and technical skills only predict 25% of success:

And students who want success in their future should worry a little less about grades and more about optimism.

Shawn found that rolling a pair of dice was as predictive of your future income as your college GPA is. (And millionaires agree.)

(For more on how to be more optimistic, click here.)

So your attitude has a huge effect on how successful you are. What was the most powerful thing Shawn learned from looking at those happiness outliers?

2) See Problems As Challenges, Not Threats

Shawn did a study of bankers right after the huge banking crisis hit. Most of them were incredibly stressed. But a few were happy and resilient.

What did those guys have in common? They didn’t see problems as threats; they saw them as challenges to overcome.

Here’s Shawn:

So those people are just wired differently and our duty is to envy them, right? Nope. Shawn did an experiment that proved this attitude can belearned.

Just by showing the normal bankers a video explaining how to see stress as a challenge, he turned sad bankers into super-bankers.

Here’s Shawn:

(For more on what the happiest people do every day, click here.)

But what about when there’s just too much to do? Maybe there are more “challenges” than you can handle.

Should we just give up on any chance of work-life balance? Cancel those plans with friends and spend more hours at the office?

Once again the answer is the exact opposite.

3) Twice As Much Work Means You Need Friends Twice As Much

After doing his undergraduate work at Harvard, Shawn was a proctor there, helping freshman adapt to the often stressful, competitive environment.

Many students would respond to the workload by living in the library and eating meals in their bedrooms so they could keep studying.

Did those students perform better? No. Those were the ones who burned out; the ones who ended up wanting to transfer to another school.

Shawn would tell them what they had unknowingly done was cut themselves off from the greatest predictor of happiness.

Here’s Shawn:

And what did we just learn about happiness? It predicts success. And it was no different here:

Want to resist stress, increase productivity and get a promotion? Then don’t just seek social support — provide it to others.

Confirming the research of top Wharton professor Adam Grant, people who provide social support get some of the greatest benefits.

Shawn saw this not only with his students at Harvard but he’s since advised over a third of the Fortune 100 companies — and it worked there too.

Here’s Shawn:

(For more on how work altruism can benefit you, click here.)

Some of you might be thinking, “Alright already, happiness makes you more successful. I get it. But how do I get happier?”

It’s simpler than you think.

4) Send A “Thank You” Email Every Morning

You might think happiness only comes from big wins or big achievements. You’re wrong. Research shows little things are more important.

So Shawn believes rather than focusing on big boosts like vacations, it’s smarter to build little, consistent habits akin to brushing your teeth.

What little habit gives a big happiness boost over time? Send a 2-minute “thank you” email or text as soon as you get into the office.

Here’s Shawn:

What other little daily happiness habits does Shawn recommend?

  1. List the things you’re grateful for.
  2. Meditate.
  3. Exercise.

(For more on five emails that can improve your life, click here.)

Over 120,000 people receive my weekly email. And it’s sent from my real email address. People can reply. And they do.

What’s one of the most common things readers email me to say?

Shawn has a great answer for this too.

5) The 20-Second Rule

What stops you from making the changes you know you should? Shawn says it’s “activation energy.”

You know, like the activation energy it takes to initially get your butt off the couch and to the gym. The hard part is getting started.

If you reduce the amount of activation energy required, tough things become easy. So make new habits 20 seconds easier to start.

Shawn would sleep in his gym clothes and put his sneakers next to the bed and it made him much more likely to exercise when he woke up.

Here’s Shawn:

(For more easy ways to build new habits, click here.)

So how do we pull all this together? And what was the most inspiring thing Shawn told me about happiness and success?

Sum Up

Here’s what we can all learn from Shawn:

  1. Success doesn’t bring happiness. Happiness brings success.
  2. See problems as challenges, not threats.
  3. More work means you need more social support. And giving support is better than receiving.
  4. Send a 2-minute “thank you” email every morning.
  5. Use the 20-second rule to build the habit.

Some people might think it’s too hard to get happier. Maybe they’ve suffered from depression.

Or they’ve seen the research that we have a “happiness set point”, and our genetics ultimately decide how happy we can be.

You know what the most inspiring thing Shawn told me was? The latest research shows good habits might trump genes.

Here’s Shawn:

Send a gratitude email right now. It only takes 2 minutes. And send another one tomorrow.

That habit will make you happier. And being happier will make you more successful and deepen your relationships.

Happiness. Success. Strong relationships. What else really matters?

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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