Reshaping your view on success: The Happiness Advantage

From a young age, many of us have been led to believe that success precedes happiness, and that happiness is a final destination to aspire to. However, there is a myriad of experimental evidence in the field of ‘positive psychology’ that argues the opposite.In his book The happiness Advantage, Harvard lecturer Shawn Achor shows objectively that, just as the planets orbit the sun, our success revolves around our happiness, and not the other way around. He argues that it is not worth sacrificing our happiness to achieve short term goals, as it helps us develop high quality relationships, think clearly and creatively, and even increases our life expectancy in the long run. Ultimately, being happy gives us a competitive edge.

Rest assured, this is far from a delusional pep talk: decades of experimental research form the backbone of this theory. In the summer of 1976, American students entering their freshman year of college across twenty-five diverse institutions self-rated their cheerfulness. Those who reported higher ratings initially also reported higher current income and job satisfaction ratings nineteen years later. In another study of Catholic nuns at the School Sisters of Notre Dame, those with the most cheerful journal entries lived almost ten years longer than their negative or neutral counterparts. There are plenty more longitudinal studies like these that demonstrate the strong relationship between happiness and success, and the critical fact that this relationship is causal.

Positive emotional experiences activate the ‘Broaden & Build’ response. Initially, the brain’s levels of dopamine and serotonin surge, which then boost the learning centres that enable us to consolidate new information, retain it and retrieve it later on. The response can even alter the processing in the visual cortex in such a way that enables us to literally see new opportunities that we would normally miss. In contrast, when we feel scared or anxious, stress hormones are released into our blood and the ‘Fight or Flight’ response kicks in. Amongst other things, this response directs blood flow away from our brains to increase blood flow to the heart, muscles and other vital organs so that we can prepare our bodies to face or escape the danger we expect. It has been shown that long-term exposure to some stress hormones can cause brain neurons to shrink, potentially impairing our cognitive wellbeing.

This news is great for those that are (inherently) happy, but what about those of us who aren’t. Firstly, what does it even mean to ‘be happy’? Certainly, there is no one universal definition. A favourite amongst researchers is the Aristotelian term ‘human flourishing’ (from the Latin Eudemonia). It emphasises that happiness is less so a feeling and more so an ethos, where one seeks pleasure and immersion in the day-to-day and strives to achieve it in the future. Moreover, it acknowledges that we can all play an active role in our own happiness and, importantly, that we do not have to depend on a person or thing to make us feel that way.

In his book, Achor focuses intently on seven key principles to live by that allow you to experience happiness and its complementary advantages with a lasting permanence. Instead of providing an exhaustive account of all of them, I will share my favourite and supposedly the most effective principle for leading a happy life: social investment.

Many young people I have spoken to, particularly those at Cambridge, admit that they often recoil from their social spheres at times of severe academic pressure. It’s all too easy to empathise with this. Common excuses are that they don’t have enough time to socialise and study, regarding it as an ‘indulgence that can be sacrificed’ or a ‘waste of valuable time’. This couldn’t be further from the truth. One study involving Harvard undergraduates revealed a correlation coefficient between happiness and social support of 0.7, a value that is staggeringly greater than that reported for any other factor (e.g. GPA, SAT score, family income etc.). It is understood that social bonding releases a pleasure-inducing hormone, oxytocin, into the blood which alleviates anxiety, improves focus and can even lower blood pressure. Evidently, social interaction is one of our fundamental biological needs, one that we mustn’t neglect, like food and water.

I hope that in reading this article, I have inspired you to implement at least one small change in your life to allow you to make the most of The Happiness Advantage. If you’re not convinced by my account, I would urge you to read the book for yourself. Nonetheless, we all deserve to be happy, whatever that may entail.