16 min read

The Happiness Advantage

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Assuming that we could all use a little boost of happiness these days, I want to share some thoughts from a great book with you. If you get something out of it, I highly suggest getting your hands on the book for the full read. Below is a mix of Achor’s words directly from his book, The Happiness Advantage, my own summary of some of his points and my own reflections, including some thoughts on how this might be applicable to volunteer or donor management.

Many of us have been taught that if we become successful, we will then become happy. The success, we’ve been told, has to come first. But Shawn Achor calls that whole notion into question. Recent research in the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience have proven that we’ve had the order in the relationship between success and happiness all wrong. It is not that success leads to happiness, but rather, that happiness leads to success.

  • Doctors in a positive mood demonstrated almost 3 times more intelligence and creativity in diagnosing a case than doctors in a neutral state, and they made accurate diagnoses 19 times faster (and all it took to make them think happy thoughts was to be given a lollipop!)
  • Optimistic salespeople outsell pessimist salespeople by over 50%
  • Students made to feel happy about something before a math test outperform their neutral peers

This has three important ramifications in volunteer management and donor relations.

  • If you start your day or ready yourself for a challenging task by reflecting on things that make you happy or doing something that makes you happy, you’ll perform better for it.
  • The environment in which your volunteers are engaged clearly matters. If they are happy, what they will succeed in accomplishing for you will go up.
  • Campaigns encouraging donors to give out of a sense of happiness create a different experience with your organization than campaigns encouraging donors to give out of a sense of guilt.

Happiness can act as an inoculation against stress. Tax season, as you can imagine, is a very stressful time for tax auditors. To put his seven principles to the test, Achor delivered three hours of positive psychology training to 250 managers at KPMG. When tested again later on, those auditors that had gone through the training reported significantly higher life satisfaction scores and lower stress levels than the control group who had not received the training.

Change is possible. You might think that you are who are and that’s that. A growing body of science is teaching us that this just isn’t the case.

Advances in the field of neuroplasticity show that the human brain has enormous growth potential. We don’t know the limits, but we do know that science has proven that brains can and do change and grow, that there are numerous ways we can rewire our brains, and that adopting the habits that improve our mindset have proven, long-lasting effects.

Achor’s Seven Principles

  1. The Happiness Advantage – that a happy state of mind leads to better results has been proven in a variety of studies, and there are things you can do to raise your level of happiness
  2. The Fulcrum and the Lever – our mind’s ability to shape our external reality may be more powerful than the reality itself
  3. The Tetris Effect: how to retrain our brains to spot patterns of possibility, so we can see—and seize—opportunities wherever we look
  4. Falling Up - conceiving failure as an opportunity for growth
  5. The Zorro Circle: how to channel our efforts on small, manageable goals, to gain the leverage to gradually conquer bigger and bigger ones
  6. The 20 second Rule: Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt and raise it for habits you want to avoid
  7. Social Investment: how to reap the dividends of investing in one of the greatest predictors of success and happiness—our social support network

Principle #1 - The Happiness Advantage

Research is clearly demonstrating that positive emotions can open our minds to see new solutions and ideas. One such study compared two groups of four-year-old's. Each group was tasked with a series of learning activities, such as putting together blocks of different shapes. The difference between the two groups is that one group was asked to think about something that makes them happy. The children that began the exercise with the happy thoughts, completed the tasks quicker and with fewer errors.

In another study, doctors divided into two groups, where one group was primed to feel happy and the other was neutral, were tested to see how quickly they could make a correct diagnosis. Again the happy group outperformed the neutral one. They correctly diagnosed the issue nearly twice as fast as the control group.

There are a number of activities that we can do to raise our level of happiness.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” John Milton, from Paradise Lost

Steps You Can Take

  1. Meditate – Regular meditation, even just five minutes a day, permanently rewires our brains to raise our levels of happiness, lower stress, and improve immune function.
  2. Find Something to Look Forward to – Anticipating future rewards lights up the pleasure centers of our brains in the same ways that the actual reward does.
  3. Commit Conscious Acts of Kindness – Acts of altruism decrease stress and contribute to enhanced mental health. To get the most cognitive benefit, acts of kindness should be deliberate and conscious.
  4. Infuse Positivity into Your Surroundings – Make your place of work a positive space, take a break mid-day and avoid negative emotions. Even just spending 20 minutes outside in good weather not only boosts positive mood but broadens thinking and improves working memory.
  5. Exercise – Exercise releases pleasure inducing chemicals (endorphins) and improves our mood – and it’s not just a short-term effect. One study demonstrated that forty-five minutes of activity three times per week resulted in a significant improvement in mental health for depressed patients for more than six months.
  6. Spend Money (but Not on Stuff) – Research shows that spending money on experiences and activities rather than on material purchases makes us happier in the moment and over time. Take a one night art class, send flowers to your spouse, take a friend out to lunch (or get take-out and meet in the park if restaurant dining is still off limits).
  7. Exercise a Signature Strength – When we do the things that we are good at and that are tied to our character traits, we reap lasting benefits and again, increase our baseline happiness level. This is more than just “pursuing your passion.” It’s the daily practice of the very strengths that make you you.

Principle #2 - The Fulcrum and the Lever

Achor recognized the importance of psychology when he was only seven years old and while playing together, his younger sister fell from the top bunk. By chance, at that crucial moment just after a child has become hurt and there is fork in the road between crying and getting past it unfazed, he happened to distract her. Although he did not recognize it at the time, it was his first real life lesson in how we can actually influence how happy we are. All the parents reading this already have their own version of this lesson. Changing a child’s focus from the pain to something else seems to take away the pain.

There is real science behind this. Our brains can only process a finite amount of information at one time. If given enough stimulus on something other than the pain, the brain loses its capacity to process information about the pain.

This is relevant in area outside of environments such as falling from a top bunk as well. If we use our mental capacity to focus on gratitude, hope, optimism and resilience we’ll have less capacity to feel negativity stress and uncertainty.

Principle #3 - The Tetris Effect

Given that our brains can only process a certain amount of information at a time, we need to ensure we are not filling it with negative thoughts, leaving no room for positive (happy) ones. 

Harvard’s department of Psychiatry paid participants to play Tetris (see this video if you don’t know the game) for multiple hours a day, three days in a row. After the study, participants saw the world as though it was made of Tetris shapes. One reported picturing how cereal boxes could be realigned to fit tighter on the shelf and wondered if one particular building in the city skyline was turned on its side, could it fit in a space between two others.

I’ve experienced a variant on this and perhaps you have too. Either the sale of white SUV’s skyrocketed immediately after my wife and I bought one, or as new owners of a white SUV, we started to see just how many of them there are on the road.

This is not just about the game of course; The Tetris Effect is a metaphor for the way our brains influence the way we see the real world.

You might be able to identify with someone you know who is trapped in a negative Tetris effect. The boss who only sees what you did incorrectly and not what you did really well. The colleague who comes into the office on a wonderfully sunny day and complains about how hot it is. Achor contends that these people usually aren’t trying to be difficult or grumpy; they have simply become accustomed to scanning the world for the negative and in doing so, that is what they see.

We are bombarded with more information than our brains can comprehend so our brains act a bit like an email spam filter. There are estimates that we can only retain 1 out of 100 pieces of information we receive. Just like a spam filter is programmed to follow specific programming instruction on what to let through and what to filter out, the 99/100 pieces of information that get filtered out are based on the programming we have created in our own brains.

A classic experiment that demonstrates this involved a video where two small groups, one dressed in black and the other in white, passed a basketball around among their own group. Experiment participants were asked to count the number of times the white team passed the ball. After the video the participants were asked if they saw the gorilla walk into the scene. Nearly half, 46%, didn’t! The video is available here. Given that you’ll be looking at it in the context of discussing that we tend to see only what we are programmed to, you will certainly see the gorilla. Try it out on your colleagues and friends without telling them anything ahead of time.

The power of a positive Tetris effect includes happiness, gratitude and optimism.

Happiness - The more you see the positives around you, the happier you’ll be: the happier you are the better you will perform at your job and in life in general

Gratitude – in addition to a feeling of gratitude leading to higher levels of reported happiness, researchers have found that random experiment participants trained to be more grateful over a period of a few weeks also felt more socially connected, enjoyed better sleep and even reported fewer headaches than the control groups.

Optimism – Studies have shown that optimistic people are better at goal setting, coping with high stress situations and rising above difficulties.

As a leader of volunteers this is doubly important. As we have seen, your happiness will affect how you do your job, but given that happiness is contagious, it will also affect how all of the volunteers you engage with will fulfill their roles.

Fortunately, we can train or even retrain our brain for a positive Tetris effect. How? That is coming under principle #6.

Principle #4 - Falling Up

The most successful people and companies don’t see adversity as a stumbling block but rather as a fundamental step in the way to success. This adversity becomes part of the soup that leads to great success. Did you know that Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor for not being creative enough? Michael Jordan, former all-star basketball player for the Chicago Bulls (who was, by the way, cut from his high school team) once said, “I have failed over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed”.

Many organizations today make the effort to actually celebrate the failures. Why? A recognition that what is learned from a failure contributes to future successes. Did you know that 3M’s over-the-top successful Post-it Note product line was the result of a significant failure? A 3M chemist was trying to formulate a permanent glue and when the result was something that could be applied and then pulled off over and over, he wrote about his failure in an internal company publication. The marketing department read of it and saw the potential.

At Better Impact, there is an understanding that if you don’t make a decent mistake once a year, you’re not trying hard enough. One of our core values is “Be Human – Screw up, celebrate, adapt, grow and connect…. It’s all part of being human.” It is also a contributor to success.

Principle #5 - The Zorro Circle

Before Zorro was a calm, cool and collected fighter for those who could not fight for themselves, he was an undisciplined and broken man with no focus. Don Diego’s mentorship that brings the best out of Zorro begins with drawing a circle in the sand around Zorro and instructing him to fight just from within the circle, and once he has mastered that ability to focus on fighting within the small circle, the circle becomes enlarged. It is from this part of the Zorro story that The Happiness Advantage author Shawn Achor names this fifth principle.

One of the biggest drivers of success is the belief that our actions matter toward the outcome. Unfortunately, though, when stresses in our lives mount to a critical point, the sense that we are in control is the first to go, especially when we are trying to tackle too much at once. In situations like this we are advised to limit the scope of our focus, then in observing that our actions have an intended effect, we feel a sense of control over our narrowly defined area and gain the confidence to gradually broaden our focus.

A sense of control is important. The National Study for the Changing Workforce found that a greater sense of control at work predicated a higher level of satisfaction in every other area of life.

Happiness is not the only casualty involved in this. When we lose our sense of control over our work environment, we tend to think more with the part of our brain that controls our fight or flight reflexes rather than the part of our brain that makes strategic and logical decisions. In this mode, personal productivity diminishes.

I frequently hear of leaders of volunteers speak of feeling overwhelmed with the number of things on their plate, of having to work by other peoples’ rules and of generally not having any influence within their organization. If that’s you, it’s time to draw a small Zorro circle that focuses your attention on one thing. Get one project off your plate as quickly as you can. Close the door to your office and finish it or find a way you can delegate it. Choose something in your organization that you know could be improved and make it happen by doing it yourself or bringing others to the same Zorro circle. Start with some low hanging fruit if you can so that it’s easy for everyone get behind the improvement. With success in your first small Zorro circle, both you and your organization will have the confidence to tackle whatever lands in your expanded circle.

Principle #6 - The 20-Second Rule

In the late 1800s, William James taught the first experimental psychology class at Harvard and published the Principals of Psychology. In speaking of how habits affect our lives, he advised, “we should make our nervous system our ally rather than our enemy.” Given how effortlessly we do the things that are habits in our lives, if we can add to our collection of positive habits, we’ll be better off without expending much in the process.

Our brains actually change with the repetition of something. Our brains are made up of billions of neurons that are all interconnected with each other, forming a vast array of neural pathways. Electrical current travels down these pathways with our every thought and action. The more we repeat an action, the more the same pathway gets used, and the more it gets used, the stronger it gets and the faster a signal can travel across it. Eventually the signal can travel the path so quickly and effortlessly, that the action seems second nature or automatic.

So why are good habits hard to make? The trick is to overcome the inertia of moving from a state of having to consciously force ourselves to do something. The path of least resistance is always in our way. What we need to do is create a path of least resistance that leads toward the positive habit rather than away from it.

Achor shares an example out of his own life that illustrates this. He decided he wanted to take up guitar again and made a commitment that he would practice daily and track this for 21 days, by which point it would have good roots as a habit. This lasted only four days because willpower by itself isn’t enough. Later on, and after looking at the effects that the path of least resistance has on people, he tried again. This time though, rather than storing the guitar in its case, from which it only took him 20 seconds to retrieve it, he kept it on a stand in his living room. Seeing it there each day made picking it up, rather than leaving it in the case, the path of least resistance.

The strategy can be applied to eating healthier by putting the healthy snacks where they are highly visible and easy to get to, and the not so healthy ones out of sight and requiring a little more effort to get to.

The principle is simply this. We want to look for the ways we can lower the barrier on taking action on the things we want to become habits and raise the barrier on taking action on the habits we’d be better off without.

Principle #7 - Social Investment – Why Social Support Is Your Single Greatest Asset

Achor opens this chapter with a real-life story of when he was finishing up a 90-hour volunteer fire fighter training course. The final step was aptly named, The Fire Maze.  He and another trainee had to go into a burning, smoke filled maze and try to rescue a dummy somewhere within the maze. They had been trained that in a smoke-filled house where you cannot see anything, it is easy to get disoriented and not know the way back out. The technique to avoid this is to keep one hand on the wall at all times and the other hand on your partner who sweeps the floor looking for an unconscious victim. Although they were told they had 60 minutes of air, the low air alarm on their oxygen tanks went off 10 minutes into the exercise.

While experienced firefighters would have remained calm, the trainees panicked and the ability to reason soon vanished. They let go of each other and the wall. Disorientation set in and soon they were helplessly crawling around in circles on the floor.

The trainers let this go on for a short time before stepping in and rescuing the trainees. As it turned out, there was no dummy to be rescued and the low air alarms were rigged to go off despite plenty of air being present in the tanks.  Although it felt like a cruel trick at the time, it was a crucial lesson that could save their lives one day and it instilled a lesson that is the foundation of Achor’s Principe 7 – when we encounter an unexpected challenge or threat, the only way to save ourselves is to hold on tight to the people around us and not let go. It may be physically distanced these days due to the pandemic, but those Zoom calls, Facebook check-ins and chats across the driveway are not only uplifting, they’re part of our survival plan.

In one of the longest running psychological studies, 268 men were tracked from their entrance into college in the late 1930s until 2009, with vast amounts of information about their lives being recorded along the way. In examining the data, the researchers looked for the differences in the men’s lives that separated the happiest and fullest lives from the least successful ones. The answer, according to George Vaillant, the author of the study and as quoted in the Atlantic Monthly, is “love – full stop.” Vaillant’s conclusions were that there are “70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people matter, and matter more than anything else in the world.”

These findings have been duplicated many times.  In one such study, researchers sought to identify the characteristics of the happiest 10 percent among us. Was it warm climates, wealth or physical fitness? No. They found only one characteristic that distinguished the happiest 10 percent from everyone else: the strength of their social relationships.

Given that we have seen that happiness leads to better results for your organization, and that a strong social circle contributes to happiness, it’s important not to lower your priority on keeping your social connections, particularly when the going gets tough. You might be buried with work and think that other things have to come second, but in the end your work is better off in the long run (as you will be too) if you keep your social connections strong.

Let’s not forget that all of this applies to your volunteers as well as you. Given that some people volunteer as a means for having a social connection, the temporary shuttering of an organization’s volunteer engagement has cut some volunteers off from an important social circle. Would some of your volunteers appreciate reconnecting via Zoom? As you begin to bring volunteers together again post-pandemic, simply introducing two volunteers who don't know each other is probably the easiest and fastest way to invest in social dividends. Creating opportunities for them to get to know each other will reinforce their social circle and as a result, make them happier and more proactive. Who loses here?!

As a recap Achor’s Seven Principles

  1. The Happiness Advantage: A happy state of mind leads to better results has been proven in a variety of studies, and there are things you can do to raise your level of happiness.
  2. The Fulcrum and the Lever: Sometimes it actually is mind over matter. If your mind is filled with the reasons you or your organization couldn’t do something, there is no room to even entertain the ideas that could help make it possible.
  3. The Tetris Effect: We can retrain our brains to spot patterns of possibility, so we can see—and seize—opportunities wherever we look.
  4. Falling Up: Failing is part of the pathway to success.
  5. The Zorro Circle: Channel your efforts on small, manageable goals to gain the leverage to gradually conquer bigger and bigger ones.
  6. The 20 second Rule: Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt and raise it for habits you want to avoid.
  7. Social Investment: No matter what challenges come your way, don’t ignore one of the greatest predictors of success and happiness—your social support network.

Want more?  Below are links to places you can buy it online.

This synopsis is not intended to replace reading the whole book and it is well worth it.

USA - http://www.amazon.com/The-Happiness-Advantage-Principles-Performance/dp/0307591549

Canada - http://www.amazon.ca/The-Happiness-Advantage-Principles-Performance/dp/0307591549

UK - http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Happiness-Advantage-Principles-Performance/dp/0753539470

Australia - http://www.fishpond.com.au/Books/Happiness-Advantage-Shawn-Achor/9780753539477