Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


5 Ways to Turn Happiness Into An Advantage

Reversing the formula for happiness and success.

For you, which comes first: happiness or success?

My guess is that you have already answered that question several times today. You answer it every time your brain says, "I'll be happy when I find a job." "I'll be happy when I get a promotion." "I'll be happy when my dissertation is finished."

The formula is clear: work harder, then you'll be successful, then you'll be happier.

When I asked some of my Harvard students, their answer was easy: "I'm working my butt off now so I can be happy when...[fill in the blank with a six figure banking job, make a scientific breakthrough, get into medical school, etc.]."

But here's what these brilliant students often forget: getting into Harvard was supposed to make them happy. How many of them in high school thought they'd be happy once they got in? Why didn't the success then happiness formula work?

It's hard to find happiness after success if the goalposts of success keep changing.

Watch my TEDx talk on The Happiness Advantage at Harvard

Our society's formula for success and happiness is broken.

Now for the good news. Based on the findings in The Happiness Advantage: if you reverse the order of the formula, you end up with greater happiness and greater success rates. Happiness is and advantage, and the precursor to greater success. Every single relationship, business and educational outcome improves when the brain is positive first. If you cultivate happiness while in the midst of your struggles, work, at school, while unemployed or single, you increase your chances of attaining all the goals you are pursuing...including happiness.

So how can we pursue happiness right now? When I was counseling overwrought Harvard students, one of the first things I would tell them is to stop equating a future success with happiness. Empirically, we know success does not lead to happiness. Is everyone with a job happy? Is every rich person happy? Then step one is to stop thinking that finding a job, getting a promotion, etc. is the only thing that can brings happiness. Success does not mean happiness. Check out any celebrity magazine to look for examples to disabuse you of thinking that being beautiful, successful or rich will make you happy.

Second, realize that happiness is a work ethic. Happiness is not a mystery. You have to train your brain to be positive just like you work out your body. We not only need to work happy, we need to work at being happy. Try an experiment right now called the 21 Day Challenge. Pick one of the five researched habits and try it out for 21 days in a row to create a positive habit, then comment on this blog or Facebook me and tell us your results.

1. Write down three new things you are grateful for each day into a blank word document or into the free app I Journal. Research shows this will significantly improve your optimism even 6 months later, and raises your success rates significantly.

2. Write for 2 minutes a day describing one positive experience you had over the past 24 hours. This is a strategy to help transform you from a task-based thinker, to a meaning based thinker who scans the world for meaning instead of endless to-dos. This dramatically increases work happiness.

3. Exercise for 10 minutes a day. This trains your brain to believe your behavior matters, which causes a cascade of success throughout the rest of the day.

4. Meditate for 2 minutes, focusing on your breath going in and out. This will help you undo the negative effects of multitasking. Research shows you get multiple tasks done faster if you do them one at a time. It also decreases stress and raises happiness.

5. Write one, quick email first thing in the morning thanking or praising a member on your team. This significantly increases your feeling of social support, which in my study at Harvard was the largest predictor of happiness for the students.

If you are having trouble getting started, at the end of my TED talk I describe how to make those habits even easier to start by managing activation energy.

If you reverse the formula, you can turn happiness into a success advantage, raising every business and educational outcome. Start by doing one of these habits. And once and for all, stop yourself and others from saying, "I'll be happy when..." That formula is broken. But there is a better one: happiness leads to greater success.

**I would love some help researching this. How have you seen yourself or others put happiness off until they were successful? How can we help people reverse this trend?

About the Author
Shawn Achor

Shawn Achor is an expert on human potential and the author of The Happiness Advantage.

My company
More from Shawn Achor
More from Psychology Today
More from Shawn Achor
More from Psychology Today