TED talks digesTED: The happy secret of work

In this new series of articles, Roisin Woolnough explores the TED Talk of Shawn Achor and his concept of the advantage.

As a society, we constantly think we will be happier once we have achieved x, completed y or improved z. Or preferably, all three. Happiness is predicated on future success. By doing so, we have ‘pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon’, says Shawn Achor, positive psychologist and CEO of consulting company, Good Think. Not only does this makes happiness more elusive, it also makes success more elusive, according to Achor.

In 2011, Achor gave a TED talk called ‘The happy secret to better work’ and in it he argues that we need to invert the way we think about happiness and success – rather than achieving success in order to be happy we should be thinking about being happy in order achieve success. That TED talk has generated over 11 million hits.

What does Achor know about happiness and how it relates to business success? Rather a lot. He teaches positive psychology at Harvard University, is the author of two books, ‘The Happiness Advantage’ and ‘Before Happiness’ and has worked with a lot of big name institutions, such as America’s National Basketball Association, the Pentagon and the White House. He visits schools and organisations around the world, talking about happiness and success and this is what he found:

“Most companies and schools follow a formula for success, which is this: If I work harder, I’ll be more successful. And if I’m more successful, then I’ll be happier. That undergirds most of our parenting and managing styles, the way that we motivate our behaviour.”

It is this perception of success=happiness that Achor argues against. A proponent of positive psychology, he says humans learn and perform best when they are happy. If individuals allow themselves to be happy and present in the here and now, they should enjoy greater levels of creativity, positive energy and productivity. And if organisations can improve the happiness of not just one employee, but all or the majority of their employees, the knock on effects in terms of increased creativity, positive energy and productivity would be significant.

Achor trips off statistics that support his assertions that happiness leads to greater levels of creativity, productivity and energy. According to him, only 25% of job success is down to IQ – the other 75% is decided by optimism levels, social support and a person’s ability to view stress as a challenge instead of a threat.

What he goes on to say in his TED talk is this: “If you can raise somebody’s level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage, which is your brain at positive performs significantly better than at negative, neutral or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise. In fact, we’ve found that every single business outcome improves. Your brain at positive is 31% more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed. You’re 37% better at sales. Doctors are 19% faster, more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis when positive instead of negative, neutral or stressed.”

Is Achor a lone voice or do other experts agree? In 2014, economists at the University of Warwick conducted a series of experiments into whether or not happy employees are more productive. The results? Happy employees are 12% more productive, as evidenced in the whitepaper titled Happiness and Productivity. “The driving force seems to be that happier workers use the time they have more effectively, increasing the pace at which they can work without sacrificing quality,” said one of the researchers, Dr Sgroi.

And according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor in the department of psychology at the University of California and author of ‘The How of Happiness’, happiness is something we should strive for . She says 50% of happiness is determined by genetic make-up, 10% by life circumstances and situation and 40% is subject to self control.

 

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