The Happiness Advantage: 5 Steps and 21 Days

I recently found a wonderful TED Talk by psychologist and researcher Shawn Achor called The Happy Secret to Better Work.   It already has over 15 million views so, apparently, I’m late to the party.  If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so immediately.  It’s funny, insightful, and may just bring about a change in your family.  The video inspired me to have our family try an experiment; we’re going to follow Achor’s advice for 21 days and see what happens.

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In the video, Achor talks about the dominant thought on happiness in our culture, which is that success will bring happiness.  In other words, getting what we want will make us happy. He says, however, that we can rewire our brains to recognize that the opposite is actually true —happiness will help us become more successful.  Achor calls it the happiness advantage.  “Your brain at positive performs significantly better than it does at negative, neutral, or stressed.”  And he says that we can train our brains to become more positive.  In 21 days, and in less than 20 minutes per day, we can create a lasting, positive change. We can actually alter how our brains process the world.

Several points Achor makes stand out for me:

Our external world can only predict about 10% of our long-term happiness. The rest is predicted by how our brain processes our world.  

For 8 years, we lived in Florida, an ideal paradise for many people.  Sun and sand in seemingly endless supply.  Good jobs, close to family, and a pool right in the backyard!  Our external world would bring us happiness, right?  Wrong.  I was miserable.  My wife was better, but far from happy.

The sun was nice, but the oppressive heat and humidity for 11 months of the year was what I felt.  The constant need to do yard work was overwhelming.  The sand was nice, but as close as we were, it still took about an hour to get to in traffic.  The jobs were nice, but starting over in a new town slowed down our career trajectories in our case.  The family support and the pool were our saving graces!  Writing these, I realize that I may have simply been whining—oh, poor me, stuck in Florida—but, the fact remains, I was so far from happy when my external world would lead many to think I would be elated.

I was postponing my happiness.  Our original plan was to move just before our daughter started school.  The housing market collapsed, prolonging our stay by 3 years.  Three. Long. Years.  My thought was, when we get to where we want to be, then we’ll be happy.  I knew that strategy was detrimental in the short term, so I tried to make things better—some of my ideas helped, but nothing truly moved the needle.

Do you perceive stress as a challenge, rather than a threat?

I love the concept this question brings.  It seems to me that many parents today try to remove as many threats as possible from their children’s lives.  Then, when the stressors of life inevitably show up, how well do their children handle them?  Usually, it’s not a pretty picture.  And we see it more and more on college campuses.  If you believe some recent articles, universities are changing.  Universities used to actively encourage diversity of thought, challenging the students to grow not only in intellect, but also in maturity.  Now, some universities are being ridiculed because of the need for safe spaces—not from physical or sexual abuse, but from words and ideas some students don’t agree with.  Healthy levels of stress, if viewed through the right lens, can allow us to develop into stronger, more capable humans. If viewed as merely a threat, we retreat…and fail to grow.

If happiness is on the opposite side of success, our brains never get there.  We think we find happiness when we reach a goal.  However, when we reach that goal, we tend to focus on the negatives that might arise in that space. Then, we simply make our happiness dependent upon attainment of the next goal.  It’s a constantly moving target. As soon as my students make the grade in the difficult pre-requisite course, their focus moves on to the next course, and the next requirement to graduate.  Even before they graduate, the pressure of a career is waiting for them.  Universities may be adding to this pressure, unwittingly. “Hey, take this survey and tell us what you’re going to be doing right after graduation!  If you have a job in your field, we can tout that to prospective students. We might even be able to get more funding from the state and our donors!” Achor’s extensive research shows that we can teach our brains to experience happiness regardless of circumstance.  This makes happiness a fixed, achievable target that is not highly dependent upon circumstances that may be outside our control.

Putting this into practice

To flip the notion that success breeds happiness on it’s head, Achor suggests following 5 steps for 21 days…so our family is going to do just that!  (Achor’s post in Psychology Today provided some more specific guidance that we found useful in developing a plan for our family.)  We’re going to practice the following steps each day in the coming weeks…5 steps a day for 21 days…and see if we can gain the happiness advantage!

  1. 3 Gratitudes—Write down three new things that we’re grateful for.  This will allow us to develop the habit of seeing the positives around us.
  2. Journaling—Write for two minutes a day about one positive experience we had in the past 24 hours.  This will allow our brains to relive it.
  3. Exercise—Achor is far from the only one to tell us to exercise, but he says just ten minutes a day “teaches your brain that your behavior matters.”
  4. Meditation—Stop and be still for two minutes, simply focusing on our breathing, to allow our brains to practice staying engaged in the present moment.
  5. Random Acts of Kindness—Email or post one positive message, praising or thanking someone in our social support network.  Social support and connection have a great influence on the human experience.

At the end of Achor’s talk, he says we can train our brain through these 5 steps and create ripples of positivity. Each of us has a journal to write down our gratitudes, positive experiences, and to track our exercise for each day.  We’ll write and exercise as a family every day.  We’ll also talk each day about our experiences meditating and practicing kindness.   At the end of our family’s 21 days, we’ll report back to let you know how it went.  Feel free to engage your own family in this practice, and let us know how it goes.

About author

CollegeSmiths

Lori Smith and Scott Smith are higher education professionals with a combined 30 years experience working with college students. We also happen to be married to one another and are raising our own potential future college student.

2 comments

  1. Ellen Yal says:

    I think you are right on target! It’s never our circumstances that make us happy, it’s our perception that makes us happy. Can’t wait to hear how your 21 days turns out. (Happier, I hope.)

    1. CollegeSmiths says:

      Thank you, Ellen! I’m excited about giving this a shot.

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