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Are you positive? If not, you probably won’t be as successful as you could be. We often hear the refrain “Be positive,” but do we really take it to heart? Or are we too caught up in “being successful,” in “reaching the goal,” or in finding the right person to consider how important it is to be happy?
I recently watched a great TED Talk by Shawn Achor, CEO of Good Think Inc., a Cambridge-based consulting firm that researches positive outliers (people who are well above average) to understand where success and happiness intersect. Achor does an excellent job in this short talk explaining how important it is to think positively. What I liked is that he gives some real practical advice on how to get started. I also appreciated his argument that if we think success will make us happy, we will never really be satisfied — because the bar of success is constantly moving.
In the last three years, I’ve traveled to 45 different countries, working with schools and companies in the midst of an economic downturn. And what I found is that 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 styles, our managing styles, the way that we motivate our behavior.
And the problem is it’s scientifically broken and backwards for two reasons. First, every time your brain has a success, you just changed the goalpost of what success looked like. You got good grades, now you have to get better grades, you got into a good school and after you get into a better school, you got a good job, now you have to get a better job, you hit your sales target, we’re going to change your sales target. And if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there. What we’ve done is we’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon as a society. And that’s because we think we have to be successful, then we’ll be happier.
Notice he doesn’t say success isn’t important. Success is good. The problem is when we put success first, as if our happiness is dependent on our success. Be happy first, then let success flow out of your happiness. You will find that you’re a much more peaceful and content person—and more successful.
Too often, though, people focus on the task and the goal as the means to their happiness. When they do this, they get caught up in all the negativity that goes along with it—and the fear.
While working with college students at Harvard, Achor found that students didn’t build on the happiness and success of being accepted into such a distinguished college. Instead, “no matter how happy they were with their original success of getting into the school, two weeks later their brains were focused, not on the privilege of being there, nor on their philosophy or their physics. Their brain was focused on the competition, the workload, the hassles, the stresses, the complaints.”
Through his research, Achor has found that when people are positive and happy first, they are more successful.
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 it does at negative, neutral or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise. In fact, what we’ve found is that every single business outcome improves. Your brain at positive is 31 percent more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed. You’re 37 percent better at sales. Doctors are 19 percent faster, more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis when positive instead of negative, neutral or stressed. Which means we can reverse the formula. If we can find a way of becoming positive in the present, then our brains work even more successfully as we’re able to work harder, faster and more intelligently.
So how do we become more positive in the present? Each person’s path will be different, but Achor does give some helpful advice to get started. He’s found in his research that people who do these things every day for about a month actually become more positive and more successful.
- Journaling about one positive experience you’ve had during the past 24 hours. This allows your brain to relive the positive experience.
- Exercise teaches your brain that your behavior matters.
- Meditate. This allows you to get over the cultural ADHD that we create by doing multiple tasks. Meditation helps you focus on the task at hand. This is important because we don’t realize how we never really focus on any one thing. This affects our performance level. I’ve also found that it affects my memory. When I’m thinking of too many things, I’m not really present with any one thing, and my mind can’t focus—it doesn’t take hold in my brain, and I forget.
- Conscious acts of kindness. Achor gives people a simple recommendation: When you open your inbox, write someone one positive email praising them or thanking them. I think this step, though, could be broadened to incorporate anything—helping people with their groceries at the store, giving a gift to a neighbor, etc. Of course, writing a sweet and encouraging email is a good way to start. I know I feel better after I send a random email of praise to someone who didn’t expect it—and I know they do too.
What do you think? Can we be more successful if we’re more positive first and don’t let our happiness hang on achieving that next best thing?
Are you happy? If not, maybe it’s because you’re waiting for something outside of yourself to make you happy. When you do that, you’re giving other people—and things beyond your control—power over your life. Happiness based on accomplishments, people, or events doesn’t last for long. Happiness only lasts when it comes from within.Published in