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Book Review: The Happiness Advantage

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

If you are looking for a book to give to a friend or family member (or even to yourself) this Christmas, you can consider this book, The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor.

Shawn is one of the world’s leading experts on the connection between happiness, success and potential. His research on mindset made the cover of Harvard Business Review, and his TED talk is one of the most popular of all time with 16 million views.

And if you haven't watched his Ted talk, you can watch it here.

Here are 10 lessons I have gleaned after listening to the audiobook.

1. When you are happy, you will enjoy a lot of what life has to offer.

Based on his research, if we can increase a person's positivity in the present, we are better at securing our jobs, enjoying superior productivity, being more resilient, suffering from less burnout and having greater sales.

Sounds quite obvious, isn't it? But what is obvious may not be common practice.

Here are some stats to drill home the point.

  • When you are positive, you are 31% more productive when you are negative.

  • You will be 37% better at sales when you are positive.

  • Doctors are 19% faster and more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnoses when they have the happiness advantage.

In the past, I was often looking for the next sales idea, hunting the next customer, researching for new concepts to get higher sales. I realized I was struggling.

When I switched gear and have a happier outlook, regardless of whether the prospect or client will engage my services, most of my conversations mostly ended with a smile and thank you from the other party.

That, to me, is one of the greatest gifts I can receive.

2. Definition of Happiness

Most people define happiness by the external qualifications, achievements or material possessions a person has.

However, based on what I have seen online and after talking to some really successful people, those feelings of dopamine from external are mostly fleeting.

Formally, the psychologists defined happiness as “the experience of positive emotions,” but the truth is that happiness is highly subjective, relative to what one is experiencing.

There is no "model answer" to happiness.

This is how the author views happiness,

Happiness is NOT the belief that everything is great, happiness is the belief that change is possible. In Before Happiness I define happiness as "the joy one feels striving for one's potential." Small mental victories, especially in a rough economy, led us to a cascade of success based on positive changes.

And I would think it will be easier (and maybe better) if you define your own version of happiness. Don't let the word write it for you.

As Gary Vaynerchuk puts it,

What works for one person doesn’t work for everyone. I want people to learn to be at peace with themselves, to understand what they can offer, because everyone’s got something. The key, however, is learning how to find it. Self-awareness can help you do that.

3. Train our brains to look for the positive over the negative.

Our news today is bombarded with negativity. Showing the darker, evil, sinister sides of mankind.

Constantly reading those articles and troll comments only make us more susceptible to such emotions.

This will subconsciously affect the way we communicate with others, react to situations and view the world.

Instead, constantly scanning the world for the positive, allows us to experience happiness, gratitude, and optimism.

In one of the author's examples, he shared how he was playing too much Grand Theft Auto and almost "stole" a police car while he was out in his neighbourhood.

At the back of his mind, he was already scanning for the police officers and getting ready to "fight them" in order to get to the police car.

Thankfully, he managed to catch himself in the mirror of a car and ask himself what the hell he was thinking before committing such crazy acts.

This is called the Tetris effect.

It sounds very hilarious but it is very real.

Maybe that's why the Chinese government is putting a tight grip on the gaming scenes?

4. Fall up by turning negative momentum into a positive one.

After a crisis or adversity, our mind follows one of three paths:

  • The negative event produces no change, and we end where we started.

  • Further negative consequences. We end up worse after the event; this path is why we are afraid of conflict and challenge

  • The Third Path: use adversity and failure to become even stronger and more capable than before.

Finding the Third Path is what helps us scale greater height and achieve what we previously think is impossible. The narrative we tell ourselves after the event is critical.

Let's use the following hypothetical situation as a role play.

You were in a bank when a robbery occurred. You suffered a gunshot wound to the arm. Do you count yourself lucky or unlucky given that you were the only one being shot?

I believe 9 out of 10 will think they are unlucky. When I was first posted this question, I would think I'm unlucky too. Upon further thinking, I realized I should count myself lucky.

Why should I consider myself lucky?

Well, if it had been my head instead of my arm, I wouldn't be here writing this post, I wouldn't get to bid a proper goodbye to my family and I wouldn't be able to complete the items on my bucket list!

It is not easy and that's why we need to train ourselves to do that.

One way that I find effective is to start journaling.

I write down 5 things that I'm grateful for every day and I realized that there is a huge shift in my attitude.

5. Willpower alone cannot affect change – instead, try to minimize barriers and form good habits.

I hear most successful people tend to share about willpower and determination.

I realized it's a tall order for me. Contrary to some beliefs, I am a very lazy person.

That's why I always find ways where I can just do it once and get rewarded multiple times. And this thinking led me to start my investment journey early in life. 🥰

The author shared a personal example of how he wanted to learn guitar.

He started off with willpower but didn't manage to complete his 21 days of continuous learning. He shared that despite the guitar being tucked away in a cupboard that is 20s from his desk, he had difficulty completing the challenge.

He tried an alternative method.

He bought a guitar stand and placed it at a prominent place in his apartment. Whenever he gets out of his chair and walk, he will pass by the guitar stand. What he realized was that the 20s made a huge difference and he manage to complete the challenge with minimum effort.

What was the difference, you may ask?

Was it because he failed the first time and therefore the second time was a success?

I doubt so.

What he shared was similar to another book I had read previously, Atomic Habits by James Clear. He shared something very similar about reducing the distraction and reducing the friction to the action you desire to take.

You can read more in his blog post here.

My Director recently shared in my focus group that he was renovating his house recently and bought a temporary table. When his renovation was completed, he bought a proper chair and table. He found that his productivity increased significantly.

He stressed us not to underestimate a proper table and chair for our work. 😂

6. Social support is one of your greatest assets.

The connection between social support and happiness has even been verified in Harvard research, which shows that social support and happiness are twice as highly correlated as the baseline.

Additionally, researchers conducting a survey of 24,000 American workers confirmed that people with few social connections are two to three times more likely to suffer depression than those with social bonds.

This research seems to be in line with the rise in depression cases we had in Singapore last year during the lock-down (or circuit breaker as the government calls it).

It also reminded me of my dark past where I shut myself during my toughest times and was struggling financially.

Back then, when I started opening up, I realized I felt at ease and the burden is slowly chipping away with each sharing as I'm no longer bearing the brunt alone.

Looking back, if I had not cut contacts with my circle of friends, I might have come out of the financial debt much faster.

7. Spend money (but NOT on stuff)

As discussed earlier, branded goods and materials can buy happiness, but happiness is temporary.

Spending money on other people on the other hand creating a more lasting impact. It is called ‘prosocial spending'.

There is another Harvard research with a similar finding. According to his research,

People who spend money on others report greater happiness. The benefits of such prosocial spending emerge among adults around the world, and the warm glow of giving can be detected even in toddlers. These benefits are most likely to emerge when giving satisfies one or more core human needs (relatedness, competence, and autonomy). The rewards of prosocial spending are observable in both the brain and the body and can potentially be harnessed by organizations and governments.

The next time you don't feel well, instead of buying a tub of ice-cream or a box of donuts to pick yourself up, consider donating to a charitable organization or buying tissue packs from the senior citizens in your neighbourhood.

8. The concept of fulcrum and lever

The author believes that it’s not the weight of the world that determines what we can accomplish. It is our fulcrum and lever.

The lever refers to how much potential power and possibility we believe we have, while the position of our fulcrum refers to the mindset with which we generate the power to change.

It is similar to the mental construction of our daily activities, more than the activity itself, defines our reality.

The author shares that when faced with a difficult task or challenge, give ourselves an immediate competitive advantage by focusing on all the reasons we will succeed, rather than fail.

Remind ourselves of the relevant skills we have, rather than those we lack. Think of a time we have been in a similar circumstance in the past and performed well.

By changing the way we perceive ourselves and our work, we can dramatically improve our results.

Although I find this is a very engineering version of positive self-talk, I can't deny that I had similar experiences when I was back in Junior College where I managed to scrape through my GCE A Levels with this technique.

Sometimes, you have to try it to believe it.

9. The Zorro Circle

The author shared a very interesting example of how Zorro became the master swordsman he is remembered today.

I can't exactly recall if he had mentioned if the story was real, but I do find it very important to start with a small circle of competence.

Writing this now reminded me of Warren Buffett's favourite quote on the circle of competence.

Know your circle of competence, and stick within it. The size of that circle is not very important; knowing its boundaries, however, is vital.

In the context of investing, by following that advice, you are likely to avoid huge losses. However, in life, I don't think that formula will serve you well.

After we have mastered a small circle, we should move on to draw a bigger circle and master it. We may fail, or fail miserably, but that is how we improve!

It doesn't sound very pleasing to fail, which is why I encourage you to watch Zootopia!

That is why I have decided that next year, I have aimed to a much higher target in my career. One that I think will stretch way beyond my comfort level.

I may find myself setting this goal very crazy, but it's so audacious that it got me excited at the same time.

I am not sure if it was because I have some earlier successes that led me to think I can possibly achieve this, but it's the challenge that I'm very excited about.

10. The power to share your happiness with the world.

After reading the book, I had a 360-degree change of view for this blog.

In the past, I use it as a tool and platform for marketing my services. I find it a drag to post.

Although it still serves as a marketing tool, it is not my main goal now.

I regard this as documenting my learning journey and serving as a soundboard so that others can learn from my mistakes. It also helps me sharpen my thinking as I get great feedback from other successful people who point me in the right direction.

I'm certain that IF I can do this consistently, I should be on the right path to success.

I'm still wary of my own consistency, but I will work towards a better version of myself.

Hopefully, you will too and this post can serve you well!

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