Is Happiness An Advantage?


By Shawn Achor
2014 ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference Keynote Speaker

Are people happy because they are successful, or the other way around?

You answer that question every time your brain says, “I’ll be happy when this project is finished.” “I’ll be happy when I find a job.” “I’ll be happy when I can retire.” 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 now so I will 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 individuals often forget: getting into Harvard was supposed to make them happy. Why doesn’t the “success then happiness” formula work for us?

At the ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference, I will describe the research from The Happiness Advantage and my new book Before Happiness that prove that our formula for happiness and success is scientifically flawed for two reasons. First, every time we hit a success, our brain changes the goalpost of what success looks like. Second, happiness actually causes the brain to become more successful, raising productivity, creativity, energy, engagement and intelligence. As a result we, like those Harvard students, are missing out on an incredible advantage.

In January, I wrote a cover story for Harvard Business Review Magazine “How Happiness Leads to Profits” making a research case for why happiness leads to success. If you reverse the happiness formula by prioritizing happiness first, you end up with greater happiness and greater success. This effect is called “the happiness advantage.” In fact, a meta–analysis of a decade of research proves a positive brain increase sales by 37%, productivity by 31%, triples creativity, and raises accuracy on tasks by 19%, as well as improving a myriad of health outcomes. 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. The greatest advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain.

During the economic slowdown, I traveled to research or lecture in over 50 countries, working with hundreds of companies and schools outside of labs, where we can control all the variables. I was seeking to understand how we can affect positive change in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty of life. I have reached two main research conclusions: 1) while happiness is a choice, it requires habit to make that choice easier, and 2) once we have a positive reality, we need to be able to transfer that reality to others.

But before we can make any changes to our happiness, health and success, our brain first needs to perceive that change is possible. Join me as I describe in my keynote lecture how much change is possible and how we can make this research come to life for you and those around you.

Learn more about Shawn Achor and his work here: