Monday, April 2, 2012

The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work

By Dhawn Achor

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II

There are sixteen pages of notes that support 210 pages of text.  Right from the outset, this is a good sign.  Clearly, Achor has done his homework, and it shows throughout the text as he documents his observations, conclusions, and recommendations.  Also, it isn’t just the research, it is the range of the author’s information that makes it impressive.

A book with this title, I have to admit, makes me skeptical at the outset.  There are so many “self-help” books out there, I assumed that this was just another one of the same.  Happily, I was quickly disabused of this notion.  This book in no way is typical of other self-help books; it is truly unique and deserves your attention.

I loved the author’s explanation of his upbringing — being from Waco, Texas, and going to Harvard on a dare.  Just as Achor looked at his opportunity at Harvard as a privilege, especially after visiting Africa, talking to his guide, Salim, and finding that Soweto students saw education as a privilege, I realized my opportunity for an education at the University of Michigan (UofM) was truly a privilege — especially after talking to people around the world (with an emphasis on East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) where I worked for nine months) and realizing how people viewed the UofM.  It was an eye-opener, and it changed my viewpoint, my study habits, and my whole approach.

I firmly believe that the author is correct when he discussed the pattern of focusing on the negative (pp. 11-12) that pervades schools and society at large, too.  And Achor’s thesis supported throughout the book is a simple one: “We become more successful when we are happier and more positive” (p. 15).  I realize that this isn’t a new discovery, but 1) it is nice to have it revisited, 2) it is pleasant to see the evidence that supports the thesis, and 3) the way the author develops the thesis is terrific.  I loved the statement, and all students should be aware of it: “It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive” (p. 15).

Achor’s seven principles, when given the “eyeball test,” appear practical, accurate, and worthwhile.  1) The happiness advantage, 2) the fulcrum and the lever (“This principles teaches us how we can adjust our mindset (our fulcrum) in a way that gives us the power (the lever) to be more fulfilled and successful”), 3) The tetris effect (self-fulfilling prophecies), 4) falling up, 5) the Zorro circle (when “our rational brains can get hijacked by emotions”), 6) the 20-second rule (the need to make “small energy adjustments,” and 7) social investment (using friends, peers, and family members to propel yourself).  When you read each chapter, you realize the value of his principles and the accuracy of his labels.

One of the things that makes this book a great read is the author’s sense of humor.  On page 23, for example, he says, “the head of his Ph.D. program estimated the average academic journal article is read by only seven people.  This is an extraordinarily depressing statistic, because I know that number has to include the researcher’s mom.” On page 27, he says, “Great, you might say, for squirrel monkeys — but for the most part, we don’t hire monkeys in our organizations (at least not on purpose).”  In brackets on page 68, he says, after asking battle-weary bankers to sing “Row, row, row, your boat” over and over again at one of his talks: “(At least this time I remembered to specify that they sing it in their own heads, not out loud — a detail I once forgot on Wall Street, where I quickly learned the true definition of ‘tone deaf.’)”

This is a book for everyone, and the reason “is supported by some of the most rigorous cutting-edge research in neuroscience. . . . Once our brains were discovered to have such built-in plasticity [neuroplasticity], our potential for intellectual and personal growth suddenly became equally malleable.  As you’re about to read over the next seven sections, studies have found numerous ways we can rewire our brains to be more positive, creative, resilient, and productive — to see more possibility wherever we look” (pp. 29-30).  Now, I ask you, knowing this book offers practical steps for change (based on clear evidence), why wouldn’t anyone want to increase their positive outlook, creativity, resiliency, and productivity?  It’s a no-brainer.

Let me give you just one example of his practical approach.  “With this in mind,” Achor says on page 51, “here are a number of proven ways we can improve our moods and raise our levels of happiness throughout the day.”  There are seven ways discussed.  This happens throughout the book, and it makes it possible to see happiness as something we can acquire, build, or improve.  Despite the research, the studies he shares, and the serious discussions about happiness, Achor’s writing is engaging and accessible.  He talks directly to his readers, and his writing is loaded with examples and illustrations, personal experiences, anecdotes, and well-explained (easy-to-understand) research.  Also, he shares his experiences with emotions attached.  For example, “Adrenaline shot through my body as I reached for the shiny handle of the Cambridge Police cruiser. . . . “ (p. 87).

If you want to have some fun; if you like learning new things; if you are seeking improvement in your life; if you just plain enjoy good writing (and a good read); and, perhaps, most important with respect to the author’s thesis and the title of this book, if you want to take advantage of “the Happiness Advantage” (the application of positive psychology in your life), this book is a great choice.  I highly recommend it.

The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work can be purchased at

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