Be Happy FIRST, It Drives Performance And Achievement



8th Oct 2013

5 min read

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The majority of people around us live by this principle: Success comes first, happiness second. Most people we know and observe apply this formula in their lives: Work hard in order to become successful, and when you become successful, you will be happy. This is an incorrect formula, because it should be reversed.

Happiness is actually the pre-requisite to success, writes Shawn Achor, author of the book The Happiness Advantage. According to Achor, happiness and optimism are the fuel that drives performance and achievement.

He believes that if we all sit around and wait to be happy, we are setting a limit to our brain’s potential for success. It is the opposite if we seek to develop positive brains which in turn make us motivated, resilient, efficient and productive. All these attitudes drive performance upwards.


Discovering the Happiness Advantage, Achor began his discovery of the concept during his days at Harvard. He had applied to Harvard and surprisingly, got accepted. Little did he know that his journey in Harvard would take up the next 12 years of his life.

It was these years of teaching and staying in dorms that gave him a comprehensive perspective of how thousands of other Harvard students progressed through stress and challenges. It was here that Achor began observing behavioural patterns.

Achor discovered the key difference between students who saw Harvard as a privilege versus those who saw learning at Harvard as a chore.

Those who saw Harvard as a privilege were soaring high and doing better, as opposed to those who saw learning as a chore and had begun to focus on the stress and heavy workload. This latter group missed out on many opportunities.

This unhappiness is not exclusive to Harvard. Findings of a Conference Board Survey in January 2010 revealed that only 45% of workers surveyed were happy in their jobs. This percentage was the lowest in 22 years of research.

Achor had three mentors – Harvard professors Phil Stone, Ellen Langer, and Tal Ben-Shahar. They were interested in this new field called positive psychology.

Instead of focusing on what makes people unhappy, these three mentors were all out to discover what makes people excel, blossom and succeed. These were exactly the same questions Achor had.


When we seek to understand human behaviour, the traditional approach is always to look for the average behaviour or result. In behavioural science, Achor calls this a misguided approach and refers to it as the “cult of the average”.

Behavioural science has its way of changing the question of “How fast can a child learn how to read in a classroom” to “How fast does the average child learn to read in the classroom?” Achor’s mentor, Ben-Shahar calls this the “error of the average”.

This, they say, is the first mistake that traditional psychology makes: “If we study merely what is average, we will remain merely average”. Outliers are conveniently ignored by traditional psychology but what Achor has chosen to do is the exact opposite. He has intentionally studied outliers.

Traditional psychology has a second mistake – it focuses too much on the negative. This leads to a tendency to merely aim towards decreasing the bad and negative, and we will end up always achieving only the average.

We will always end up losing out on the potential to surpass the average. In 1998, there was still a 17-to-1 negative-to-positive ratio of research in the field of psychology. This means that for every research on happiness, there were 17 researches on depression and disorder.

We need to consciously seek to study what works, not what is broken. This is how “positive psychology” was born. Achor shows us as we journey with him through this book that new research in psychology and neuroscience reveals that we become more successful when we are happier and more positive.

Achor observed more than 1,100 Harvard students. He then took these observations and applied them, to design and conduct his own survey of 1,600 high achieving undergraduates. This was one of the largest studies on happiness ever conducted at Harvard.

When he had finished compiling, studying and analysing this massive amount of research, Achor came out with seven specific, actionable, and proven patterns that would cause success and positive achievement:

1 The Happiness Advantage

We need to retrain our brains to fully capitalise positivity, rather than negativity. This will improve productivity and performance.

2 The Fulcrum and the Lever

This principle 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

This is where we need to retrain our brains to focus and spot patterns of possibility so that we can take hold of opportunities when we see them.

4 Falling Up

This is a principle that teaches us to discover a mental path that not only leads us out of failure, but teaches us to be happier and more successful because of the failure.

5 The Zorro Circle

Our emotions tend to take control when we are overwhelmed by challenges and stresses in life. When we apply this principle, we learn how to focus on small, manageable goals; then, we gradually enlarge our circle towards bigger goals.

6 The 20-Second Rule

Our willpower often does not last long. This principle teaches us that by making small energy adjustments, we can change the path of least resistance and replace bad habits with good ones.

7 Social Investment

This principle emphasises on the importance of a social support network. When the going gets tough, we should not withdraw and retreat, but we should instead, hold on even more tightly to our friends, peers, and family members who will spur us on.

These principles form a set of tools that people everywhere, irrespective of their profession or calling, can use and apply to achieve more each day. The amazing thing about these principles of positive psychology is that they work in any setting, not only in the corporate, business world.

They can even be applied to our personal lives, helping us to deal with our bad habits, overcome hindrances in life and cause us to become more effective, efficient and productive in life.

Achor is clear to state that these principles do not teach us to put on a happy face and use “positive thinking” to wish away our problems. They also do not teach us to live as though our problems don’t exist.

On the contrary, the Happiness Advantage begins at a different place – it teaches us to be realistic about the current and present situation we are facing while at the same time, seeking to maximise our potential for the future.

It is all about developing the mindset and behavioural pattern that will fuel greater success. The Happiness Advantage begins when we realise that we can change – change is possible.


We have long lived with the myth that we are just as our genes are, that we are born into this world with fixed skill sets and abilities and our brains cannot change.

However, recent cutting-edge research in neuroscience has proven that there are indeed many ways that we can rewire our brains to be more positive, creative, productive and resilient.

The question has since changed from “is change possible?” to “how much change is possible?” The human potential is immeasurable.This is about creating and developing lasting positive change. It is not just about a momentarily high and happy moment.

So, let’s take a closer look at how this change is possible and how we tap and maximise the full potential of our brain’s ability to change in order to reap and enjoy the benefits of the Happiness Advantage.

Koh Earn Soo and his team take the best books and summarise them into shorter, readable content in the hope of inspiring people to read more and learn more. To read the rest of this summary and summaries of other bestsellers, subscribe to or email for more information. Click here for more articles.
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