HR & Management

The happiness advantage: How a little bit of positivity can improve productivity

5 min read

08 September 2015

Deputy Editor, Real Business

Shawn Achor, CEO of Good Think, hilariously reveals how telling his sister she was a unicorn after a fall from a bunk bed showed him the importance of positive psychology – and how businesses can make sure that employees remain happy.

At the age of seven, Achor’s sister was but five. With the two year age gap in mind, she would often end up doing what her brother wanted to do – which was to play war.

“We were on top of our bunk bed,” he said, “and on one side I had put out all of my G.I. Joe soldiers and weaponry. On the other side were all my sister’s My Little Ponies ready for a cavalry charge. Somehow, without any help or push from her older brother, she disappeared off the top of the bed and landed with a crash on the floor. I nervously peered over the side of the bed to see what had befallen my sister and saw that she had landed painfully on her hands and knees – on all fours.

“I was nervous because my parents had charged me with making sure that my sister and I played as safely and as quietly as possible. And seeing as how I had accidentally broken her arm just one week before by heroically pushing her out of the way of an oncoming imaginary sniper bullet, I was trying hard to be on my best behaviour.”

So, he claimed to do the only thing a frantic seven year-old brain could think to do in order to avert tragedy.

He said: “‘Wait, don’t cry. Did you see how you landed? No human lands on all fours like that. I think this means you’re a unicorn.’ Now, that was cheating, because there was nothing she would want more than to be Amy the special unicorn. 

“You could see how my poor, manipulated sister faced conflict, as her little brain attempted to devote resources to feeling the pain and suffering and surprise she just experienced, or contemplating her new-found identity as a unicorn. The latter won. Instead of crying and waking my parents, a smile spread across her face and she scrambled back up onto the bunk bed with all the grace of a baby unicorn – with one broken leg.”

This, he claimed, was where he stumbled across positive psychology.

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In the last three years, Anchor found 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.” 

The problem is that it’s scientifically broken and backwards for two reasons. Anchor is of the belief that most people think success precedes happiness. “Once I get a promotion, I’ll be happy,” they think. Or, “Once I hit my sales target, I’ll feel great.” But because success is a moving target – as soon as you hit your target, you raise it again – the happiness that results from success is fleeting.

In fact, it works the other way around: people who cultivate a positive mindset perform better in the face of challenge.  

“If you can raise somebody’s level of positivity in the present, then their intelligence rises, creativity rises and energy levels rise,” he said. “In fact, we’ve found that every single business outcome improves. Your brain at positive is 31 per cent more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed. You’re 37 per cent better at sales. Doctors are 19 per cent faster, more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis when positive instead of negative, neutral or stressed.”

“I call this the ‘happiness advantage’,” he said. “I’ve observed this effect on the connection between employee happiness and success. And I’m not alone: In a meta-analysis of 225 academic studies, researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and Ed Diener found strong evidence of directional causality between life satisfaction and successful business outcomes.”