Library / The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work

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Learning from Outliers

Conventional psychology consciously ignores outliers because they don’t fit the pattern. I’ve sought to do the opposite: Instead of deleting these outliers, I want to learn from them.

Workaholic’s Curse

Just as our view of work affects our real experience of it, so too does our view of leisure. If our mindset conceives of free time, hobby time, or family time as non-productive, then we will, in fact, make it a waste of time. For example, many of the business leaders and Harvard students I work with exhibit the telltale symptoms of the “workaholic’s curse.” They conceive of all the time spent away from actual work to be a hindrance to their productivity, so they squander it. As one CEO of a telecommunications company in Malaysia told me: “I wanted to be productive because that’s what makes me happy, so I tried to maximize the time I spent working. But, as I later realized, I had too narrowly defined what ‘being productive’ was. I started to feel guilty when I did anything that wasn’t work. Nothing else, not exercise or time with my wife or relaxation, was productive. So I never had time to recharge my batteries, which meant that, ironically, the more I worked, the more my productivity plummeted.”

50 Percent Below Average

And then they get into Harvard, walk confidently into that Hogwarts-like freshman dining hall on the first day of college, and have a terrible realization: 50 percent of them are suddenly below average. I like to tell my advisees: If my calculations are correct, 99 percent of Harvard students do not graduate in the top 1 percent. They don’t find that joke very funny.

Tetris Effect

Everyone knows someone stuck in some version of the Tetris Effect — someone who is unable to break a pattern of thinking or behaving.

Common Sense is Not Common Action

Common sense is not common action.

Would you be surprised if I told you that cigarettes are not a great source of vitamin C? Or that watching hours of reality television will not dramatically raise your IQ? Probably not. Similarly, we all know that we should exercise, sleep eight hours, eat healthier, and be kind to others. But does this common knowledge make doing these things any easier?

List of Good Things

Just as it takes days of concentrated practice to master a video game, training your brain to notice more opportunities takes practice focusing on the positive. The best way to kick-start this is to start making a daily list of the good things in your job, your career, and your life. It may sound hokey, or ridiculously simple—and indeed the activity itself is simple—but over a decade of empirical studies has proven the profound effect it has on the way our brains are wired. When you write down a list of “three good things” that happened that day, your brain will be forced to scan the last 24 hours for potential positives—things that brought small or large laughs, feelings of accomplishment at work, a strengthened connection with family, a glimmer of hope for the future. In just five minutes a day, this trains the brain to become more skilled at noticing and focusing on possibilities for personal and professional growth, and seizing opportunities to act on them. At the same time, because we can only focus on so much at once, our brains push out those small annoyances and frustrations that used to loom large into the background, even out of our visual field entirely.


I watched my own brain nearly succumb to this trap when I was researching this chapter. I generally love reading psychology books at coffee shops and then talking about their ideas with my colleagues and students. My brain considers that “fun” and “playtime.” But because I had a deadline for finishing this book and I needed to read those studies for research, suddenly my mindset changed. Reading psychology books was now “work,” and my brain attempted to avoid what I normally love. Tasks I once completed quickly and joyfully now made me feel as though I were wading through mental molasses.

I realized it was time to move the fulcrum. I thought about how I was defining the task mentally (menial labor) and consciously changed it (to reading for enrichment). I also changed the language I used to describe the activity to other people. After telling a few friends I was at Starbucks reading for pleasure, I started to realize that in fact I was. Altering my conception of the time constraints also proved helpful. Tal Ben-Shahar has pointed out that the term “deadline” is about as negative as you can get. How true! He likes to use the term “lifeline” instead. For me, the renewed enthusiasm for my work came when I ignored the constraint entirely and thought only of the intrinsic value I derived from the activity itself, instead of simply when it was “due.” It also helped to stop focusing on how I would “use” the material I was reading later on. When we reconnect ourselves with the pleasure of the “means,” as opposed to only focusing on the “ends,” we adopt a mindset more conducive not only to enjoyment, but to better results. (I’m pleased to report that I did in fact turn my manuscript in on time, in case you’re wondering.)

Change Your Counterfact

Change your counterfact

Consider the following scenario I have presented to business leaders in countries around the globe, always to the same effect. Imagine for a moment that you walk into a bank. There are 50 other people in the bank. A robber walks in and fires his weapon once. You are shot in the right arm. Now if you were honestly describing this event to your friends and coworkers the next day, do you describe it as lucky or unlucky?