Ch. 5: Happiness and Success at Harvard

When Shawn Achor was a graduate student in psychology at Harvard, he served as an academic proctor, a role that required him to have hundreds of conversations with the incoming freshmen.

During their informal get-togethers, Achor began to notice traits that set the most successful young Harvard students apart. It was an insight that, in time, would completely overturn all his previous assumptions about success.

He realized that the Harvard freshmen who were most likely to excel were not those who buried themselves in the library stacks, grimly intent on grinding out good grades. The most successful students were the happiest and most socially adept. They interacted with their peers, formed study groups, continually asked questions, and approached their studies in a spirit of joyous exploration. They were connected, engaged, and were skilled communicators.

Achor is the author of an influential best-selling book, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work.

Achor ended up teaching the most popular course at Harvard, on the principles of positive psychology. Today he applies his findings about the links between happiness and success to help corporate executives advance their careers and transform their companies’ cultures.

Achor realized that when it comes to success and happiness, our traditional assumptions are backwards.

Most people assume that they will be happy after they have achieved material success. But Achor found that the opposite is true — that people who are happy are far more likely to be successful in their careers.

These findings confirm a discovery of neuroscientists, that people with high levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex of their brains — the brain area where happy attitudes, positive expectations, will power, and the ability to form and persevere in achieving long-term goals are localized — are more successful in their lives than those with weaker prefrontal cortex activation.

Neurophysiologist Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., director of the Lab for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, is one of the world’s foremost experts on the prefrontal cortex. When Davidson studied the brain patterns of college students, he found that those with higher levels of prefrontal cortex activation were uniformly better at setting and achieving goals and had fewer problems with drugs and alcohol, compared to students with lower prefrontal activity.

To put it differently, our brains are wired so that happiness and success go together. Qualities that are essential for success — will power, planning, perseverance — are localized in the same brain area where upbeat, happy attitudes reside. The very structure of our brains tells us that happiness and success are inseparable.

Achor would eventually confirm that the happiness principle is true not only for Harvard students, but for successful people in many fields.

The traditional expectation that happiness is a reward that we can expect to enjoy after we’ve achieved success, defined as a good job, a beautiful home, an impressive income, and a shiny car, was simply wrong. The most successful people are those who are happy from the get-go; thus the title of Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage.

If you were to ask school administrators to name the most important factor for school success, many would probably say: “Good study habits.” But a mounting body of evidence suggests that this is only a small part of the school success equation, albeit an important one.

The Living Wisdom Schools have shown that the best determinants of school success more closely reflect Achor’s findings: a happy learning environment, permeated by a spirit of joyful exploration, where each student can be challenged to learn at his or her own pace.

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