Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Happiness Advantage

Shawn Achor applied to Harvard on a dare. To his surprise, he was actually accepted. So delighted was he with Harvard, that he stayed there for the next twelve years—first as an undergraduate, then a graduate student, then to research his "happiness project."

Achor was intrigued by the difference between his attitude of feeling blessed and lucky to be at Harvard and the stress he routinely saw his classmates go through. Those that weren't happy tended to cut themselves off from their colleagues and friends, and even though they worked just as hard or harder as their classmates, they tended to suffer academically as well as socially. One student, for example, decided to spend all her time at the library, cutting off her friends so she could study. Another opted for study groups, sometimes taking time to enter an Oreo-eating content now and then. You'll never guess which student fared better academically and reported feeling more well-adjusted by the end of the semester.

I confess I used to be the worst example of the first kind of student. I have no problem with the discipline side to creativity—it's the fun part I struggle with. I have a feeling that, had I been a monk in 16th century England, I would have had no problem flogging myself to sleep every night.

Some of this is my genetic makeup. Some of it, I think, is that somewhere along the way I lost the trick of knowing how to be happy. I let the world steal it. It's taken time, and a lot of soul searching, but I can say that these days, both mentally and emotionally (alas, not physically ... at least not yet) that I'm better off than I was a year ago. I've had to learn how to train myself to be happy. THE HAPPINESS ADVANTAGE, by Shawn Achor, confirms my belief that a person can indeed do this. Happiness comes more easily to some people than others. For some of us, happiness is a skill that has to be developed. And it can be.

There's a growing body of empirical evidence that being happy actually increases intelligence and creativity. I think I've found this to be true in my own life: when I have money in the bank, the words and pictures definitely flow much more easily, and the ideas are better. It's when I'm down to my last nickel that I'm not writing, and instead incessantly searching the Internet for the next gig. Those are not happy times.

But I used some time during this last downturn to start examining previously unexamined beliefs. I think it's paid some dividends. It's funny how our most irrational beliefs—some we're not even aware that we have—can power our lives in ways we cannot see.


Old Kitty said...

I have to be completely at peace with myself to be creative - but I also have to be on the edge to push myself to be creative! I guess I can't have pleasure without the pain - well for me anyway! Take care

stacy said...

Oh yeah, Kitty, I totally relate to that dichotomy. : )

Whirlochre said...

The problem with happiness is that we often view it as a one way arrangement - ie that there are things, events, opportunities, whaddevah, that will make us happy if only they would happen.

Sometimes they do, and that's great, but the rest of the time they kind of have to be forced.

And, yes, spotting your own habitual collusion with the forces of disenchantment (whatever the current status of your 'fortune') helps a lot.

Nice visuals on the blahg, btw.

stacy said...

Thanks, Whirl!

That's actually the attitude about happiness that the book addresses. We think happiness is this distant goal in the future that will be fulfilled when we become fabulously wealthy, or get our novel published, etc.

Achor uses lots of great examples to show how unhappy people miss opportunities right in front of them not because they're stupid, but because they're unhappy. We see it all the time over here with lottery winners. One guy won something like $47 million, and ten years later it was all gone because he squandered it, plus (I think it was) his daughter was murdered, and it had something to do with his money. I think, had he been a happier person, he would have made different decisions with that money. I don't think the money made him happier.

It's not like happiness is some Zen state where it takes years to get there, or something we'll be if we just beat ourselves up enough for wanting more than we already have. I really do think it's a skill that can be developed. That's the way it's working for me, anyway.