The Happiness Advantage

Jack Butler, Surgical Imagineer in the Department of Surgery at Henry Ford Hospital, emailed me after hearing me talk about the importance of patient centeredness.

Jack wrote: “I am lucky often to be allowed to slip in and listen to the adults talking. Your insight that the various interviewees never brought up the patients – the center of our world – made me think about how do we get off track and, how do we get back on. I chose to be a happy person. It made me smarter. Enjoy this and always start with a chart.”

In Jack’s email was a link to the above video. The TEDx talk in the video is by Shawn Achor, CEO of Good Think, Inc., where he researches and teaches about positive psychology.

What an entertaining and enlightening talk. I would like to share with you some of the points made.

Our positivity or negativity is the lens that our brain uses to view the world and shapes our reality. Often times we assume that the external world or successes determine our positivity or happiness.

Studies have demonstrated that if one knows everything about an individual’s external world, you can only predict the individual’s level of happiness by 10%. The vast majority of the time, the way your brain processes the world determines our level of happiness.

Studies have also shown a strong correlation of positivity leading to success.

Some of these studies suggest that whereas 25% of success is associated with intelligence or talent level, 75% is determine by positivity (Horn and Arbuckle, 1988) or happiness, optimal levels of social support, and ability to see stress as a challenge not a threat (Estrada, Isen, and Young, 1997).

Many of us, me included, have all been taught that if we work harder, we will be more successful, and, if we are more successful, we will be happier. This is likely incorrect.

When we achieve success of any kind, our brain resets its target for success. The goals get higher to achieve the same effect. With success as a goal, we set a cognitive trap, seeking more success or more of any indicator of that success (money, power, titles, etc.), and happiness stemming from success becomes more and more elusive.

Our brains work in the opposite direction.

The happiness advantage is that positive outlooks make our brains work better, more creative, more intelligent, more energy.

Lyubomirsky (2005) showed the results of the happiness advantage:
• Better securing jobs
• Better keeping jobs
• More productivity (a 31%dvanteage over neutral or negative outlooks)
• More resilient
• Less burnout
• Less turnover
• Greater sales (37% advantage over neutral or negative outlooks)

Physicians studied showed a 19% advantage in making faster and more accurate diagnoses.

Dopamine release in the happy brain also stimulates learning centers.

Happiness breeds success.

I know that you will say some people are just happier than others. They come out that way. It is very difficult to change the basic outlook one has on life and happiness.

But is that correct? Can you make your self a more positive individual, and if so, how do I become happy and more positive?

Some remarkable studies show that you can train your brain to have lasting positivity changes.

Achor outlines the following training techniques:
• Expressing three gratitudes (Emmons and McCullough, 2003)
• Journaling (Statcher and Pennebaker, 2006)
• Exercise (Babyak et al, 2000)
• Meditation (Dweck, 2007)
• Random (conscious) acts of kindness (Lyubomirsky, 2005)

Two minutes a day for 21 consecutive days can rewire your brain to positivity and happiness. A simple exercise is to express three new gratitudes daily for 21 days. At that time you will scan the world for the positive and prepare yourself for success that will come from this new viewpoint.

Happiness breeds health.

A landmark study involving nuns was able to demonstrate how positive emotion has health benefits. Many other lifestyle variables are uniform in nuns, so reported differences can often be focused on certain key factors, like personality and outlook.

In studying the lives and deaths of the nuns and their emotional state, researchers were able to show positive emotion was correlated with longevity – 90% of the most cheerful quarter of nuns were alive at the age of 85, whereas only 34% of the least cheerful quarter lived to that age. Similarly, 54% of the most cheerful were alive at age ninety-four, versus 11% of the least cheerful.

A study in the Proceedings of the Academy of National Sciences in 2011 confirmed the health benefit of happiness.

“We had expected that we might see a link between how happy people felt over the day and their future mortality, but we were struck by how strong the effect was,” says Andrew Steptoe, Ph.D., the lead author of the study and a professor of psychology at University College London, in the UK.

Everything else being equal, happiness and satisfaction with your life leads to a healthier and more successful future and you are smarter. Without even going to Harvard!

I know the stress that many of you are under.

I do not profess to know the challenges that each of you face on a daily basis or the losses that you may have experienced. I do not want to minimize these challenges, but I do know the route to take may be closer at hand than you think. That route is not in a pill, a bottle, criticism of your self and others, or a negative view of the world.

As noted in prior Doc in the D posts, it might be in better eating, exercise and the friendship of others. And it very well may be in positive psychology rewiring your brain.

Now before you email me about going off the deep end of some New Age cult and send me packing to California or an ashram, try it.

I am also not interested in a long critique of the scientific merits of the studies presented.

I acknowledge these are not lead articles in the Journal of Clinical Investigation or the New England Journal of Medicine. But you have to admit there may be something to ponder.

As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right.”

Train your brain.

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One thought on “The Happiness Advantage

  1. I have found that gratefulness keeps one being happy.Even through tough times there are many things to be grateful for and you can force yourself to be in a thankful mode and think on good things rather than on the negative and be grumbling and critical. When you choose to be grateful than you learn to look at things differently and see the glass as half full rather than half empty. It will change your outcome and the way you live your life. People will be drawn to you rather then away. Even if you’re not exactly where you want to be in your life right now keep being thankful for the blessings you have and know that you have the ability to make choices that will change your future. Life is about choices-choose LIFE!

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