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Be happy through success or find success through happiness?

Be happy through success or find success through happiness?

The work of happiness researcher Shawn Acor has profound implications for how businesses approach employee productivity

Being successful won't necessarily make you happy, but according to Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage and CEO of GoodThink, happiness can help raise levels of success. It's somewhat of an inversion of what people typically believe – and it has implications for businesses that want to boost what their employees are capable of doing.

It's not just a feel-good sentiment either, but backed by psychological research conducted by Achor and others.

Achor told the Commonwealth Bank's two-day Wired for Wonder conference in Sydney that, contrary to many people's expectations, the external world only plays a limited role in people's long-term levels of happiness.

"Ninety per cent of our long-term level of happiness is… not based on the external world, but how your brain processes the external world," Achor said. "If we could change that lens some incredible things could happen.

“If you take four-year-old children, prime them to become more positive and have them put blocks of shapes together, it turns out the children in the positive category will put blocks together significantly faster than children in a negative/neutral category."

The pattern has been observed again and again: Happiness and optimism can be much better predictors of productivity than IQ and technical skills, Achor said. According to research undertaken in the late 1990s, doctors who had been primed to be more positive were 19 per cent faster and more accurate with coming up with a correct diagnosis and were more "intellectually flexible" when presented with a misdiagnosis.

"If I know everyone's IQ here in the room and I'm trying to predict your job successes, cross-industry, over the next five-year period, it turns out that IQ and technical skills are only responsible [for] and only predict 25 per cent of your job successes," Achor told the conference.

The major determinants for success are optimism, social connection and the way an individual perceives stress: As a threat or as a challenge.

Achor also claimed people with near-identical levels of skill and experience across industries can achieve wildly different outcomes based on how they view the world.

"I think we get it intuitively – that our brains work better when we’re positive – but I find I keep following the wrong formula for happiness and success in certain domains in my life,” he said. “I keep thinking if I work harder right now then I’ll be more successful. And as soon as I’m more successful, then I’ll feel happier right?

"That undergirds our managing styles, our parenting styles, our personal development styles."

This is the wrong way of looking at it, Achor said. "Every time you have a success, your brain changes the goalposts of what success looks like,” he added. "So if happiness is on the opposite side of success, it’s fleeting or we never get to it.

"Amazingly, what we found is if we raise your levels of success over the course of your life, your levels of happiness remain basically the same or if you get into a more stressed state, they actually lower.

"Flip around that formula though... if you raise your levels of happiness, it turns out every single business and educational outcome improves. Our success rates rise dramatically. Raising success does not raise levels of happiness but raising levels of happiness dramatically increases your success rates."

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