Why Our Formula for Success Is All Wrong

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Caroline Forsey
Caroline Forsey


Welcome to The Science Behind Success -- a new blog series that explores the best ways to help our brains perform better at work. With psychological research and interviews with leaders in the field, we're showing you how psychology can help you overcome workplace obstacles and excel in your career. Because a little mindset change could go a long way.


When Shawn Achor initially began his research at Harvard, he noticed something surprising -- Harvard students, who should have been ecstatic to be at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, were relatively unhappy.

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In his popular TED Talk, which has over 19 million views, Achor says, "I found that these students -- no matter how happy they were with their original success of getting into the school -- two weeks later their brains were focused, not on the privilege of being there, nor on their philosophy or physics, but on the competition, the workload, the hassles, stresses, [and the] complaints."

Perhaps you aren't all that surprised by his observation, after all. Imagine this scenario as it plays out in your own life. Consider the last time you got a promotion, lost five pounds, received an A in a difficult class, or landed your dream job.

How quickly did that initial rush of happiness dissipate?

My guess is -- almost immediately.

More than likely, you received the promotion and thought, "Okay, what's next?" You graduated college and worried about getting a job. You landed your dream job and became increasingly anxious that maybe you weren't cut out for it, or maybe you'd never rise up in the ranks like your peers.

Alternatively, maybe you lost five pounds and decided you wanted to lose ten more.

Ultimately, you've placed happiness over a horizon that Achor stresses you'll never reach.

Achor -- who's positive psychology research has been published in Harvard Business Review, The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and in his own books, including The Happiness Advantage -- has worked with over a third of Fortune 100 companies, as well as the NFL, the NBA, and the White House.

Additionally, he's been featured on Oprah, and his TED Talk is one of the most popular TED Talk videos of all time.

All of which is to say, I was undoubtedly thrilled when he agreed to speak with me about how he views our society's current formula for success, and why we've got it all wrong. Read on to learn his thoughts on happiness and success, as well as how you might use positive psychology tactics to become a better, more satisfied employee. shawn achor- author of the happiness advantage

Why Our Formula for Success is Inherently Flawed

In his TED Talk, Achor describes an all-too-familiar scenario, in which you think to yourself, If I work harder, I'll be more successful. And if I'm more successful, then I'll be happier.

This reasoning likely plays on an endless loop in your mind as you make professional and personal decisions. Because, if happiness wasn't a driving factor, why would you work quite so hard each and every day?

We use this "success = happiness" formula in school, at work, and even in our relationships, assuming working harder at parenting, for instance, could make you a more successful mother or father -- and, thus, a happier one.

But, in his TED Talk, Achor says our formula is both broken, and backwards -- "Every time your brain has a success, you just changed the goalpost of what success looks like … You got a good job, now you have to get a better job, you hit your sales target, we're going to change it. And if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there."

"We've pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon, as a society. And that's because we think we have to be successful -- then we'll be happier."

Achor continues to explain, "Our brains work in the opposite order. If you can raise somebody's level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a 'happiness advantage', which is your brain at positive performs significantly better than at negative, neutral, or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise. In fact, we've found that every single business outcome improves."

There's truth to his claim -- for instance, one study found happy employees are up to 20% more productive than unhappy employees. Additionally, happy salespeople produce 37% more sales than their unhappy counterparts.

Ultimately, our formula for success is backwards because we believe happiness to be a result of success, when really, success is much more likely to be a result of happiness. It isn't, "If I get a great job, then I'll be happy" at all -- instead, it's "If I'm happy, then I'll get a great job."

To further examine his claim, let's take a look at how Achor's research plays out in the real world.

The Real Effects of Positive Psychology in The Workplace

In 2009, Achor decided to test the ROI of happiness with the auditing and tax accounting firm KPMG. The timing was intentional -- Achor wanted to examine employees who were experiencing high stress, and the firm's employees were still dealing with challenges following the banking crisis in 2008.

I'd say that sounds like high stress to me.

In December, Achor administered a survey to 77 KPMG managers, evaluating their stress levels, social support, and optimism.

Following the survey, Achor provided a three-hour introduction to his positive psychology research, and how to apply the principles in the workplace, to half of those managers. He used the other half as a control group.

A week after the training, each employee was evaluated using the same survey again. Achor also tested KPMG employees four months later, to see whether his principles resulted in long-term improvements.

Interestingly, Achor found every positive metric, including life satisfaction, perceived stress, social support, perceived effectiveness at work, and work optimism, improved significantly for the positive psychology training group, compared to the control group.

Additionally, he found life satisfaction scores continued to rise steadily, and were significantly higher four months later than they were a week after the training.

Despite the validity of Achor's research, it might seem like a difficult theory to adopt. How, for instance, are you supposed to raise your happiness levels if you find yourself in a very unfulfilling role? If we often use external factors, like a promotion or a good grade, to raise our happiness levels, how are we supposed to remove those factors and find happiness in spite of our surroundings?

Fortunately, Achor's answer to happiness doesn't rely on any major changes. In fact, he stresses the importance of minor alterations, and has seen first-hand how the immense power of little steps can deeply accelerate your professional success -- and an entire company's.

Let's explore his tactics in-depth, now.

How to Increase Your Happiness (and Your Team's) Today

1. Tackle these five strategies for a period of 21 days.

In his TED Talk, Achor lists five critical strategies you can employ immediately to begin increasing your happiness levels, including:

  • Writing down three new things you're grateful for, for 21 days in a row
  • Journaling about one positive experience you've had over the past 24 hours, allowing your brain to relive it
  • Exercising
  • Meditating
  • Conducting random acts of kindness, such as writing one positive email praising or thanking somebody in your support network

These strategies are not random -- thinking of new things to be grateful for reminds your brain to scan its surroundings for the positive, not the negative. Meditation enables your brain to focus on a task at hand, and exercise tells your body that behavior matters.

Additionally, he encourages people to start with 21 days, or three weeks, as a jumping-off point. Three weeks feels manageable, but it's all it takes for you to begin to see results and slowly turn these actions into habit.

I asked Achor if, along with these five strategies, he had any other helpful suggestions to improve an employee's daily happiness. He told me, "In [my book] Big Potential, I describe research showing that your brain is weakest and has the least resources for the first and last 30 minutes of the day. So I create a 'mental moat' around my day -- during the weakest times, I protect my mindset by not checking email, news, or social media."

He also suggested making gratitude a communal activity. He told me when he worked with Orlando Health, "We got the leaders to start staff meetings by going around and having each member of the team say one thing for which they were grateful. This not only helps raise optimism, but actually, even more importantly, it raises social knowledge and social connection -- the greatest predictor of long-term happiness and performance."

2. Cultivate social connection, and foster it in your workplace.

There are also strategies you can employ to create a happier, more productive workplace. In particular, Achor notes the importance of implementing actions to encourage social connection.

Both providing and receiving connection is important, Achor told me, and it's equally critical you create a structure in which social connection can be fostered.

While it's important you have people to rely on and trust when times are challenging, Achor explained it's also vital to become a person to whom people can turn to when they need help or want connection.

Being someone who gives social connection, even just by saying hello to people in the office or asking someone to coffee, can significantly increase your own happiness and success. In fact, Achor found "the work altruists in the top quartile of social support provision had a 40% higher likelihood of promotion in a two-year period of time, and significantly higher happiness."

This makes sense -- being the person to whom people can turn to when they need help undoubtedly makes you more indispensable as an employee, and will also make you feel needed and important. This, in turn, will result in both increased happiness and increased productivity.

Additionally, he told me it's critical your leadership team value connection, and implement cultural changes to ensure social connection among employees is both possible and encouraged.

For instance, perhaps your business can hold more conferences or events for the entire company. Alternatively, as a leader, maybe you need to encourage more team members to speak up during meetings, or implement team-bonding outings to encourage social connection within your department.

3. Focus on small wins.

Oftentimes, a goal can feel daunting and even paralyzing in scope.

When this happens, it's critical you re-focus your mind on small victories.

Achor told me there are only three things that can accelerate the brain toward a goal:

  • Meaning
  • Proximity
  • Progress

First off, let's focus on meaning. Achor notes, "Embedded in every stress is meaning. If I tell you someone is failing English, you don't feel stress. If I tell you that your kid is failing English, you feel stress because there is meaning in that relationship. Acknowledge your stress. Reconnect to the meaning in the stress. [And] channel your response toward that meaning."

It's critical you're able to understand why you feel stressed, and why it's meaningful to you. This small step can help your brain rewire itself to use stress as a powerful source of motivation and energy, rather than a debilitating emotion.

Second, it's important you and your team are able to visualize your progress. Rather than focusing only on the end-goal, perhaps you can create weekly progress reports or slide decks to demonstrate your project's progress.

Finally, Achor stresses the importance of small wins, and says he makes those possible by "simulating the 'x-spot' in a marathon -- the last 0.2 of a mile where the brain feels that the goal is close, and releases extra resources."

To simulate the end of a marathon, you might create daily habits and goals to feel you're close to completing the task, rather than focusing solely on quarterly or yearly goals. For instance, perhaps each Sunday night you make a weekly to-do list, with tasks you can check-off each day.

4. Encourage employee check-ins.

At a large insurance company Achor worked with, he decided to take the employees off the phones for ten minutes a day to create a "huddle", in which six-to-eight employees would check-in with one another, rotate a leader for each day of the huddle, and talk about one thing for which they were grateful.

Achor told me, "With the traditional 'time worked = profit' model, they should have lost money. [Instead], over the next 18 months revenue improved by nearly 50%, and they had the highest rate of engagement change."

Alternatively, Achor worked with LinkedIn to create a program in which peers praised one another using a Globoforce platform. They found that three touchpoints of praise -- as opposed to one or two, which yielded minimal results -- resulted in a significant increase in retention rates, from 80% to 94%.

Ultimately, Achor told me the biggest challenge he's seen across industries, from the NFL to tax auditors, is mental: "Most people deep down don't think change is possible. They have been taught that they are their genes and their environment, and they expect to be the same person tomorrow as they are today. But all this research shows that if you make even tiny changes to your daily patterns and work routines, you reap a massive reward in terms of positive change."

The tactics and practices that allow you to find daily, sustainable happiness will differ depending on your individual preferences. However, Achor's research demonstrates the universal importance of finding time and space to become happier now, not later -- your success depends on it. 

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