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Scientific Proof That Happiness Is a Choice

Plus 5 ways to create new habits to make you happier

By Shawn Achor

Happiness or success: Which comes first for you?

You probably don’t realize it, but you answer that question every time your brain says, "I'll be happy when I pay off my mortgage" or "when I fall in love again" or "when I can retire." The formula is clear: Work harder, then you'll be successful, then you'll be happier.

We learned this formula from watching movies and TV commercials, which are heavily invested in having us believe a certain product or lifestyle will make us happy. The whole rags-to-riches American dream is based on the belief that once you finally "make it," you'll be content. But we've had ample evidence that those celebrities and millionaires aren't so happy off-camera.

Why the Success-Then-Happiness Formula Doesn't Work

Actually, there are two reasons. First, every time we hit a success, our brain moves the goalpost of where success is. Second, your brain actually works in the opposite order. The happier your brain, the more successful you feel (and start to act) — not the other way around. Thus our society's fundamental formula for success and happiness is inherently flawed.

Here’s the good news. As I wrote in the January 2012 cover story for the Harvard Business Review Magazine, in which I made a research case for why happiness leads to success, if you reverse the formula by pursuing happiness first, you wind up with greater happiness and greater success.


I spent 12 years at Harvard researching happiness before leaving to study happiness in the real world. I have traveled to 48 countries over the last five years to study the connection between happiness and success. In doing so I discovered several ways in which happiness actually boosts success. Dopamine, for example, is a chemical released in the brain when you are happy. This drug not only makes you seek more happiness, it turns on every learning center in the brain, raising your mental focus and making you three times as creative, which, in turn, tends to lead to more and greater success.

As I've come to see it, happiness is a work ethic. You have to train your brain to be positive just like you exercise to strengthen your body. This may sound simple, but how easy is it to go to the gym? Happiness is not something that happens to you. Happiness is created.5 Habits to Create More Happiness

Want to try it? Pick one of the five habits below and commit to doing it every day for three weeks. My research shows that when we do that, we form new life habits. After just 21 days, these positive habits can become as automatic as brushing your teeth. Amazingly, neuroscientists have observed that when we create life habits, we literally change our brain chemistry.Researchers have found that daily routines decrease the cognitive costs of doing that activity, like brushing your teeth. Your brain follows the path of least resistance, so if you have engrained patterns, your brain follows those like rivers cut by decades of water flows. We can literally watch on brain scans as new habits and skills sets change your neural pathways.

  1. Write down three different things each day that you’re grateful for. Research shows this will significantly increase your level of optimism in just six months. Your brain is a "single processor" machine, meaning it can only process 12 bits of information per second. And yet our brains are constantly overloaded with millions of bits of information as we look at the world. So the more you train your brain to filter out the "noise" and start to focus on the positives, the less your brain fixates on stresses, hassles and complaints.
  2. Spend two minutes a day writing about one positive experience you had during the previous 24 hours. In The Happiness Advantage, I talk about the Tetris Effect, a syndrome that occurs when a person devotes so much time and attention to an activity that it overshadows his or her thoughts. We know that our brain gets stuck in patterns. If you scan the world for the stresses, hassles or tasks first, your brain is stuck in a negative Tetris Effect. Journaling causes your brain to develop a new cognitive pattern where you learn to scan for the positive first. This allows you to not only relive your most meaningful experiences of the day, it also perceives a trajectory of meaning running throughout your daily tasks. As a result, you will begin to find more meaning in your life.
  3. Exercise for at least 10 minutes a day. Think about it. After you work out, you not only have a release of feel-good endorphins, you feel like you have accomplished something. By exercising, you will train your brain to believe that your behavior matters. Researchers have found, for example, that people who exercise start eating healthier. Their brains say, "I have been successful in one domain, I bet I can be successful in another." It is not the endorphins that actually cause happiness, it's the repeated patterns of believing that your behavior matters. As  a result, people form constellations of positive habits to help prevent them from experiencing depression and raise their levels of general happiness. Exercise raises your levels of dopamine and helps you buffer against feeling like your behavior does not matter. Your brain then imports that belief to every task during the day.
  4. Meditate (or sit quietly, away from work) for two minutes, focusing on your breath going in and out. This helps you neutralize the negative effects of multitasking. We have developed a form of cultural ADHD in our society by trying to multitask with a single-processor brain. As a result, it's very difficult to focus on one task at a time. Even people who are amazing at multitasking lower their success rates on both tasks and increase their stress level. If, however, you start to meditate your brain gets better at devoting your finite resources down like a laser. You increase your accuracy and the amount of happiness you feel in the work you're doing. Meditation has also been found to alter gamma waves in the brain on EEGs, which are associated with the eureka experience — when we suddenly understand a previously incomprehensible problem or concept, discover something new, or are more creative. Meditation decreases stress and raises happiness.
  5. Send one quick email first thing in the morning thanking or praising someone in your social support network. This significantly increases your feeling of connection, which studies show is the greatest predictor of happiness.
Shawn Achor is the founder of Good Think, Inc., and the author of The Happiness Advantage and research that was featured on the cover of the Harvard Business Review in January 2012. In 2006 he was Head Teaching Fellow for "Positive Psychology," the most popular course at Harvard at the time. He also holds a Masters from Harvard Divinity School in Christian and Buddhist Ethics. Since 2007 he has spoken in 48 countries to audiences ranging from Wall Street bankers to students in Dubai to CEOs in Zimbabwe. Watch his TED video on the science of happiness. He's looking forward to his first PBS pledge drive lecture later in 2012 on how to increase happiness and success. Read More
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