Book Summary: The Happiness Advantage (2010) is based on ‘positive psychology’ which is the scientific study of human flourishing. The book details 7 principles which according to the author Shawn Achor, are key predictors of success and happiness. A former teacher’s assistant at Harvard University, Achor is a writer, speaker and founder of ‘GoodThink’ Inc.


Shawn Achor The Happiness Advantage Summary

The 7 Principles

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    • The Happiness Advantage
    • The Fulcrum and the Lever
    • The Tetris Effect
    • Falling Up
    • The Zorro Circle
    • The 20-Second Rule
    • Social Investment


Shawn Achor “The Happiness Advantage” Summary

Book Notes

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This summary of Shawn Achor’s ‘The Happiness Advantage’ will briefly describe the 7 principles outlined in the book. Each of the principles is summarized with a brief overview followed by notes in bullet format.


Summary: In the first principle, the author addresses some of the misunderstandings around the topic of happiness whilst also highlighting certain activities which increase one’s baseline happiness level.

  • “For untold generations, we have been led to believe that happiness orbited around success. That if we work hard enough, we will be successful, and only if we are successful will we become happy.”
  • “Success was thought to be the fixed point of the work universe, with happiness revolving around it. Now, thanks to breakthroughs in the burgeoning field of positive psychology, we are learning that the opposite is true.”
  • “… happiness is relative to the person experiencing it. This is why scientists often refer to it as “subjective well-being”—because it’s based on how we each feel about our own lives.
  • “So how do the scientists define happiness? Essentially, as the experience of positive emotions—pleasure combined with deeper feelings of meaning and purpose. Happiness implies a positive mood in the present and a positive outlook for the future.”
  • “Perhaps the most accurate term for happiness, then, is the one Aristotle used: eudaimonia, which translates not directly to “happiness” but to “human flourishing.”
  • This definition really resonates with me because it acknowledges that happiness is not all about yellow smiley faces and rainbows. For me, happiness is the joy we feel striving after our potential.”

Citing a 2005 research which analyzed over 200 scientific studies, Achor addresses the relationship between happiness and success. He writes:

  • “As the authors of the survey were able to say conclusively, “study after study shows that happiness precedes important outcomes and indicators of thriving.” In short, based on the wealth of data they compiled, they found that happiness causes success and achievement, not the opposite.”
  • “Scientists once thought happiness was almost completely hereditary (dictated by a genetically determined “set point”). But thankfully, they have since discovered that in fact, we have far more control over our own emotional well-being than previously believed.”
  • “While we each have a happiness baseline that we fluctuate around on a daily basis, with concerted effort, we can raise that baseline permanently so that even when we are going up and down, we are doing so at a higher level.”
  • “Each principle in this book contributes to at least one, if not many, of the things scientists have found to be most crucial to human happiness, like pursuing meaningful life goals, scanning the world for opportunities, cultivating an optimistic and grateful mindset, and holding on to rich social relationships.”
  • “As important as these larger shifts in thinking and behavior are, it’s equally important to realize that the Happiness Advantage also lies in the small, momentary blips of positivity that pepper our lives each and every day.”

In this section of The Happiness Advantage, the author, Shawn Achor outlines a set of activities that if practiced regularly, has been shown to boost one’s baseline levels of happiness. Here’s a summary of each activity:

  1. Meditate

Neuroscientists have found that monks who spend years meditating actually grow their left prefrontal cortex… Take just five minutes each day to watch your breath go in and out. While you do so, try to remain patient. If you find your mind drifting, just slowly bring it back to focus.”

  1. Find Something to Look Forward To.

“One study found that people who just thought about watching their favorite movie actually raised their endorphin levels by 27 percent.”

  1. Commit Conscious Acts of Kindness.

“A long line of empirical research, including one study of over 2,000 people, has shown that acts of altruism —giving to friends and strangers alike—decrease stress and strongly contribute to enhanced mental health.”

  1. Infuse Positivity Into Your Surroundings.

“Think about your office: What feelings does it inspire? People who flank their computers with pictures of loved ones aren’t just decorating—they’re ensuring a hit of positive emotion each time they glance in that direction.”

  1. Exercise

“Physical activity can boost mood and enhance our work performance in a number of other ways as well, by improving motivation and feelings of mastery, reducing stress and anxiety, and helping us get into flow—that “locked in” feeling of total engagement that we usually get when we’re at our most productive.”

  1. Spend Money (but Not on Stuff).

“Contrary to the popular saying, money can buy happiness, but only if used to do things as opposed to simply have things. While the positive feelings we get from material objects are frustratingly fleeting, money that’s spent on experiences, especially ones with other people, produces positive emotions that are both more meaningful and more lasting.”

  1. Exercise a Signature Strength.

“Each time we use a skill, whatever it is, we experience a burst of positivity. If you find yourself in need of a happiness booster, revisit a talent you haven’t used in a while.” 



Summary: Achor uses an analogy of the fulcrum and the lever to explain how one can adjust their mindset (fulcrum) in a way that gives them the power (lever) to be more fulfilled and successful.

The more you believe in your ability to succeed, the more likely it is that you will. Citing the research of prominent psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck, Achor tells us that whether or not someone believes their intelligence is changeable directly affects their achievement.

  • He adds: “Dweck found that people can be split into two categories: Those with a “fixed mindset” believe that their capabilities are already set, while those with a “growth mindset” believe that they can enhance their basic qualities through effort.”
  • “A growth mindset is not dismissive of innate ability; it merely recognizes, as Dweck explains, that “although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience.” ”
  • “Her research has shown that people with fixed mindsets miss choice opportunities for improvement and consistently underperform, while those with a “growth mindset” watch their abilities move ever upward.”

Achor leverages further research to show how our mindset about work affects our performance and satisfaction:

  • “Yale psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski has made a living out of studying how the mental conceptions we have of our jobs affect performance. After hundreds of interviews, she has found that employees have one of three “work orientations,” or mindsets about our work. We view our work as a Job, a Career, or a Calling.”
  • “People with a “job” see work as a chore and their paycheck as the reward. They work because they have to and constantly look forward to the time they can spend away from their job. “
  • “By contrast, people who view their work as a career work not only out of necessity, but also to advance and succeed. They are invested in their work and want to do well.”
  • “Finally, people with a calling view work as an end in itself; their work is fulfilling not because of external rewards but because they feel it contributes to the greater good, draws on their personal strengths, and gives them meaning and purpose.”
  • “Unsurprisingly, people with a calling orientation not only find their work more rewarding, but work harder and longer because of it. And as a result, these are the people who are generally more likely to get ahead.”
  • “Wrzesniewski’s most interesting finding is not just that people see their work in one of these three ways, but that it fundamentally doesn’t matter what type of job one has. She found that there are doctors who see their work only as a job, and janitors who see their work as a calling.”
  • “What this means is that a calling orientation can have just as much to do with mindset as it does with the actual work being done. In other words, unhappy employees can find ways to improve their work life that don’t involve quitting, changing jobs or careers, or going off to find themselves.”
  • “Organizational psychologists call this “job crafting,” but in essence, it involves simply adjusting one’s mindset. As Wrzesniewski says, “new possibilities open for the meaning of work” simply by the way “it is constructed by the individual.” ”

Achor details the process of shifting your mindset, in other words – moving the fulcrum toward positivity, he writes:

  • “In my consulting work with companies, I encourage employees to rewrite their “job description” into a “calling description.” I have them think about how the same tasks might be written in a way that would entice others to apply for the job.”
  • “The goal is not to misrepresent the work they do, but to highlight the meaning that can be derived from it. Then I ask them to think of their own personal goals in life. How can their current job tasks be connected to this larger purpose?”
  • “Researchers have found that even the smallest tasks can be imbued with greater meaning when they are connected to personal goals and values. The more we can align our daily tasks with our personal vision, the more likely we are to see work as a calling.”
  • He concludes: “Our power to maximize our potential is based on two important things: (1) the length of our lever—how much potential power and possibility we believe we have, and (2) the position of our fulcrum—the mindset with which we generate the power to change.
  • The more we move our fulcrum (or mindset), the more our lever lengthens and so the more power we generate. Move the fulcrum so that all the advantage goes to a negative mindset, and we never rise off the ground. Move the fulcrum to a positive mindset, and the lever’s power is magnified—ready to move everything up.” 



Summary: In times of stress or failure, the brain tends to get stuck in patterns that amplify negativity. In the third principle, Achor explains how to train the brain for positivity by cultivating gratitude, as well as journaling.

  • “In a study at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry, researchers paid 27 people to play Tetris for multiple hours a day, three days in a row.”
  • “For days after the study, some participants literally couldn’t stop dreaming about shapes falling from the sky. Others couldn’t stop seeing shapes everywhere, even in their waking hours.”
  • “When these kids played Tetris for an extended period, they became stuck in a cognitive pattern that caused them to involuntarily see Tetris shapes wherever they looked. This isn’t just a vision problem—playing hour after hour of Tetris actually changes the wiring of the brain.”

Achor labels this as the ‘Negative Tetris Effect’— someone who is unable to break a pattern of thinking or behaving negatively and provides examples of this in everyday life:

  • “Like the friend who walks into any room and immediately finds the one thing to complain about. The boss who focuses on what an employee continues to do wrong, instead of how he’s improving. The colleague who predicts doom before every meeting, no matter the circumstances.”

Achor writes about how the negative Tetris effect is more prevalent in certain occupations:

  • Over the past year, I worked with the global tax-accounting firm KPMG to help their tax auditors and managers become happier. Many of them spent 8 to 14 hours a day scanning tax forms for errors, and as they did, their brains were becoming wired to look for mistakes.
  • “In performance reviews, they noticed only the faults of their team members, never the strengths. When they went home to their families, they noticed only the C’s on their kids’ report cards, never the A’s. When they ate at restaurants, they could only notice that the potatoes were underdone— never that the steak was cooked perfectly.”
  • “Like the Tetris players who suddenly saw those blocks everywhere, these accountants experienced each day as a tax audit, always scanning the world for the worst.”
  • “Admittedly, being stuck in these patterns might well make someone very successful in a particular aspect of his or her work. Tax auditors should look for errors. Athletes should be competitive. Traders should apply rigorous risk analysis. However, the problem comes when individuals cannot ‘compartmentalize’ their abilities.”
  • “And when that happens, not only do they miss out on the Happiness Advantage, but their pessimistic, fault-finding mindset makes them far more susceptible to depression, stress, poor physical health, and even substance abuse.”
  • “On the other hand, imagine a way of seeing that constantly picked up on the positives in every situation. That’s the goal of a Positive Tetris Effect: Instead of creating a cognitive pattern that looks for negatives and blocks success, it trains our brains to scan the world for the opportunities and ideas that allow our success rate to grow.”

Achor tells us that this involves building a habit where you practice focusing on the positive by creating a list or through journaling:

  • “The best way to kick-start this is to start making a daily list of the good things in your job, your career, and your life. It may sound hokey, or ridiculously simple—and indeed the activity itself is simple— but over a decade of empirical studies has proven the profound effect it has on the way our brains are wired.”
  • When you write down a list of ‘three good things’ that happened in your day, your brain will be forced to scan the last 24 hours for potential positives—things that brought small or large laughs, feelings of accomplishment at work, a strengthened connection with family, a glimmer of hope for the future.
  • “In just five minutes a day, this trains the brain to become more skilled at noticing and focusing on possibilities for personal and professional growth, and seizing opportunities to act on them. “At the same time, because we can only focus on so much at once, our brains push out those small annoyances and frustrations that used to loom large into the background, even out of our visual field entirely.”
shawn achor the happiness advantage summary

Principle #4: FALLING UP

Summary: Failures and mistakes can be empowering if approached from the right mindset. This principle explains how to shift your perspectives about challenges and adversities through a method known as ‘Change Your Counterfact.’  

  • “The human brain is constantly creating and revising mental maps to help us navigate our way through this complex and ever-changing world—kind of like a tireless, overeager cartographer.”
  • “This tendency has been wired in us through thousands of years of evolution: In order to survive, we must create physical maps of our environment, map out strategies for getting food and sex, and map out the possible effects of our actions.”
  • “The most successful decisions come when we are thinking clearly and creatively enough to recognize all the paths available to us, and accurately predict where that path will lead. The problem is that when we are stressed or in crisis, many people miss the most important path of all: the path up.”
  • “People’s ability to find the path up rests largely on how they conceive of the cards they have been dealt, so the strategies that most often lead to Adversarial Growth include positive reinterpretation of the situation or event, optimism, acceptance, and coping mechanisms that include focusing on the problem head-on (rather than trying to avoid or deny it).”
  • “As one set of researchers explains, “it appears that it is not the type of event per se that influences posttraumatic growth, but rather the subjective experience of the event.” ”
  • “In other words, the people who can most successfully get themselves up off the mat are those who define themselves not by what has happened to them, but by what they can make out of what has happened. These are the people who actually use adversity to find the path forward. They speak not just of “bouncing back,” but of “bouncing forward.” ”

Achor provides a strategy to find the most effective path to navigate out of, or as he says – ‘falling up’ from adversities which he ‘Change Your Counterfact.’

  • “Consider the following scenario: Imagine for a moment that you walk into a bank. There are 50 other people in the bank. A robber walks in and fires his weapon once. You are shot in the right arm.”
  • “When I pose this same question to executives in my training sessions, the response is generally (and vociferously) divided about 70/30: 70 percent claim it is a supremely unfortunate event; the other 30 percent claim to have been very fortunate indeed.”
  • “People who are in the unfortunate group say something like the following: “I could have walked into any bank, at any time. This kind of thing almost never happens. How unlucky is it that I happened to be there? And that I was shot?!” ”
  • “These people cannot understand how a typical bank errand turned gunshot wound could be construed as fortunate. But then they hear the other side’s explanations of the same event: “I could have been shot somewhere far worse than my arm. I could have died. I feel incredibly fortunate.” ”
  • “Even though the responses differ dramatically, the point is that every brain in the room does the exact same thing. It invents—and that’s an important word—a “counterfact.” A counterfact is an alternate scenario our brains create to help us evaluate and make sense of what really happened.”
  • “Here’s what I mean. The people who saw the outcome as unlucky imagined an alternate scenario of not having been shot at all; in comparison, their outcome seems very unfortunate. But the other group invented a very different alternate scenario: that they could have gotten shot in the head and died, or that many other people could have been hurt.”
  • “Here is the crucial part: Both the counterfacts are completely hypothetical because it’s invented. More importantly, we actually have the power in any given situation to consciously select a counterfact that makes us feel fortunate rather than helpless.”
  • “And choosing a positive counterfact, besides simply making us feel better, sets ourselves up for the whole host of benefits to motivation and performance we now know accompanies a positive mindset.”

He concludes:

  • “So the next time you catch yourself feeling hopeless—or helpless— about some snag in your career, some frustration at your job, or some disappointment in your personal life, remember that there is always a path upwards—your only task is to find it.”
  • “And above all, remember that success is not about never falling down or even simply about falling down and getting back up over and over. But rather, it is about using that downward momentum to propel ourselves in the opposite direction, that is – falling up. 


Principle #5: THE ZORRO CIRCLE

Summary: In the midst of challenging situations, the rational part of the brain tends to get hijacked by the limbic system. The Zorro circle explains that through self awareness we can regain control from an emotional hijacking. Furthermore, by focusing on small and manageable goals (the first circle), can one expand their sphere of power.   

  • “As we go about our daily lives, our actions are often determined by the brain’s two dueling components: our knee jerk-like emotional system (let’s call him the Jerk) and our rational, cognitive system (let’s call him the Thinker).”
  • “The oldest part of the brain, evolutionarily speaking, is the Jerk, and it is based in the limbic (emotional) region, where the amygdala reigns supreme.”
  • “Thousands of years ago, this knee-jerk system was necessary for our survival. Back then, we didn’t have time to think logically when a saber-toothed tiger jumped out of the underbrush; instead, the Jerk readily leapt into action.”
  • “In the modern world, however, where life’s problems are usually more complicated than running away or being eaten, the Jerk’s reflexive responses can sometimes do more harm than good.”
  • “That’s why, over thousands of years of evolution, we have also developed the Thinker, that rational system in the brain that resides mostly in the prefrontal cortex. This is what we use to think logically, draw conclusions from many pieces of information, and plan for the future. The Thinker’s purpose is simple, but it reflects a huge evolutionary leap: think, then react.”
  • “Most of our daily challenges are better served by the Thinker. But unfortunately, when we’re feeling stressed or out of control, the Jerk tends to take over. This isn’t something that happens consciously. Instead, it’s biological.”

The author informs us how we can reclaim control from an emotional hijacking by purposefully engaging the ‘Thinker,’ this is our first goal or circle that we draw which involves cultivating self-awareness. He clarifies:

  • “Experiments show that when people are primed to feel high levels of distress, the quickest to recover are those who can identify how they are feeling and put those feelings into words.”
  • “Brain scans show verbal information almost immediately diminishes the power of these negative emotions, improving well-being and enhancing decision-making skills.”
  • “Once you’ve mastered the self-awareness circle, your next goal should be to identify which aspects of the situation you have control over and which you don’t.”
  • “When I worked with the Shanghai manager and his colleague… I asked them to write out all their stresses, daily challenges, and goals, then to separate them into two categories: things that they have control over and things they don’t.”
  • “Once my trainees are armed with a list of what is indeed still within their control, I have them identify one small goal they know they can quickly accomplish. Thus, by narrowing their scope of action, and focusing their energy and efforts, the likelihood of success increases.”
  • “Think of it this way: The best way to wash a car is to put a thumb over the hose’s spout so that only a fraction of the area is open. Why? Because this concentrates the water pressure, making the hose much more powerful. At work, the equivalent of this is concentrating your efforts on small areas where you know you can make a difference.”

Achor summarizes:

  • “The concept of the Zorro Circle is a powerful metaphor for how we can achieve our most ambitious goals in our jobs, our careers, and our personal lives.”
  • “One of the biggest drivers of success is the belief that our behavior matters; that we have control over our future. Yet when our stresses and workloads seem to mount faster than our ability to keep up, feelings of control are often the first things to go, especially when we try to tackle too much at once. If, however, we first concentrate our efforts on small manageable goals, we regain the feeling of control so crucial to performance.”
  • “By first limiting the scope of our efforts, then watching those efforts have the intended effect, we accumulate the resources, knowledge, and confidence to expand the circle, gradually conquering a larger and larger area.”


Principle #6: THE 20-SECOND RULE

Summary: Achor uses the concept of activation energy to clarify that by reducing the time and mental effort required to perform a certain activity, are we able to sustain the behaviors important for habit formation. The key to lasting change he says is to create small positive habits that pay dividends without continued effort.

Anchor recalls the time where challenged himself to play the guitar for 21 consecutive days, he writes:

  • “I decided to take up the guitar once again, since I already owned one and knew that I enjoyed playing it. Because common wisdom has long proposed that it takes 21 days to make a habit, I decided to make a spreadsheet with 21 columns, tape it to my wall, and check off each day I played.”
  • “By the end of the three weeks, I felt confident that (a) I would have a grid full of 21 check marks, (b) daily guitar playing would have become an automatic, established part of my life, (c) my playing would improve, and (d) I would be happier for it.”
  • “Three weeks later, I pulled the grid down in disgust. Staring up at four check marks followed by a whole lot of empty boxes was more discouragement and embarrassment than I needed.”
  • “The guitar was sitting in the closet, a mere 20 seconds away, but I couldn’t make myself take it out and play it. What had gone wrong? It turns out that the telling words here are make myself. Without realizing it, I had been fighting the wrong battle—one I was bound to lose unless I changed my strategy.”

A few weeks later, Anchor attempts his 21-day challenge again. But this time he uses a different strategy; he would place his guitar in the living room and as a result, eliminate the 20 seconds (and the additional effort) it would take him to bring the guitar out of the closet. He writes:

  • “I took the guitar out of the closet, bought a $2 guitar stand, and set it up in the middle of my living room. Nothing had changed except that now instead of being 20 seconds away, the guitar was in immediate reach. Three weeks later, I looked up at a habit grid with 21 proud check marks.”
  • “What I had done here, essentially, was put the desired behavior on the path of least resistance, so it actually took less energy and effort to pick up and practice the guitar than to avoid it. I like to refer to this as the 20-Second Rule, because lowering the barrier to change by just 20 seconds was all it took to help me form a new life habit.”

Achor summarizes the 20-second rule:

  • “In truth, it often takes more than 20 seconds to make a difference—and sometimes it can take much less—but the strategy itself is universally applicable: Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt, and raise it for habits you want to avoid. The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change.” 



Summary: Achor cites research to point out that one of the greater predictors of success is an individual’s social network. The 7th principle emphasizes the importance of cultivating meaningful connections with our peers as well as family members. 

  • “In the midst of challenges and stress at work, nothing is more crucial to our success than holding on to the people around us. Yet when the alarm bells at work go off, all too often we become blind to this reality and try to go it alone.”
  • “I have seen too many businessmen and -women fall prey to this miscalculation. I can remember hearing the trading bell ring at the end of one particularly vicious day in November of 2008. The Dow was way down; countless sums of money had been lost.”
  • “I watched as swarms of traders loosened their ties and walked dejectedly off the floor. But what struck me was that they didn’t retreat to the stronghold of their teams as they normally did after a day of trading. They all walked off silent and alone.”
  • “These were smart, capable people with MBAs from some of the world’s leading institutions, yet in a situation that required them to be firing on all cylinders, they were actively undercutting themselves. At the very time that they needed one another most, they were forgoing their most valuable resource: their social support.”
  • “One of the longest-running psychological studies of all time—the Harvard Men study—followed 268 men from their entrance into college in the late 1930s all the way through the present day.1 From this wealth of data, scientists have been able to identify the life circumstances and personal characteristics that distinguished the happiest, fullest lives from the least successful ones.”
  • “In the summer of 2009, George Vaillant, the psychologist who has directed this study for the last 40 years, told the Atlantic Monthly that he could sum up the findings in one word: “love—full stop.” Could it really be so simple?”
  • “Vaillant wrote his own follow-up article that analyzed the data in great detail, and his conclusions proved the same: that there are“70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people matter, and matter more than anything else in the world.” ”
  • “When we have a community of people we can count on—spouse, family, friends, colleagues—we multiply our emotional, intellectual, and physical resources. We bounce back from setbacks faster, accomplish more, and feel a greater sense of purpose. Furthermore, the effect on our happiness, and therefore on our ability to profit from the Happiness Advantage, is both immediate and long-lasting.”

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