For an old misanthrope such as yours truly, books on positive psychology are equally a challenge and a good idea. With The Happiness Advantage Harvard graduate and fellow consultant Shawn Acor did a wonderful job of making an elegant, simple, extensive and well-referenced argument for the power and applicability of positive psychology. Whether as a surprisingly pragmatic refresher for old-timers, or as an easily accessible introduction for newbies, it’s well worth the read.

Here are some of my personal highlights:

  1. Martin Seligman describes happiness as a combination of pleasure, engagement and meaning. Aristotle used the term eudaimonia (human flourishing) – Acor defines happiness as the “joy we feel striving after our potential”.
  2. Negative emotions cause fight or flight response, positive emotions a broaden and build response (Barbara Fredickson)
  3. Study participants who did five acts of kindness during a day reported significantly higher levels of happiness as compared to control group even days after the exercise was over (Sonja Lyubomirsky)
  4. Reducing TV consumption of negative and violent content not only increases happiness but also improves the accuracy of how realistically we estimate real life’s risks and rewards. (Gerber, Gross et al.)
  5. Spending money does improve happiness – but only if we spend it on experiences rather than on possessions. (Robert Frank)
  6. Exercising a signature strength, such as a simple skill or a strength of character, that is intimately linked to who we are increases positivity.
  7. To be successful corporate teams need a ratio between positive vs. negative interactions of at least 2.9013. The ideal ratio for best performance is 6 to 1. (Marcial Loasada)
  8. Placebo effect: Japanese researchers applied fake poison ivy plant to the skin of 13 students. Surprisingly, all developed a typical rash. Then the researchers applied real poison ivy but told the students it was a harmless plant – now only 2 developed symptoms. (S. Blakeslee)
  9. Exercise to give boring tasks meaning: Write a chore on a peace of paper, draw an arrow and ask yourself “What is the purpose of this task”. Write the answer down. If the answer is not satisfactory yet, draw another arrow and repeat this process as many times as necessary until you find something meaningful.
  10. Priming: Researchers called the same game either “Wall Street Game” or “Community Game” – the different names alone significantly influenced the participants’ willingness to cooperate during the game. (Liberman, Samuels, Ross)
  11. Pygmalion effect: The beliefs of a manager about their team strongly affect their behaviour and performance. Managers should ask themselves if they believe that 1) Their team members can learn and improve 2) they are willing to learn and improve and to find meaning and fulfilment and 3) how my words and behaviours match those beliefs in day-to-day life.
  12. Tetris effect: Players, who play Tetris for many hours often suddenly discover Tetris shapes in real life. I.e. as they walk through a city they may find themselves playing with the idea of how building A fits in between buildings B and C. Our minds constantly scan for patterns. If we train ourselves to scan for flaws and faults, just like playing Tetris trains us to scan for certain shapes, then we will find those flaws everywhere (and miss other patterns!). If we train ourselves to look for opportunities we will keep finding those too. William James: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.”
  13. Few things are as important to our wellbeing as gratitude. (Robert Emmons)
  14. Tetris effect exercise: at the end of each day write down three good things that have happened. (in a study participants engaged in this exercise for one week. The benefits continued even long after participants had stopped the exercise. (Seligman, Steen, Park, Peterson)
  15. Celebrating mistakes and failures and even making them intentionally can help companies to be more successful. (Schoemaker, Gunther)
  16. Our explanatory style – how we give meaning to events – impacts success and happiness. Optimistic explanatory styles see difficult events as local and temporary (“Some things go well, others don’t and I can overcome this challenge”), pessimistic explanatory styles tend to interpret those events as global and permanent. (“This didn’t go well, so the whole project is doomed to fail. Things will never get better, it’s always been like that.”)
  17. Knowing that what we do matters and that we have control over our lives belong to our strongest drivers. When complexity and workloads overwhelm us, it helps to zoom in on small goals. We begin to take action and regain a sense of confidence.
  18. The feeling of lack of control (such as imposed deadlines) has been found to increase risk of coronary heart disease by 50%. (Syme, Balfour)
  19. A quick way to calm down when distressed is to verbalise the experienced feelings.
  20. Common sense does not equal common action – i.e. we know that cigarettes are bad for us, or that browsing the internet randomly wastes time, yet we often find ourselves engaging in activities that don’t serve us. (Aristotele: “To be excellent we cannot simply think or feel excellent, we must act excellently.”)
  21. Humans are bundles of habits. (William James)
  22. Ego depletion: Will power is an ineffective change agent (think new year’s resolutions, diets etc.), because as experiments have shown, the more we rely on our limited self-control strength, the more it gets depleted. (Roy Baumeister)
  23. Passive leisure, like watching TV, browsing the Internet or Facebook, albeit more convenient than more rewarding activities such as sports, playing an instrument or reading, only entertain us for approx. 30 min. Then they begin to drain our energy and create “psychic entropy” (apathy).
  24. At work we get interrupted on average every 11 min. The recovery from the distraction takes almost as long and we experience a loss of concentration and flow. (C. Thompson) Our modern world is flooded with potential distractions.
  25. Researches cut ice cream consumption in a cafeteria by 50% by just closing the ice cream cooler lid. (Meyers, Stunkard, Coll) The same effect was observed, when people had to join an additional cue for chips and candy. (Meiselman, Hedderly, Staddon, Pierson, Symonds). Effort reduces behavioural engagement.
  26. Make good habits easy and bad ones hard to act on (i.e. fill the fridge only with healthy food options, so that they are at hand, making access to junk food more difficult. Or, prepare sports clothing the night before, so that you can put them on in the morning and go without deliberation).
  27. The key to behavioural change: second-order decisions – planning and deciding ahead of time when we will decide what. Sticking to these rules is important at the beginning of a behavioural change. Once a new habit has been formed they can be loosened.
  28. Identify the activation energy for a desired habit (choices, mental and physical effort) and then reduce it as much as possible, so that the use of willpower is minimised.
  29. Relationships are the most important investment of all. In times of challenge (i.e. restructuring, mergers) we often instinctively withdraw and reduce the amount of time and effort that we invest into our social bonds. People who do the opposite are not only happier but also significantly more likely to succeed.
  30. Researchers found in a study called “Very happy people”, that the happiest 10% of us had only one significant characteristic in common (independently of climate, wealth, fitness levels, race, gender, age etc.): strong social relationships. (Diener, Seligman)
  31. In a corporate setting social connections predict increase in individual learning, team performance, energy, focus and levels of engagement.
  32. Jane Dutton found that social contacts don’t always need to be deep and meaningful to have a positive effect. Even brief encounters can lead to “high quality connections”
  33. Gallup estimates that U.S. companies lose $360 billion each year due to lost productivity caused by poor relationships between employees and their supervisors / line-managers.
  34. Supporting people in good times, such as sharing and celebrating positive news, has an even stronger effect on the quality relationship, than support each other in bad times. Especially, when each side responds to the positive news actively constructive by encouraging, specific comments and follow-up questions. (Shelly Gable)
  35. To take advantage of the power of social support, introduce new employees to people within their team as well as to people from other departments.
  36. Showing gratitude (thank you!) triggers a mutually reinforcing growth of relationships and motivation. (Algoe, Haidt, Gable)
  37. The ripple effect: our own happiness impacts on people that are connected to us within 3 degrees, thus, by improving our own condition we positively impact the lives of approx. 1000 other people. (Fowler, Crhistakis)
  38. Emotions are very contagious – positive and negative (Goleman). Psychologists refer to unique emotional qualities of a group “group affective tone” which goes hand in hand with “emotion norms”, that are reinforced by group members – such as organisational departments. (Kelly, Barsade)

© Ragnar Speicher