Last week I promised to tell you about something that can increase your productivity thirty-one percent. Here it is!

A month or so ago someone sent me a link to a video of a TEDTalk by Shawn Achor, a former professor at Harvard who went on to found a corporate strategy firm that researches and applies the principles of positive psychology within organizations. The video is a lot of fun and worth watching if only for the laughs. But there’s more to it than just the jokes.

Near the end, Achor says something that should make everyone from the CEO of a Fortune 500 company to an independent professional sit up and take notice:

“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 a brain at negative or neutral or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise. In fact, what we found is that every single business outcome improves. Your brain at positive is 31% more productive than your brain at negative, neutral, or stressed.“

According to Achor, then, our usual way of thinking that “If I only work harder, I’ll be more successful and then I’ll be happier” is completely backwards. Instead, if we put the focus on being happier, we are more likely to be successful because of that “Happiness Advantage.”

I find this fascinating and not a bit surprising. Think about it. When you’re in a good mood, don’t you get more done almost effortlessly? And when do those great ideas come to you: when you are under deadline pressure or worrying about whether you have enough clients or when you’re relaxing in the shower?

Of course, the trick is figuring out how to get happier. A good place to start is the exercises Achor’s firm puts employees of its clients through for twenty-one days in a row to get those big productivity gains, which he rattles off at the end of the video:

  • Every evening write down three new things from the day that you are grateful for.
  • Journal about one positive thing you’ve experienced in the past day.
  • Exercise. (The most effective kind of exercise here is the kind that gets your heart rate up. People who study this kind of thing recommend exercising four to five days a week, half an hour at a time. That is ideal, but I usually recommend just doing what you can even if it is only ten minutes here or there. It’s a start and it can raise your mood.)
  • Meditate.
  • Once a day write a letter or email praising or thanking someone in your social support network for something they’ve done.

Now, some of you will watch this video and come away unconvinced. The idea that success, particularly monetary success, is the road to happiness is so ingrained in our culture that it can be hard to wrap our minds around the idea that we will be more successful if we teach ourselves to be happier first. So for you doubters out there, I’ve got some more research.

Some of those positive psychology researchers looked at people who get raises or win big prizes. What they have found is that the initial boost to the person’s mood lasts only as long as it takes him to get used to his newfound status—from a few months to, at most, a couple of years. Most people go back to their pre-winning mood, reverting to what has been normal for them, within about six months. (The only time that having more money improves someone’s mood over the long term is when it moves them out of poverty and up into a middle-class lifestyle. That kind of change can make a huge difference.)

So it turns out that having a shorter commute actually leads to higher levels of happiness than getting a raise. Yet most people take the raise over the commute. Go figure.

Please note that happiness is not the same as the absence of unhappiness. A neutral state does not get you Achor’s “Happiness Advantage.”

However, if you find yourself generally down or stressed out you will probably have more difficulty getting to that happier state. If it’s bad enough, of course, get yourself to a therapist. Now you know there is a good business reason for taking care of that problem.

If you don’t need a therapist but could raise your mood or lower your stress a bit, you could try my 3-Legged Stool: (i) exercise (yep, this one does double duty in getting you past unhappiness and into the happiness realm); (ii) eat right; and (iii) get more face time with your social network. There is a lot more I can say about this. Since it is so important, I’ll devote next week’s tip to giving more details about the 3-Legged Stool.

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