“Happy people are not the smart people.”

I was talking to a stock trader shortly before giving a lecture at a large bank in New York.  I think he thought I was a fellow trader, but I felt a little awkward at this turn in the conversation…as my lecture topic was the research case for happiness. “Happy people are the ones who don’t get it,” he continued.  “Happy people just don’t understand how the markets are working or how the company is not working…”  These sentiments are not uncommon.  I believe we have a cultural assumption that happy people are anti-intellectual, delusional, or shallow.  We’ve all heard the saying that “ignorance is bliss.”  But, in truth, society has a fundamental ignorance about bliss.

Here’s part of the problem.  Everyone knows someone who is brilliant and unhappy.  And everyone knows someone who is successful and not happy.  I encountered both types frequently in my research at Harvard and in Fortune 500 companies, and when you see these two types of individuals, it is easy for us to assume that happiness has nothing to do with success or intelligence, or is even antithetical to it.  On the contrary, a decade of research suggests that both of those individuals (smart/unhappy, and successful/unhappy) are actually significantly under-performing what their brain can do.  We know this partly because if you raise their levels of positive emotion, their cognitive abilities and success rates go up.  The real story of happiness is that every person has a range of potential — in terms of intelligence, athletic ability, musicality, creativity, and productivity — and we are more likely to achieve the upper bounds of our brain’s potential when we’re feeling positive, rather than negative or neutral.  For instance, dopamine, a neuro-chemical released by our body which helps us experience enjoyment and happiness, has an ancillary benefit: it activates the learning centers of the brain, allowing our brains to become intellectual sponges.  You’ve seen this in the past.  If you crammed for a test in school and were stressed about it, you probably do not remember the information even three days later–even if that information would have been helpful at your job or if you had to battle Watson on Jeopardy.

But you probably remember song lyrics from a decade or more ago, and your brain retained that information even if it is useless to you (unless you do a lot of karaoke).  You remember that information partly because of the musical patterns and partly because your brain’s learning system was activated by dopamine.  In psychological experiments, a “prime” causes a person to experience an emotion; then we see how that new state affects their performance.  You can prime people to become more altruistic by giving them something small yourself.  When you prime a four year old child to be happy — by asking them to think of their happiest memory — their spatial memory increases dramatically, allowing them to put blocks together up to 50% faster than children at neutral.  Doctors primed to be positive come to the correct diagnosis 19% faster when primed to be positive as opposed to negative.  Salespeople have 37% higher levels of sales when optimistic.  In fact, a meta-analysis of employees at companies reveals that nearly every single business outcome improves when a brain is positive.  Happiness is a significant advantage.

In fact, happiness is the single greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy.  Only 25% of your job successes are predicted based upon intelligence and technical skills, though we spend most of our education and most companies hire based upon this category.  The “silent 75%” of long-term job success is based upon your ability to positively adapt to the world: optimism, social support creation, and viewing stress as a challenge instead of as a threat.  Perhaps that stock trader meant that happy people are shallow and just don’t realize that there are problems in the world.  We often erroneously think that the “deep” people are the ones who brood.  The darker the movie, the less redemptive the ending, the more artistic people think it is.  The more messed up the painter or the musician’s life, the more creative we assume they were.  But this is not true.  It requires an incredible amount of depth to be positive and hopeful in the midst of adversity.  In truth, negative emotions stem from the most primitive part of the brain that responds to fear and threat.  Seeing the negative is easy; formulating a cognitive strategy about how to positively respond to challenge requires much higher-order functioning in the brain.

Researchers like Barbara Fredrickson have found that when we are negative, our brains resort to “fight or flight” thinking about the world.  But when we are positive, our brains “broaden and build” allowing us to create new patterns of success and widen the amount of possibilities our brains can process.  If you want to see what your brain is capable of today at work or school, try to raise your level of happiness before tackling a challenge.

Given all the research about the happiness advantage and how positive brains reap higher business outcomes, the conclusion is clear: it is smart to be happy.


Shawn Achor is the founder of Good Think, Inc. and the author of The Happiness Advantage. In 2006, he was Head Teaching Fellow for “Positive Psychology,” the most popular course at Harvard at the time. He holds a Masters from Harvard Divinity School and has spoken in 45 countries to a wide variety of audiences, including bankers on Wall Street, students in Dubai, and CEOs in Zimbabwe.