Shawn Achor’s “The Happiness Advantage”: Book Review, Notes + Analysis

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > Effective Thinking > Psychogy

Overall Rating: ★★★★★★★ (7/7) (life-changing)

Per-Hour Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)

Readability: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)

Challenge Level: 1/5 (None) | ~230 pages ex-notes (258 official)

Blurb/Description: Stop me if you’ve ever thought “I’ll be happy when… X.”  But X happens, and you’re not happy.  Why?  Harvard-trained positive psychologist Shawn Achor investigates with humor, research, and thoughtful, practical analysis.

Summary: The Happiness Advantage will always hold a place in my heart because it is, moreso than any other, the book that got me into reading hardcore in 2014.  I’d read plenty before that, of course, but THA opened my eyes to the fact that reading to obtain the right mental models could literally change my life.  Which is what THA did way back when.

A friend recommended Shawn Achor’s hilarious TED Talk when I told him I was feeling down; obviously after watching the presentation I couldn’t wait to read the book, and after I read the book, I um, y’know I’m not even going to tell you how many copies of Achor’s books Amazon confirms I purchased and gave to friends (let’s just say that it’s double digit, okay?)  I sent Achor fanmail that, with hindsight bias, is… a little cringe-worthy.  It is somewhat of a wonder to me, still, that he actually responded with a nice email rather than a restraining order.

Like music you liked when you were in middle school, though, first isn’t always best; I will neither confirm nor deny whether I still occasionally listen to Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” (ahem).  I’ve read THA plenty of times before, but after reading more psychology books than half of professional counselors have probably read, does The Happiness Advantage still stand up to my now more-mature scrutiny?

Shawn Achor is a thoughtful researcher and a hilarious storyteller. This is one of those rare books that’s highly educational AND laugh-out-loud funny.  Photo credit: Goodthink website (company founded by Achor, his wife Michelle Gielan, and his sister “Amy the Unicorn”)

Highlights: In a word, yes; in two more, astonishingly so.  The book is funny and readable, but also serious psychology: this isn’t positive-thinking self-help pablum of the type Dan Harris rightly despises, but rather a research-driven tour through mental models like agencyschema, the growth mindsetactivation energy, and stress, with brief touches on plenty of others like local vs. global optimizationstatus quo bias, and so on.

This book bridges a few difficult gaps: it’s concise without losing important nuance; it’s focused without being repetitive and losing breadth of scope.  Even though I’ve since discovered books that go deeper into some of the specific topics Achor references, he is probably best-in-class on agency (excluding Stephen Covey) and pretty close to best-in-class on schema and activation energy (if only because there are more psychology books/authors addressing schema in different ways, and Sunstein/Thaler have a killer activation energy book in Nudge.)

This is a book that should be on everyone’s shelf.

Lowlights: None really; there are some topics that are fleshed out in more nuance in other books, but this book isn’t aiming to be all things to all people.  I will note that I think it is possible for some readers to overinterpret this book… however, I do have some more incremental disagreements with Before Happiness (particularly Achor’s attacks against defensive pessimism.)

Mental Model / ART Thinking Points: contrast biasagencyschema, the growth mindsetactivation energy,stresslocal vs. global optimizationstatus quo biasstructural problem solving, hedonic adaptation

You should buy a copy of The Happiness Advantage if: you have a pulse, and you’re not a prehistoric rabbit.  (If you are, please be advised that Achor specifies in Before Happiness that he did not write this book for animals that are low on the food chain, and your cute little bunny ears should continue fleeing in terror every time you think you hear a saber-toothed tiger.)

Reading Tips: None… do consider reading Before Happiness as well.  also watch Achor’s HILARIOUS TED Talk.  The audience is in stitches and you will be too.

Pairs Well With:

Before Happiness” by Shawn Achor (BH review + notes).  I used to like BH more than THA, but my view has flip-flopped since then, and I now prefer THA.  Still, BH is new and fresh and totally worth reading; check out the review.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy” by Dr. Judith Beck (CBT review + notes).  This book provides a much more technical/theoretical/therapeutical look at schema, as well as a lot of practical strategies for how to alter it for the better.

Mistakes were Made (but not by me)” by Tavris/Aronson (MwM review + notes).  Achor referencesfundamental attribution error as well as commitment bias (citing research by Elliot Aronson for the latter); T/A basically wrote the book on these topics.

Deep Survival” by Laurence Gonzales (DpSv review + notes) as well as Surviving Survival by Laurence Gonzales (SvSv review + notes).  Gonzales addresses a lot of the same questions – how should we deal with the filter between us and the world, and how do we bounce back from adversity? – in the context of life-or-death survival situations.

The Up Side of Down” by Megan McArdle (UpD review + notes).  This engaging, wide-ranging book focuses loosely on how failure can be transformed into success, citing research and case studies ranging from breakups in Manhattan to prisons in Hawaii.

10% Happier” by Dan Harris (10H review + notes).  I’ve tried and failed at meditation a million times, but I still love this book: it’s funny, heartfelt, honest, and you’ll get value out of it whether or not you end up taking up meditation.  It’s a great explanation of mindfulness.

Nudge” by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler (NDGE review + notes).  A phenomenal book about how activation energystatus quo bias, and structural problem solving can be harnessed to help us all make better choices.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey (7H review + notes).  A lot of the concepts here are mirrored in 7 Habits, one of my favorite books of all time.

Reread Value: 4/5 (High)

More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):

IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK.  Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive.  It was primarily created for my own personal reference.

Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference.  Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.”  Do so at your own peril.

I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases.  First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.  

Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall.  However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.

Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made.  I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning.  Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.

Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.

Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.

Note: I was working off a Kindle copy of this book so I’m not sure if pages match up to the published version.

Pages 3 – 4: The premise of “ The Happiness Advantage is the idea that happiness is a function of agency and schema, not external circumstances.  Achor begins the book by noting the common societal “when-then” approach to happiness: when I get that raise, I’ll be happy… when I get into college, I’ll be happy…

This is the “hedonic treadmill” or hedonic adaptation – a form of contrast bias – Achor points out, rightly, that:

With each victory, our goalposts of success keep getting pushed further and further out, so that happiness gets pushed over the |cognitive| horizon. - Shawn Achor Click To Tweet

Page 6, Page 8: As a student and later advisor at Harvard, Achor noticed that some students responded to the same set of circumstances (a difficult workload but lots of opportunities) in very different ways.  

He notes a student newspaper poll that found that up to 80% of Harvard students suffered at least occasional depression, and half suffer from severe depression; he contextualizes these observations with broader statistics about the prevalence of depression and the depressing non-prevalence of employee engagement.

The question: why?

Pages 10 – 11: this part of the book isn’t quite as funny as his TED Talk… “This graph is the reason I get excited and wake up every morning… and this graph doesn’t even mean anything.  It’s fake data […] there’s one weirdo in the room. I saw you earlier.” 😛

Achor notes that one downside of typical statistical research methodologies* in traditional psychology is that they can lead to an implicit rephrasing of the question to the average: not “how fast can we read?” but “how fast does the average child read.”  

He goes on to note that much of traditional psychology research starts with the paradigm of identifying “abnormalities” and making people “normal,” but normal doesn’t mean best.

* See also Jordan Ellenberg’s “ How Not To Be Wrong ( HNW review + notes) for more on p-hacking, the limits of statistical significance, and other interesting material on this topic.

Pages 13 – 14:  There’s an identity / ego issue here, in the sense that when you build your identity on external validation and achievements, at some point you’ll peak out.  T

his is a surprisingly common phenomenon in the finance world, where net worth or bonus amount is often viewed as a scorecard… which can lead to people being disappointed by huge checks.  See, for example, Turney Duff’s “The Buy Side.”

Achor’s point is that happiness is measured relative to expectations rather than circumstances; we can often optimize for things that don’t actually maximize our utility.

99% of Harvard students do not graduate in the top 1%. - Shawn Achor Click To Tweet

Page 21: Achor notes that happiness is a learnable skill and training your brain to scan the world for positives, rather than just negatives, has lasting positive impacts.

Page 23: I’m really hoping the “six people reading journal articles” phenomenon doesn’t apply to PAA.  😛

Page 24: Achor on the fixed vs. growth mindset:

Happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change; it is the realization that we can. - Shawn Achor Click To Tweet

That’s actually a terrible definition of happiness but it’s a nice quote.

Pages 25 – 29: Achor on learning, habit, and neuroplasticity: he cites examples ranging from monkeys getting better at grabbing food through tiny holes, to braille-readers’ brains, to the way cabbies’ hippocampi expand thanks to “The Knowledge.”  This NYT piece about The Knowledge is really great long-form that is worth reading.

Also, ahahahaha.  

We don’t hire monkeys in our organizations... at least not on purpose. - Shawn Achor Click To Tweet

I don’t know about that one, Peter-man…

Pages 32, 34: Achor cites a sleep researcher who, despite his own research, didn’t sleep.  Achor notes this as an example of the difference between having knowledge and changing behavior.

On the topic of sleep, see Till Roenneberg’s fantastic “ Internal Time ( IntTm review + notes), as well as some of his presentations… as well as Dr. Matthew Walker’s “ Why We Sleep ( Sleep review + notes), my candidate for most important book of the century (no hyperbole).

Achor notes the importance of applying what you read, rather than just reading… easy to say and, of course, harder to do.  I know plenty of people (one in particular) who read a ton but view themselves as above needing to apply it.

Page 39: Achor defines happiness in a fairly specific way, analogous to the Aristotelian term eudaimonia – “human flourishing.”  He notes the local vs. global optimization problem of pursuing short-term pleasure at the expense of long-term flourishing, which research confirms is bad.

As such, the point is a positive mood in the present and a positive outlook for the future,” including, per Martin Seligman, “pleasure, engagement, and meaning.”

Page 41: Achor notes the correlation vs. causation problem: which comes first, happiness or success?  It’s not the answer you suspect…

Pages 42 – 43: Citing some research on Catholic nuns that admittedly has a small sample size – but does end up corroborating Whitehall and some similar studies about agency / locus of control that Achor gets to later – he notes that the nuns’ level of positivity in their youth seemed to suggest longer and healthier lives.

As many of us likely know from personal experience, too:

“research shows that unhappy employees take… 15 extra sick days a year.”

Happiness can, in some senses, be viewed as the inverse of stress.  Achor might disagree with this view, as we’ll get to later.

Pages 43 – 44, Page 49: Achor here notes research that suggests that negative emotions narrow our schema and (literally) our visual field; on the other hand, positive emotions have a “broadening effect” and enhance memory and learning.  Dopamine even, as Megan McArdle notes in The Up Side of Down (UpD review + notes), mediates learning.

Laurence Gonzales notes similar phenomena, highlighting the importance of humor in survival situations due to its counteractive effects on stress, in Deep Survival (DpSv review + notes).

Achor notes a study in which watching brief happy films:

“had undone the physiological effects of stress.  In other words, a quick burst of positive emotions doesn’t just broaden our cognitive capacity; it also provides a quick and powerful antidote to stress and anxiety, which in turn improves our focus and our ability to function at our best level.”  

The fighter pilots and survivors studied by Gonzales demonstrated similar tendencies… “why’s it called dog?”

Pages 46 – 47: Achor extends the discussion by noting that students who think about happy things do better on tests; happier doctors also apparently come to more accurate diagnoses.  Achor’s conclusion: maybe patients should give their doctors a lollipop, rather than vice versa.

As is usual with psychology research, it’s important not to overinterpret these results.  While it is probably true that doctors who are in better moods make more accurate diagnoses, if doctors like their patients, it can sometimes lead to less accurate diagnoses or more medical errors.  See

Jerome Groopman’s “ How Doctors Think ( HDT review + notes) notes several examples of this on pages 47 – 53, where doctors who like their patients are subject to desire bias, i.e. wishful thinking.

In particular, Groopman discusses quite extensively how his identification/friendliness with one patient led to a potentially deadly mistake because he didn’t want to subject the patient to the discomfort of a full-body examination (which would have revealed a developing abscess before it turned critical.)

Pages 50 – 53: On the growth mindset and mindfulness: Achor notes that happiness is a “work ethic.”  He goes on to cite some techniques that can help us scan the world for positives.

One is meditating – see Dan Harris’s “10% Happier (10H notes and review), although my personal preferred approach to mindfulness is cognitive behavioral therapy – wherein you can’t do better than Dr. Judith Beck’s thorough and engaging Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT review + notes).

Achor also cites the idea of finding something to look forward to, being grateful, and committing small acts of kindness.  I’ll circle back on the “looking forward to” thing in BH, because I have a bit of a different perspective here (in certain circumstances.)

Finally, he cites exercise, exposure to the outdoors, and a structural problem solving approach of reducing negative “noise,” which he goes into in more depth in his sequel (prequel?) Before Happiness (BH review + notes).  This was the proximate reason I stopped watching/reading the news; it turns out to have lots of other benefits too.

Pages 55 – 56: I don’t know if the VIA survey has any utility, but some of its results made me laugh out loud… they seemed mostly accurate but the bits that didn’t seem accurate were the bits that made me laugh the hardest.  (Namely, I am so bad at teamwork that it is apparently my worst skill, even a few below spirituality, which is amazing because I’m completely areligious and I feel like I’m halfway-decent at collaboration…)  Like Achor, though, I score highly on love of learning.

Page 57: Achor here notes thatL

“bosses and managers have a tendency to honor the employees who can go the longest without breaks or vacation and those who don’t ‘waste’ their time socializing.”  

For more on the underlying phenomenon here, see product vs. packaging and Cal Newport’s “ Deep Work” ( DpWk review + notes), as well as Roenneberg’s “ Internal Time ( IntTm review + notes) and some of the linked Christopher Barnes research.

The same, it should be noted, applies to night owls…

Page 58, 60: Achor here notes that teams do better with positive rather than negative encouragement, even in environments like the military; he notes that:

 “when recognition is specific and deliberately delivered, it is even more motivating than money.”

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation.  Achor goes on to cite research suggesting that given our tendency to overweight negatives, we need a ratio of 3:1 or higher (ideally 6:1) positive-to-negative interactions. 

See also, for example, Tavris/Aronson’s “ Mistakes were Made (but not by me) ( MwM review + notes).

Page 64: All I could think of while reading this was “I’m not fat, I’m big-boned.”

Page 65 – 66: More seriously, the point here is essentially back to schema: given that we can’t process every piece of information around, the adaptive decision is to focus on the most utility-maximizing perspective.

Page 67: Achor cites the Ellen Langer famous experiment on aging, demonstrating the power of schema: by putting elderly men back in an environment where they were constantly made to think they were 55, their memory, eyesight, flexibility, strength, and other measures improved.

Pages 69 – 70: Achor extends the discussion with some research on placebos; one empirical review found:

 “placebos are about 55 to 60% as effective as most active medications like aspirin and codeine for controlling pain.”  

Achor presents a less-known counterfactual: your arm can swell up if you believe you’ve touched poison ivy, even if you haven’t… similarly, if you think of your daily activities as exercise, you’ll get more benefits out of them.

I’ll circle back to his idea on “expectancy theory” in the notes to BH – he notes one neuroscientist who explains “expectations create brain patterns that can be just as real as those created by events in the real world.”

Achor notes a phenomenon I’ve well viewed myself: an activity that one might view as “fun” in one context might be viewed as “work” in another.  Think Tom Sawyer.

Page 76: After driving the point home of choosing the most adaptive perspective on the world, Achor brings up explicitly Carol Dweck’s research on the fixed vs. growth mindset.  As I discuss in the ( Mndst review + notes), Dweck’s research is fantastic but “Mindset” is a mediocre book at best.

Pages 78 – 80: research suggests “external circumstances predict only about 10 percent of our total happiness.”  

Achor goes on to discuss the “job vs. calling” orientation of employees.  Achor provides a practical approach for adding meaning to work: asking what the point of something is, and “keep going until you get to a result that is meaningful to you.”

Page 81: on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation: Achor notes”

 “the fastest way to disengage an employee is to tell him his work is meaningful only because of the paycheck.”

Page 82: nice example of framing here… people are more willing to cooperate in a game called the “Community Game” rather than the “Wall Street game,” even though they’re the same game.

Pages 84 – 85: Achor discusses the Covey-esque “Pygmalion effect,” which basically means people live up to your expectations of them.  I think that this is a nice view of the world that, sadly, is not always true. Kip Tindell is definitely a fan; see “ Uncontainable ( UCT review + notes).  I’m on the fence because it hasn’t really worked for me.

Pages 88 – 90: on recency bias and memory: if you play a lot of Tetris, the world will start to look like Tetris blocks… Laurence Gonzales also references Tetris dreams in Surviving Survival  (SvSv review + notes).  He may well be citing the same research as Achor – I didn’t check.

Page 91: a nice practical example (a sunny day) of how you can view the same circumstances with different perspectives.

Page 92: Achor attributes the well-known prevalence of depression, alcoholism, etc among lawyers to the fact that their job requires them to be critical; he attributes the same thing to tax auditors.  It’s not clear how much of this is the job vs. self-selection, perhaps; in any eent, he does cite some interesting studies here.

And, focusing on opportunity cost isn’t always a good thing: some lawyers (I’ve confirmed this to be true) start thinking about their kids’ baseball games as foregone billable hours…

Page 94, Page 98: Achor here quasi-explicitly notes the idea of schema – calling it “a filter that only lets the most pertinent information through to our consciousness.”  He doesn’t use the “lens” metaphor, but rather, a spam-blocker.

And of course, he cites the gorilla experiment as an example of selective perception / inattentional blindness.  He also cites other examples (people being swapped out during brief conversations, etc).  Achor goes on to note that “lucky” people are more likely to see things because they’re looking out for them.

See also Gonzales in Deep Survival (DpSv review + notes) for a more extensive take on the gorilla experiment and staying open to new perceptions, with context from flight simulators and other sources, and Megan McArdle’s “The Up Side of Down (UpD review + notes), where she notes that one person didn’t even notice that his brother was one of the basketball players.

Pages 97, 100 – 101: Achor notes that gratitude helps retrain our brains by scanning for the positives; he cites a lot of research demonstrating not only that gratitude is “integral to our well-being,” but also it’s a learnable/trainable skill.

Page 109: Achor notes the importance of conceiv[ing] of a failure as an opportunity for growth.”  Similarly to McArdle, he notes that – astonishingly – catastrophes like natural disasters or cancers are often named by individuals as life-changing events in positive rather than negative ways.

Page 115: Achor here addresses agency and learned helplessness, starting with Martin Seligman’s research with dogs.

Achor goes on to discuss how we often have too-narrow framing, which leads us to feel helpless.  Worse,

“when people feel helpless in one area of life, they not only give up in that one area; they often ‘overlearn’ the lesson and apply it to other situations.  They become convinced that one dead-end path must be proof that all possible paths are dead ends.

A setback at work might lead to despondency about one’s relationship, or a rift with a friend might discourage us from trying to form bonds with our colleagues, and so on.  When this happens, our helplessness spirals out of control, impeding our success in all areas of life.”  

This is an example of  recency / vividness / availability in addition to  learned helplessness.

I quote this at length because one of the reasons The Happiness Advantage resonated with me so much the first time I read it is that I was pretty much stuck in that “learned helplnessness” state – it seemed like no matter what I did, I eventually ended up right back where I started, which was somewhere I didn’t want to be.  I was lacking, as Achor emphasizes later, the critical “belief that your behavior matters” – without a sense of agency, life seems pointless.

We will come back to this momentarily.

Page 121: nice example here of schema and contrast biasif you were shot in the arm during a bank robbery, would you be mad that your day was ruined, or grateful to be alive?  Guess which one’s more adaptive?

Page 123: Achor here notes the dismal success rate of pitches in business and selling; see the “smile and dial” bit on pages 170 – 173 of McArdle’s “ The Up Side of Down ( UpD review + notes).  Achor here provides a similar discussion, noting research by Martin Seligman that demonstrated – no duh – that successful salesmen have positive “explanatory styles,” which is roughly similar to a growth mindset.

Pages 125 – 126: Achor provides a CBT-lite approach here called “Adversity, Belief, Consequence, and Disputation.”  He een references “decatastrophizing” and the “pretend it’s a friend” approach. See Beck’s Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT review + notes) for more here.

He goes on to note that

“adversities, no matter what they are, simply don’t hit us as hard as they think they will.  Just knowing this quirk of human psychology – that our fear of consequences is always worse than the consequences themselves – can help us move toward a more optimistic interpretation of the downs we will inevitably face.”

Contrast bias.

Pages 129 – 131, 132: Here are the money pages, on agency:

One of the biggest drivers of success is the belief that our behavior matters; that we have control over our future. - Shawn Achor Click To Tweet

Achor takes an “inside-out” approach a la Covey – see “ The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People ( 7H review + notes).  

He advocates starting with a “small circle” – in some senses, literally; if you’re trying to clean your room, focus on trying to keep a small patch of your desk clean, and work from there.  Achor cites some Whitehall-like studies (I don’t think it’s whitehall; seems more recent). They come to the same conclusions:

“Feeling that we are in control, that we are masters of our own fate at work and at home, is one of the strongest drivers of both well-being and performance

[…] interestingly, psychologists have found that these kinds of gains in productivity, happiness, and health have less to do with how much control we actually have and more with how much control we think we have […]

the most successful people, in work and life, are those who have what psychologists call an ‘internal locus of control,’ the belief that their actions have a direct effect on their outcomes.  People with an external locus, on the other hand, are more likely to see daily events as dictated by external forces. It’s easy to see why the former is more adaptive […]

after all, if we believe nothing we do matters, we fall prey to the insidious grip of learned helplessness.”

See also page 152 of Tetlock’s Superforecasting  (SF review + notes), where he notes that believing in fate makes you a bad forecaster.  Or Gonzales’s “Deep Survival” (DpSV review + notes), where he discusses how every survivor decides, at some point, they’re going to live (even if the odds are terrible).  It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, at least on the downside, because if you don’t believe you’re gonna survive, you won’t have the strength to do so, as Gonzales demonstrates with lots of examples. 

Achor also notes that even something as small as caring for a house plant can help boost your conception of control.

Pages 132 – 133: Achor provides a Kahneman-like two-system dichotomy of the brain.  He echoes the thoughts of Gonzales in Deep Survival; he notes that the amygdala/emotional response is adaptive because of saber-toothed tigers, but “fortunately, few saber-toothed tigers stalk our office parks.”  So we need to focus on using System 2 rather than System 1. 

 Cognition vs. intuition.  For some context, Gonzales goes a little deeper into this in Surviving Survival  (SvSv review + notes).  Gonzales discusses the “triune brain” – noting that we still have many of the same instinctual responses as frogs and rats – and quips:

“In ancient days, maybe everyone had some form of anxiety disorder – after all, life was short and every day you really did face the possibility of being eaten alive.”

Anyway, here, Achor goes into cortisol and “emotional hijacking” – similarly to Gonzales – and concludes by noting research that demonstrates that “in resilient individuals, the prefrontal cortex rapidly won over the limbic system.”

In other words, this is a trainable habit.  Cross-reference page 236 of “ Superforecasting” ( SF review + notes), where Tetlock notes that the superforecasters he studied seem to display similar traits.  Of course, cross-reference “ Deep Survival as well; survivors manage to harness stress like a jockey on a horse.

I would also note here Dr. Matthew Walker’s “ Why We Sleep ( Sleep review + notes).  Sleep is the structural problem solving solution to  stress.  Walker discusses how sleep-deprived subjects:

“showed well over a 60 percent amplification in emotional reactivity […] without sleep […] the strong coupling between [the prefrontal cortex and amygdala] is lost.  

We cannot rein in our atavistic impulses – too much emotional gas pedal (amygdala) and not enough regulatory brake (prefrontal cortex). Without the rational control given to us each night by sleep, we’re not on a neurological – and hence emotional – even keel.”

Page 135: Achor mentions Kahneman/Tversky and behavioral economics here.  So here is another friendly reminder that Thinking Fast and Slow sucks and “ Misbehaving by Richard Thaler ( M review + notes) is my favorite book of all time.

Page 136: Again taking the Covey inside-out track, Achor notes a few interesting things, including that “when people are primed to feel high levels of distress, the quickest to recover are those who can identify they are feeling and put those feelings into words.”  

“macho” guys, take note.  See also mindfulness and the aforementioned “ Cognitive Behavior Therapy ( CBT review + notes) as well as Brene Brown – preferably “ Daring Greatly ( DG review + notes).

Achor’s takeaway here basically amounts to the Serenity Prayer: control what you can and have a sense of equanimity toward the rest.

Page 138: Achor also notes the idea of small wins…

Pages 147, 151 – 152: Achor gets into habit and learning here; he doesn’t go as deep as Gonzales or Duhigg in “ The Power of Habit ( Habit review + notes).  Achor, of course, does a great job of boiling it down succinctly:

Habits are like financial capital: forming one today is an investment that will automatically give out returns for years to come. - Shawn Achor Click To Tweet

He also notes the concept of willpower depletion; it is worth noting there is some controversy on whether or not this exists (there are some conflicting studies).

I believe it’s more-likely-than-not that it exists, and it’s certainly very adaptive to behave as if it does.

Pages 154 – 157: Achor here notes status quo bias; like Sunstein/Thaler in “Nudge ( ndge review + notes), he marvels at our tendency to stick to the default and points out – again, like S/T – that lowering the activation energy for desired behaviors, or increasing it for undesired behaviors, can have powerful impacts on results.  He does cite some stuff on opt-out/opt-in.

Achor here also goes into flow/engagement, obligatorily referencing Csikszentmihalyi, and the takeaway is basically that we enjoy vegging out less than we think we do.

Page 159: Cal Newport (“ Deep Work,” DpWk review + notes) would be proud: Achor cites some of the research on multitasking, namely, that it’s a myth.  He notes:

 “the average employee gets interrupted from their work every 11 minutes, and on each occasion experiences a loss of concentration and flow that takes almost as many minutes to recover from.”

Achor takes a different tack than most, though: his approach is to raise the activation energy of distractions.  He notes that decreasing or increasing activation energy by merely 20 seconds can have huge benefits.

There’s some more research here on the power of activation energy; Achor also (like Duhigg) references self-selected gambling bans.

Pages 164 – 167: Achor’s advice for Ted here is really useful/applicable.  I like the idea of “second-order decisions” – very structural problem solving esque.

Achor also, like Olds/Schwartz, references “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz, which I was excited to read but ended up feeling “meh” about ( PoC review).

Page 173: Achor’s experience in volunteer firefighter training is very similar to that described in Gonzales’s “ Deep Survival.”  System 1 takes over… hard.

Pages 175 – 177: on social connection, Achor cites George Vaillant, who directed the Harvard Men study, who finds that “love – full stop” is one of the keys to happiness.  He also cites other research that demonstrates that social connection has a big effect on health even after controlling for other variables.

“ The Lonely American by Olds/Schwartz ( TLA review + notes) is a sort-of-interesting read on how local vs. global optimization leads us astray from that conclusion.

Anyway, here, Achor notes that having a support network allows us to bounce back much better from stress.  His research at Harvard demonstrated this as well.

Page 191: nice useful/practicable bit here on how to respond to other people’s good news: “active and constructive.”  Not general or vague.   Empathy.

Page 199: ahahahahaha.

Pages 203, 208: Achor here mentions the phenomenon of “mirror neurons.”  (Another cross-read to Olds/Schwartz here with regard to the richness of in-person communication.) Achor notes research that demonstrates the importance of eye contact.

For those who are curious, this topic is covered in more depth in Surviving Survival by Laurence Gonzales (SvSv review + notes) – Gonzales notes that babies utilize mirror neurons to mimic facial expressions; he believes that they are the “biological substrate of empathy and that they underlie culture.


First Read: 2014

Last Read: spring 2018

Number of Times Read: a bunch… 5?

Planning to Read Again?: maybe


Review Date: spring 2018

Notes Date: spring 2018