Using Happiness to Improve Learning and Achieve Success

Over 2,300 years ago, Aristotle said that happiness is the ultimate end and purpose of human existence.

It’s almost too obvious to argue with, right?

Why do we go to work, look for love, buy houses, raise families, and take vacations? To be happy, right?

Isn’t finding happiness the reason we do anything at all?

Well, as it turns out, happiness can be more than the abstract, subjective end goal of our lives. It can also serve a much more practical function as an incredibly powerful tool we can use in our lives right now.

The Happy Place

Seven years ago I started working at Crucial Learning. I didn’t have a background in training or organisational development, but somehow, I landed this incredible job! I was so excited to be a member of this great team, so in honour of landing my first “real job”, I decided to buy a house in beautiful Heber City, Utah.

Every day, my commute to work led me through the stunning Provo Canyon. I was surrounded by gorgeous mountains and waterfalls. It was like a dream come true. Life was good! I’d found my happy place.

Then, two years later, life took a turn when I married the love of my life, Clayton. It was wonderful, but it came with its share of changes. For starters, I moved out of my home in Heber City and into Clayton’s home in Bountiful, Utah (a.k.a. 1960’s suburbia).

My commute from work changed from a 20-minute drive that looked like this…

to a 65-minute drive that looked like this…

Oh, the changes we make for love! Over the next five years, I spent over two hours each day commuting on an excruciatingly boring highway.

Well, about six months ago while driving to work I saw the billboard advertising campaign that set in a motion an entirely new way of thinking.

One billboard was a picture of a beautiful woman playing with her young daughter in a field of wildflowers. Another billboard had a big family gathered around a kitchen table, smiling and laughing with one another.

The tagline read, “Go To Your Happy Place.”

I’m a very literal thinker and, at times, can be overly grounded in reality. Basically, these billboards weren’t doing it for me… at all. In fact they made me a little angry. I was sitting in standstill traffic on the highway for over an hour —  twice a day —  and these billboards had the audacity to tell me to go to my happy place.

If I had a happy place, this was not it!

Our Broken Formula for Happiness

I was so annoyed by these billboards but I started thinking about happiness… a lot! I began studying happiness and reading about how it functions in our lives when I came across the great psychologist (and expert on happiness) Shawn Achor of Harvard University.

Shawn points out that most of us hold a typical idea of what happiness is and how to get it:

If we work hard, we’ll achieve success. When we achieve success, we’ll be happy.

There’s one major problem with this idea though. When we achieve success, our mind does something really interesting. It moves the goalpost for what success looks like.

For example, if I get good grades one semester, then the next semester, I feel like I need to get even better grades. Or, if I hit my sales target one year, the next year my sales target goes up.

We’re constantly shifting the goalposts of success.

So, if we put happiness on the far side of success — that we must work hard to achieve success and then we’ll be happy — we’ll never really be happy because you’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon.

The Happiness Advantage

Shawn argues that this is totally backward. In fact, it’s not that success leads to happiness, but that happiness leads to success.

His research shows how there’s actually a physiological explanation for this.

Dopamine, one of the primary neurotransmitters in the brain, serves two major roles. First, it acts as the mediator of happiness. When we feel happy, our brain is flooded with dopamine and we enter a dopamine-induced stated of happiness.

Secondly, dopamine regulates learning by opening up and activating the learning centres of our brain. It takes care of retention, perseverance, and focus.

The ultimate conclusion Shawn found is that the brain performs better at a happy state than it does at a negative, neutral, or stressed state. When you’re happy, you actually learn faster and work better, smarter, and harder.

In other words, happiness leads to success.

The happiness advantage is that the brain performs better at positive than at negative, neutral, or stressed.

How HR Professionals and Trainers Can Use The Happiness Advantage

I found this extremely fascinating! At Crucial Dimensions, I spend a ton of energy and time on instructional design for our training programs, so I began to think of how to apply the Happiness Advantage to our work.

Suddenly, I remembered a moment from several years earlier where I’d experienced The Happiness Advantage without knowing it.

We were about to launch our Change Anything product so we brought in several of our Master Trainers to meet with us. We spent most of the day sharing content and ideas and discussing how the Change Anything model worked. As part of the day, each trainer would deliver a 20-minute sample presentation so we could give them feedback.

I’ll never forget what Master Trainer Barbara Hauser said in her presentation. She led off with a personal change challenge — a typical way of starting off the Change Anything training. She told us to think about a change we wanted to make in our life. I did my best to participate, and I thought about a change I wanted to make. Then, Barbara did something different. She took us through a visualisation exercise.

As I mentioned earlier, I can sometimes be overly grounded in reality. I’m a left brain thinker, not a “visualisation person”. But I wanted to support Barbara so I went through the exercise with her.

She asked us to experience what our life would be like when that change happened and the most astonishing thing!

I could actually feel the dopamine flooding my brain as I explored the possibilities of what my life could like by making this change. But the part that really changed the way I thought about this was what happened next.

Barbara went on to teach us The Willpower Trap — a Change Anything principle I already knew a lot about. To be clear, this wasn’t the first time I heard about The Willpower Trap. I was on the Change Anything design team. I’d helped build the training. In fact, I’d actually written the very slides Barbara was using in this presentation.

Even more, I’ve listened to thousands of presentations of Crucial Learning training over the last seven years. The incredible thing is, I remember everything she said that day, almost word for word.

Create Moments of Happiness

Thousands of years before humans even discovered dopamine, Plato said that all learning has an emotional basis.

How true it is!

There was something about that lens of the dopamine-induced state of happiness that cemented the learning in me in a way that was totally new.

When you’re learning something new, find a way to create a moment of happiness to make it stick.

When training employees, find ways to inject moments of happiness to open up and activate the learning centres of their brains so they can process, retain, and utilise the crucial skills you teach them.

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