Book Summary: Before Happiness by Shawn Achor

Quick Summary: In Before Happiness, you’ll learn how a simple ratio can help you find a more balanced perspective on life, why there’s more to success and happiness than just a positive attitude, and why the glass is never half empty or half full.

Many of us believe that success ultimately depends on chance. Some people have a better hand in the game of life than others, and they take full advantage of it.

But there are also people who triumph over hardships like poverty and illness and lead fulfilling and successful lives. Why don’t we know what their destiny is?

Apparently, however, they have something up their sleeves. They have what is known as “positive genius” that enables them to make the best of any situation. The good news is that this is not an innate talent, but rather a learned skill.

You don’t have to read the whole book if you don’t have time. This summary will provide you with an overview of everything you can learn from this book.

Without further ado, let’s get started.

Lesson 1: Challenges are highly subjective and vary from person to person

It’s true that the way we interpret the world has a significant impact, but what about the world itself? What if your supervisor is actually unhelpful or if you’ve too much work? Maybe you don’t get promoted because you don’t get promoted.

Maybe the problem isn’t in how you perceive the world but in the world itself. You could fool yourself into thinking otherwise, but that wouldn’t change the truth, would it?

All right, you may be right about that. There’s no denying that our subjective experiences are a reflection of the world around us. However, it’s unclear how and why they portray it that way. Therein lies the fascination.

Is it fun to lug around a heavy backpack when you’re already feeling tired and in a bad mood? You probably felt its weight more than you’d have otherwise.

The results of psychological studies not only confirm this observation but also show the generalizability of this phenomenon. When we’re tired or feeling down, we easily feel that everything we’ve to face in life is “heavier”.

Considering this fact, we should start working hard again.

Let’s assume for a moment that your plate is really overflowing. If that’s the case, then there’s indeed an objective quality of perceived heaviness. However, there’s also a subjective aspect. If you’re in a good mood, work will be easier for you, and if you’re depressed, it’ll be much harder for you.

And that’s just one isolated case of a much larger trend. Beliefs, attitudes, feelings, thoughts, and even other perceptions can play a role in how we assess the difficulty of a particular situation, even when all other factors remain constant.

For now, it’s enough to know that we should always take our own interpretations with a grain of salt and exercise caution. 

The truth is that they’re merely distorted reflections of the world around us, not unlike those you might find at an amusement park.

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Lesson 2: As we change our perception of reality, we also change our reality

Okay, so what should you do the next time you’re carrying around a load that feels like too much? You could tell yourself that you’re just tired or having a bad day, so maybe you’re not feeling well.

Recognizing this, of course, doesn’t solve your problem by itself. But it’ll help you in that it’ll point you in the right direction. It could be as simple as changing your eating habits and your sleeping habits. It’ll give you a boost of motivation and make the challenge seem less daunting. Not only will it become easier to overcome, it actually will. And why? We’ll get into that in a moment.

This is just one isolated case, but it should illustrate the power of perspective.

If you improve your diet and sleep, you may find that you’ve more energy and less stress. What the heck happened? Who or what triggered this change?

Now that your brain has more energy, it can do more demanding tasks. This trick tricks your brain into thinking the weight is lighter than it actually is, making it easier to carry. In addition to the relief you feel because you no longer have to carry that weight, the chances of success in your efforts seem to have improved. As a result, you’ll be more motivated than ever to try as hard as you can. It’ll also make the task at hand less daunting.

You could say it’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more realistically you can see your goal, the more likely you’re to achieve it.

However, be mindful of your method. You don’t just tell yourself things like “My workload isn’t that bad” or “I’ve the strength to get through this.” Instead, take positive action to change your attitude, in this case, by sleeping better.

This means that the “positive thinking” and “optimism” touted by so many self-help gurus are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to harnessing the power of perception. All you’ve to do is take action that changes your perspective and allows you to see things differently. There are plenty of options beyond simply focusing on sleep and nutrition.

There are other, more subtle ways to change your perspective on life to better support your goals of happiness and success. When you combine them and put them into practice, you can develop what the author calls “positive genius.”

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Lesson 3: Different maps of reality can be created by our minds, and some are more helpful than others

In our everyday lives, we tend to think of reality as something objective, independent of our subjective experience. Today, however, we know that reality is more complex. Sure, there is more to life than what we see here on earth. However, our mental constructs shape the way we perceive it.

Because our minds do not function like cameras that merely record what’s in their field of view, we can actively process and respond to the world around us. Instead, our brain is constantly at work, taking in new information and arranging it in a pattern that resembles a map.

The truth is that not every map is the same. Some lead us directly to our destination, while others leave us wandering aimlessly and may even lead us in the wrong direction. The ability to design plans that are most likely to get us to our destination is a sign of positive genius.

Imagine for a moment a physical map. Are all parts of the area it purports to represent mapped on it? Obviously not; only a subset of the relevant details is shown. Only features that the cartographer considered essential are highlighted.

The same is true of the way you perceive the world in your mind. While your brain can take in up to 11 million bits per second, it can only process 40 bits. You can only use a limited amount of information when your brain constructs a picture of the world. Everything else is simply thrown away.

This means that your brain can create multiple, self-consistent representations of the same external world. And how? By picking and choosing the evidence it wants to use.

One way to look at your situation at work is from the perspective of your unhelpful supervisor and your overwhelming workload. But if you turn your attention to the fact that your boss values your abilities so highly that he has given you broad authority over important matters, you will find that you have a very different idea.

Both cards are an accurate representation of the world, but only one will lead you on the path to joy and success.

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Lesson 4: Avoid getting into the rut of seeing things only through one lens

Imagine you could take a pill that triggers the release of powerful hormones. The cognitive enhancement these chemicals provide can help with everything from memory recall to information processing to problem-solving.

Taking the pill has other benefits as well: it enhances your social relationships, increases your resilience in the face of adversity, and gives you a greater sense of purpose in life.

Doesn’t that just sound fantastic? In fact, you can get these benefits without taking a pill. Scientific research has uncovered a natural system in the human body that can produce all of these benefits mechanically and without any input from the individual. And we call it stress.

Surprised? That brings us to the next lesson, because of course there must be a good reason for it.

The most important point is that we must avoid being trapped in our habitual, narrow ways of perceiving the world if we’re to develop more accurate mental maps of the world.

You’ve probably heard a million times that stress is bad for you: it can cause physical symptoms like headaches and fatigue, damage organs, and is linked to all six leading causes of death. In fact, that’s all most of us will ever know about it.

Given this, it’s not surprising that we associate stress with negative emotions. This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. When you’re overwhelmed, you feel more than just the signs of stress. The same “This is bad!” thought runs through your mind. And now you’re even more anxious because of your own thoughts.

Okay, here’s the deal. While it’s true that stress can have negative consequences, it can also have positive effects. Which one will you prioritize? It’s important that you respond to it.

If you need evidence, you can look at a study the author did with an employee. Overworked managers at UBS were divided into two groups. Both groups were given the task of thinking about the consequences of stress, but one group was instructed to look on the bright side.

The second group of managers reported a 23% decrease in stress-related physical symptoms and a 30% improvement in work performance. And all because they adopted a new perspective on the source of their anxiety.

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