Maximizing Happiness: Five Small Changes Yield Big Impact

by Diane Berenbaum

Happiness…it's something we all strive for, regardless of our age or experience. And it seems to be getting a lot of attention lately. Have you heard the incredibly catchy tune, "Happy", sung by Pharrell Williams*? (I guarantee you can't listen to it without smiling and feeling a little happier). And, then there's Shawn Achor's TED Talk with millions of views, and counting.

The research community has also embraced this topic. They're aiming to help us understand the science of happy and how to maximize happiness in our lives. It turns out, some of the assumptions we've embraced all our lives have been wrong.

According to Shawn Achor, CEO of Good Think Inc., we assume that our external world is predictive of our happiness. In other words, if we work harder, we'll be more successful and then we'll be happier—that's what many of us heard while growing up, which is why we studied or practiced longer to get there. We also figured that the more praise or awards we receive from external factors, such as parents/teachers/managers, the happier we will be.

Shifting our Brain for Success and Happiness

Based on the research of Kelly Goldsmith, an assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management,"What we predict will make us happy, doesn't always make us happy." Plus, the factors we think are directly related to happiness, such as good health, are hard to control. But, Goldsmith ensures us that seeking happiness is not a futile endeavor. 

In reality, 90% of our long-term happiness is not predicated by that external world, but instead by the way our brain processes our world. Therefore, if we change the way our brain processes the world, we can change our formula for success and happiness. 

Speaking of our brain, have you ever noticed that, after you achieve some measure of success, you have this feeling of uncertainty that…oh oh, there's going to be an even higher bar…and I might not get to that one. Our habitual judgmental thoughts can actually create lingering concern and doubt, instead of nurturing positivity. Negative and stressed brains do that!

Happiness Yields Improved Business Results

But every single business outcome improves with positivity, as your brain experiences what is called, "a happiness advantage," according to Achor. Not only do we become 31% more productive, but our intelligence, creativity and energy levels improve too. Clearly, it's worth maximizing happiness, and busting the pattern of negativity.

Let's face it, we may work hard all our lives to achieve goals, personal and professional. But, we don't put that same effort into being happy.

And, by the way, the steps that led us to business and academic success, do not work for happiness.

What Makes People Happier?

Goldsmith and her father conducted a study with hundreds of participants from Fortune 500 companies. They emailed each person one of three questions:

  1. How happy were you today?
  2. Did you do your best to be happy today?
  3. Another random question that didn't even mention happiness.
They found that the second question about doing one's best to be happy did indeed make people happier. So why does receiving a daily question about happiness make us happier? For one, it reminds us that we want to be happy. And, when people just focus on what they're doing to be happier, they increase their level of positivity, which leads to behavior change. In fact, your intelligence rises, your creativity rises and your energy rises. Every single business outcome improves. 

A similar study revealed that doing things differently to become happier leads to some other dramatic changes in behavior:
  • 38% focused more on positive events in their lives
  • 16% made an effort to have positive interactions with others
  • 9% engaged in productive activities, and
  • 9% worried less! 
Funny enough, nobody reported that buying things makes them happier. I was a bit surprised that didn't make the list!

Five Small Changes to Boost Happiness

All this research suggests that we can indeed maximize our happiness. Here are five things you can start doing today to boost your happiness quotient:

  1. Train your brain to be positive—Your brain at positive is 31% more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed. Catch the negative self-talk, and replace it with the affirming comments. It also helps to have a friend support you in this shift.

  2. Ask yourself a daily introspection or prompt such as, "Did I do my best to be happy today? Or Did I do my best to have positive interactions with others today?" (The website,, can be a helpful tool to accomplish this task.)

  3. Journal about positive experiences—Achor notes that writing about positive experiences over the past 24 hours allows your brain to relive them, extending the benefits of the euphoric feelings that often accompany them.

  4. Do conscious acts of kindness—Praise someone for their efforts, assist a stranger in need, thank a friend for their help, when they least expect it.

  5. Exercise your body and mind—Regular exercise not only increases happiness, it also improves general health and life satisfaction (Gatab & Pirhayti, 2012). And, meditation helps us experience greater calm, challenges our self-judgment habits, and opens the door to real happiness.

It may not be easy…some of us have many years of deleterious self-talk to combat. But, go ahead and make a change. You'll be happier you did!

* "Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth. 
   Clap along if you know what happiness is to you.
   Clap along if you feel that's what you want to do"


Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
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