Forget the power suit and the room full of movers and shakers. The most effective weapon in the success arsenal may be something that appears to be a typo — positive affect.
The word is “affect,” not “effect,” though it has a big one when you deploy it. Positive affect is the body language of happiness, a buoyant and optimistic spirit transmitted via facial expression, tone of voice and demeanor. The research shows that when you have it, the world wants in.
HALLMARK OF WELL-BEING
The scientific literature brims with testaments to the power of positive affect, from success in the social arena to health (less stress, hypertension), job success, creativity and problem-solving. Positive psychology heavyweights Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ed Diener and Laura King demonstrated in a meta-analysis of 225 research papers covering 275,000 participants that this “hallmark of well-being,” as they call it, spawns numerous successful outcomes and “behaviors paralleling success.”
They found that people with frequent positive affect are more likely to be successful in their professional lives, make more money and get more promotions. Those with chronic happiness have better social relationships, more support and stronger friendships.
Studies show that the most cheerful people make $25,000 more than the least cheerful (Diener). Happy people get more raises over time (Shaw) and are evaluated more highly by supervisors (Cropanzano, Wright).
“Chronically happy people,” Lyubomirsky, Diener and King report, “are in general more successful ... their success is in large part a consequence of their happiness and frequent experience of positive affect.”
It turns out that a happy state leads to success, instead of the other way around. Obviously, you have to be able to do more than be upbeat to succeed in the world. But the right disposition increases the odds.
When you’re in a good mood, energy soars and you have a welcome sign out to the world that you’re available for business or conversation. Visible vibrancy is contagious, thanks to the social circuitry built into our brains in the form of mirror neurons. These cells simulate the actions of others in our minds and emotions. When somebody laughs uncontrollably, your mirror neurons soon have your facial muscles breaking into a smile or chuckle too. When a friend is depressed, your neurons follow the cues and adjust your emotions downward.
I remember boarding a plane for a trip to Africa to do a story on Zimbabwe. My photographer and I were so cranked up about the adventure that it showed, and a flight attendant got caught up in the excitement. After a brief chitchat about the trip, she upgraded us, unprompted, from coach to first class. That’s positive affect, a spirit that’s infectious.
Research has linked positive affect with increased confidence, energy, optimism, self-efficacy, sociability, conflict resolution skills, likability, ability to cope with stress and challenges, as well as reduced cardiovascular events and improved immune function. Studies show that employees with a positive disposition have more autonomy and meaning in their jobs and that work performance is impacted more by well-being than the performance itself.
When you start out on the positive side of the ledger, you don’t have as far to travel emotionally to connect with someone, to enjoy yourself, to be spontaneous and jump into something new. You’re already there. People animated by positive emotions are more apt “to approach than to avoid,” say Lyubomirsky, Diener and King.
We all know people who are stocked with positive affect. Magic Johnson, the genial former Laker great, or Virgin boss Richard Branson exude positive affect, with sunny, outgoing dispositions and no fear of smiling. It’s as if their childhood exuberance didn’t get beaten out of them by adulthood.
YOU'RE NOT STUCK WITH WHAT YOU GOT
That’s what happens to most of us. The school of hard knocks keeps knocking and hardening, and moving us further and further away from what fuels curiosity, aliveness and enthusiasm. Some people come by this trait genetically, but if you don’t, the research shows that positive emotions can work even without a disposition inclined that way. You’re not stuck with what you’ve got.
The goal isn’t 24/7 grinning. That’s not how our emotions work. Your mood swings back and forth in repeated cycles every day. The aim is a frequent state of positive feeling and vibrancy that opens you up to opportunity, instead of shutting it out with the default reflexes of cynicism and apathy that dog the protective realm of adulthood.
You can dramatically increase your levels of positive affect with frequent participation in experiences that boost joy, fun, and social connection, beefing up your reserves of key components of visible vibrancy — physical vitality, pro-social behavior, optimism, expressive body language, flexibility and spontaneity.
You have to be clever about it, since negative emotions are more powerful than positive ones. It requires tricking the inner curmudgeon, which will torpedo anything out of character. Fake it till you make it.
In one study a group of introverts asked to pretend they were extroverts in a job interview performed just as well as the extroverts in making an impression.
Making life come alive, the data is telling us, comes down to skills and traits of self-determination that allow us to create the world we want. Positive affect is one of them. What you mirror is what you get.