Negative people make us fat, your posture can make you depressed, I hate the biggest loser

Posted on March 1, 2012

(Last Updated On: January 19, 2018)

The Happiness Advantage is a simple thesis: We typically believe the path to happiness involves working hard, doing the right things, becoming successful, then we will be happy. The argument is achieving our goals causes our happiness.

Shawn Achor (author) argues this is backwards. People who are already happy are the ones most likely to work hard, do the right things, and become successful. Happiness is the cause of our successes; not the result. And he has a lot of science to back himself up.

Quick tangent: If you’re curious, a lot of Achor’s research comes from studying Harvard students. If you’re saying, “Oh what the fuck ever, what Harvard student ISN’T happy?” Achor has a whole way of responding to this. I think he should just use this instead:

“Based on my study of Harvard undergraduates, the average number of romantic relationships over four years is less than one. The average number of sexual partners, if you’re curious, is 0.5 per student.”

Uhh, suddenly I’m not that jealous of Mark Zuckerberg. I mean, Harvard students may be some of the least happy people on earth! Poor bastards. (I realize this is a tad off-topic, but I thought it was very surprising.)

I’m going to break down some of the specifics from the book, but for a more general look at the philosophy here is a great TED talk by Achor:

“Study after study shows that happiness precedes important outcomes and indicators of thriving…happiness causes success and achievement, not the opposite.”

“Happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change; it is the realization that we can.”

There have been a few times I’ve seen a person reach their weight-loss goals, sometimes it’s been a goal in progress for a few months, sometimes it’s been a few years, and the person isn’t as happy as they thought they’d be. Sometimes they have feelings of, “Well, ok, so what now?”

This isn’t always true, but it happens.

You should not rely on reaching a particular weight as something that will make all your life’s problems go away. And as Achor argues, being happy and positive before you start losing weight will make you more likely to achieve your goal than expecting losing weight to fulfill your happiness.

One quick example of this: I have a client who is an ER physician. Anyone who knows a hospital doctor knows they often work insane hours. I remember one time she worked something like two weeks straight of night shifts. Or she had a lot more night shifts over the course of a month than normal. Something like that.

Anyways, during this month her weight-loss had been stagnant. Before that she was attempting to hit a pound or two of weight-loss per week. However, this month had been zero. In other words, during a period where she was immensely stressed and not very happy, she was having a hell of a hard time achieving her goal.

Finally, she got a few days off from that hell. She got to relax for a few days, hang out with her cats, sleep, etc. She was pretty damn happy after those few days compared to the previous month.

In 3 days, she lost four pounds. Making up for the whole prior month.

Now what are some things that influence our happiness?


Post-Traumatic Growth

Achor brings up the concept of “Post-Traumatic Growth.” He also refers to this as “falling forward.” The idea is to view failure not as a set-back, but as a tool to propel oneself to achieve their goals even faster.

Achor uses the recession as an example. He mentions how many successful businesses reframed the recession as a positive. For example, because many companies had to cut costs, this forced people to get creative in achieving the same goals with less. Necessity is the greatest way to generate new invention.

This mindset reminds me of a quote: “Everything is a positive. The bad things that happen to me, I somehow make them good. That means you can’t do anything to hurt me.”

It’s pretty easy to see applications to weight-loss. Say you eff up your diet one day. Instead of thinking you’re a horrible excuse for a human being for, you know, being human, you can reframe this in your mind as a positive. You can look back with a critical eye to find out why you fell off your diet. Perhaps you realized waiting any longer than 5 hours between meals causes you to binge. Now you can use that information for the future. Because you were looking back for a positive you found something that will help you the next time you’re in a similar situation.


Explanatory style 

Your explanatory style is how you explain past events. For example, when you slip up on your diet do you say “Ehh I just had a bad day. I had family in town and it was tough not to eat. I’ll lose the pound or two I gained and get right back on my routine no problem.”

Or, do you say “I can’t lose weight. Nothing I do works. The world is conspiring against me to make sure I’m fat. Where’s my teddy bear?”

The former is much more likely to maintain and achieve their goals.


Be realistic, not idealistic

“Unfortunately, when it comes to our work, we are often faced with unreasonable expectations –both those we set for ourselves and those others set for us. But when our goals are unrealizable, we run the risk of ending up like that overreaching marathoner –frustrated, dejected, and stuck.” 


“We are taught to believe that total makeovers of house, body, and psyche are possible all in a 30 minute episode (minus commercials). But in the real world, this all-or-nothing mindset nearly guarantees failure. Furthermore, the feelings that result from frustrated attempts and overwhelming stressors hijack our brain, jumpstarting that vicious and insidious cycle of helplessness that put our goals even further out of reach.”


“No matter what you may have heard from motivational speakers, coaches and the like, reaching for the stars is a recipe for failure.” 


Cue rant on Biggest Loser asininity: This fucking show has fucked up countless people’s ideas of what is “reasonable” for fat loss. Everyone needs to realize this is a TV show. It is entertainment.

A whole crapload of things are done on the show to manipulate the numbers you see during each weekly weigh in. Say the show takes place over the course of 2 months. In real life, the people are on that ranch for 3 months. They give the contestants more time to lose weight in real life but make it look like they did it in less time by condensing the show. Because of this, often times when you see someone with a big drop in weight, it’s actually been more than a week since they were last weighed.

Next, when you’re 500 pounds you can lose 40 pounds a month. When you’re 200 pounds, you’d practically be dead within a few months of doing that.

Next, when you live on a ranch with no access to normalcy, have $250,000 and a whole host of fame on the line, you can increase your expectations. When you live like the rest of us, you know, not in an alternate reality, modify your expectations.

Finally, they do all kinds of water manipulation on the show. I’m 200 pounds and I can easily drop or gain 10 pounds, in a few days, by manipulating how many carbs I eat and how much water I drink. If I was 500 pounds, I’m sure I could easily cause swings upwards of 30 pounds.

To make things clear, let’s sum up:




Whew. I don’t know about you, but I feel better.


Three good things

One of Achor’s proposed exercises for increasing happiness (and subsequently productivity, creativity, adherence to goals, etc.) is to write down three good things each day. They don’t necessarily have to be about that particular day, they can be about anything, as long as they are specific. E.g. “I had a good laugh with so and so today” versus “Me and Mike laughed about how our friend Dave got so drunk he took a dump in a trash can instead of the toilet. This is despite the fact he walked by the bathroom in order to get to the trash can.” (You know who you are, “Dave.”)

The idea behind the exercise is to train your brain to scan for positive things. This way you turn from a “I messed up my diet on Saturday; I’ll never lose weight” person to a “I messed up my diet on Saturday; it was just a temporary slip up; I’m already back on track” person.

Achor provides another example of distinguishing these two perspectives: It’s the first time it’s sunny in the last few days. Person A steps outside; “Oh, wow, it’s finally sunny out today. It feels great.”

Person B steps outside and goes “Ugh, it’s so hot today.”

It’s subtle, but profound. And yes, it is similar to the glass half full vs half empty saying. The important thing here is understanding this distinction in mindset can significantly alter your ability to achieve your goals.


Willpower is limited; don’t rely on it

“Far too often, just having the knowledge is not enough to change our behavior and create real, lasting change.”

I’ve mentioned ad nauseam on this site how relying strictly on willpower is a sure fire way to not lose weight.  I’ve given a shitload of examples on the site so read around.

Achor presents a more general reason for why relying on willpower to change behavior is a subpar method: We only have so much of it.

Quite literally, you can view your willpower as having a meter, say of 0-100. For the majority of people the other aspects of their life -kids, spouse, job- take up all 100 of the meter. If it didn’t, people wouldn’t have so much trouble “willing” their way to lose weight.

So we have two options. 1) Devote less time to activities that use up our willpower, or 2) Make losing weight involve the least amount of willpower possible. The first can involve some serious life changes. Because we are talking about our health, this may be advisable and or necessary at times. However, number two is where the real progress lays.

One example of 2) I’ve used before: Instead of baking two dozen cookies and proclaiming you’ll only eat a “couple” every day, it’s much better to not only not make them, but don’t even buy them or bring them in the house. Backtracking with this example even more: Don’t go to the grocery store hungry. You are adding the element of willpower in regards to deciding what you will or won’t buy. If you’re starving it’s going to be damn hard to not buy the box of cookies staring you in the face fifteen times up and down the aisles.

By limiting the availability of the temptation you are negating the possibility of having to use willpower to avoid it. You don’t have to “try” and avoid the temptation because it’s already been done for you.


Look forwards, not backwards

“Anticipating future rewards can actually light up the pleasure centers in your brain much as the actual reward will.”

This is one reason why a cheat day is so beneficial when dieting. Just knowing you have a day or meal coming up where you can eat whatever you want is nearly as good as eating the meal itself. Compare this to the wanna be superdieter who claims they’ll never touch another piece of cake as long as they shall live. The former is literally much happier on their diet and the latter eventually ends up eating like a sumo wrestler everyday.


Exercise (big surprise) 

Three groups of depressed patients were assigned to different coping strategies –one group took medication, one group exercised, one group did both. After 3 months all groups experienced similar improvements in happiness (exercise was just as good as pills).

Six months later 38 percent of the pill poppers relapsed into depression, 31% of those who pill popped and exercised relapsed, but only 9% of those who exercised relapsed.

I’ve mentioned before how exercise really isn’t too good at getting people to lose weight, but, it is great for nearly everything else. Depression is one of those things. This is one reason even though exercise isn’t great for directly losing weight, it is still immensely beneficial. Those who are happier are more likely to lose weight and keep it off. And those who exercise are happier. Thus, exercising can have an indirect impact on weight-loss.


How you talk to people

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

This is pretty profound. I may try to incorporate this more into how I train people e.g. make an effort to put more pictures or videos up when a client accomplishes something meaningful.

Achor goes on to mention that specific recognition is most beneficial when it is positive. I suppose the idea is by giving positive feedback for x even when y is going wrong, hopefully a cascading effect will be created where eventually y will start going right too.

In exercise and weight-loss terms, I find the exercise (x) normally goes well as long as the person consistently shows up. I very rarely have issues with a person not working hard enough. However, the actual weight-loss (y) isn’t always guaranteed.

When the weight-loss isn’t going well, but the workouts are, I definitely try and highlight the workouts. Sometimes I’ll say “Come on you’ve been working so hard, don’t let all that hard work go to waste with your diet.” I think this is something I could do better though. Perhaps I’ll try a couple of different approaches here.


Your social circle

“Countless studies have found that social relationships are the best guarantee of heightened well-being and lowered stress, both an antidote for depression and a prescription for high performance. But instead, these students some how learned that when the going gets tough, the tough get going –to an isolated cubicle in the library basement.”

I think it’s pretty obvious to say a heightened well-being and lowered stress will make losing weight easier. So it’s no coincidence those with strong social support are consistently found to lose weight and keep it off better than those without.

Achor does a fantastic job illustrating the importance of your social network. Suffice to say, it is massively important and has far more influence on our behavior than anyone would like to admit.

“ Investing in social connections means that you’ll find it easier to interpret adversity as a path to growth and opportunity; and when you do have to experience the stress, you’ll bounce back from it faster and better protected against its long-term negative effects.”

Other than being one of the only non-retarded weight-loss plans out there, here is a big reason why something like Weight Watchers is so effective: it surrounds you with likeminded people.

This is why I’m such a fan of small group training: It gets you around people who are attempting to accomplish something to similar to you. You are all going to have similar set backs, and thus be able to offer poignant, constructive advice on how to move forward.

I want to mention this too: I am not, at all, an advocate of relying on a spouse or family member for this. Just because you are related does not mean they will be supportive. I’ve seen spouses who went in completely opposite directions weight-loss wise and it was full of tension. In fact, whenever I train couples I don’t allow them anywhere near each other while working out.

What you want is to surround yourself with likeminded people. If that happens to be a spouse, then ok. However, I think it’s much more beneficial for the initial relationship to form because of the common goal (weight-loss and being healthy).  If you become friends later on, that’s great. But you’ll always have that initial bond of losing weight together.

For example, I have morning sessions on Saturdays. Unsurprisingly, many a training sessions are done by hungover clients at this time. Recently one client was “too hungover to workout.” I quickly proceeded to have about 5 other clients call and text message her to give her shit for not coming in. About 15 minutes later she stumbles (literally) through the door with middle fingers and curse words blazing all about. But she was there.

I have trouble seeing the same affect from a spouse or old friend.


Get the negative people out

Achor uses a great, simple method of showing the influence others have on us. He begins each of his talks with a simple exercise. As he mentions, keep in mind he is giving these talks to some extremely successful people in some extremely successful companies. These are some of the most disciplined people with the highest levels of willpower around.

The exercise is for two people to stare directly into one another’s eyes; one person is instructed to smile, the other is told to not make a single move or expression.

At least 80% of the time both people end up smiling.  It’s silly, but it’s true. Just looking at someone who is smiling can alter your mood. Even for those with the highest levels of self-discipline.

Real world tie in: Do not, do not, do not underestimate the influence negative people have on you.

A few months ago I had one client who just wasn’t the same anymore. Over a few months I noticed a considerable shift in her mindset. She had a couple of injuries, work life was probably stressful, and she just was not positive. I started hearing more and more things like, “I’m too stressed,” “Getting old sucks,” “I’m too busy,” “I can’t lose weight, it’s impossible.”

After a few months this shit was starting to wear on me. I began dreading my sessions with her more and more. One exchange:

Pessimissy “God. Music just sucks now. In twenty years nobody will be listening to music from your generation, but they still will be listening to music from mine. It’s like your generation ruined music.”

Me, who has had enough at this point, “Yeah, well I’d rather ruin music than ruin the economy. Thanks for putting my generation behind nearly every other before it.”

Around this time I started doing more group training. I’m not sure if it’s luck or partially a function of me trying to be positive, but for the most part I have a great group of positive, fun to be around clients.

I started noticing other clients, clients who had never uttered these things, proclaiming they were having a rough day because they were old, or they couldn’t do such and such because of their age, or they were really stressed, the music sucked, etc. There is no doubt this single person was having a huge negative effect on other people who trained when she did.

…She no longer trains.

In the short-term it is a hit for me business wise to not have her train anymore. But in the long-term it’s much more beneficial to the 5 or so other clients who are consistently around her. They are going to view training much more positively without that negative influence around them. Thus, they are going to stick around, get better results, tell people about me, business grows, etc.

For those who may still be skeptical, Achor references an extremely famous study in the world of psychology. In this study a group of older men were assembled for a retreat and asked to live like it was the year 1959 (a year when they were 20 years younger). They were asked to act as if they had the job they had then, those friends, dressed that way, talk about the music they listened to, etc.

After doing this, other people guessed the men were three years younger than estimated before the study started!


How to respond to good news

I thought this was cool. There are four ways to respond to good news. However, only one of the responses is beneficial to your relationship with the person giving the good news.

So your friend just got a new job, the four different responses:

1)   Ignore the news / change the subject (Did you watch the game last night?)

2)   Negative response (Really? How did so and so not get it?)

3)   Passive response (Cool)

4)   Active response with questioning (That’s great. You deserve it. How will this change things for you?)

The 4th response is the only one that is beneficial to your relationship. I’ll be keeping this in mind the next time a client or friend mentions some good news to me.


Your physical behavior

“Amazing as it might sound, once people mimic the physical behaviors tied to these emotions, it causes them to feel the emotions themselves. Smiling, for instance, tricks your brain into thinking you’re happy, so it starts producing neurochemicals that actually do make you happy.”

This is a rarely cited reason on the importance of having good posture. We often assume those who are depressed, down, sad, whatever, have crappy posture because of these things. (You can tell A LOT about a person by their body language and posture.) It is becoming increasingly clear that while this can happen, those who have crappy posture for another reason (like having a desk job) can actually cause their brain to believe they are depressed, down, sad, whatever. Next thing you know the person actually is all of these things.

Yet, when treating depression and similar issues we almost always start at the brain. Think giving a depressed person drugs in order to change the chemicals produced at the brain. This may not always be treating the cause of the issue though. In some people treating the physical -their posture and such first- may then cause a subsequent change in the brain.

Standing up straight is healthy for more reasons than we know.

There is a ton more in the book. It was a really eye-opening and refreshing read. Pick it up here: The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work

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