For Shawn Achor, happiness is quantifiable. A leading expert in positive psychology, while at Harvard, as a student and Fellow, Achor studied where human potential, success, and happiness intersect, arguing that success does not lead to happiness, but rather happiness creates success. Charismatic, upbeat, and funny, Achor’s TED Talk has garnered more than 12 million views since its 2011 debut, making it one of the most popular videos in the series.
As the CEO of Good Think, Inc., Achor has worked with a third of Fortune 100 companies on how to increase happiness, thusly raising the rates of success, creativity, and profitability. His recent project with Oprah Winfrey—a 21-day “O-Course”—is designed to train individuals to institute habits that encourage mindset changes, leading to a behavioral pattern changes, consequently improving quality of life, happiness, and success.
While the science of happiness can seem abstract to some, Achor has the uncanny ability to make the notion engaging and relatable, as witnessed in his children’s book Ripple’s Effect, which puts the practice of positive psychology in action in an entertaining and positive story. As an education advocate, Achor and the Good Think team work with children as young as four and onto college, showing that positive psychology is not just a means to success, but rather a change of perception. Adherents are trained to live within a positive reality, thusly affecting all other aspects of their lives, from increased creativity and productivity to improvements in mental and physical health.
On March 2, Achor will join the South Florida Science Center & Aquarium as the keynote speaker at their annual gala at The Breakers. Tickets cost $500. For more information, visit sfsciencecenter.org/happiness.
Here, Achor discusses the happiness effect, why happiness is important, and ways to create a positive environment to maintain a positive reality.
Achor: I spent 12 years at Harvard. When I first went there from Waco, Texas, I felt like it was such a privilege and I was so happy. But then as I started watching some of the other students. [When I] became an Officer of Harvard to help counsel the students, I saw that 80 percent of the students went through depression, and 10 percent had contemplated suicide.
I realized that a lot of the things we thought create happiness, like having an incredible external world, or having successes, didn’t actually lead to happiness. So I got fascinated in studying what actually caused people to feel happiness, and how do we quantify changes to somebody’s levels of meaning, or happiness, or optimism.
What we found was that if you could change someone’s beliefs about the world, it dramatically changes their outcomes—their business outcomes, their educational outcomes, their health outcomes.
How does positive reality affect ones productivity?
I think it takes a mindset change and a habit change. The mindset change is we need to stop thinking that success will lead to happiness. So often we delay happiness for the future, assuming it will naturally come from our successes. What we find is that even if you win the game, get the job, or get into the right school, it turns out very quickly your brain starts thinking about what happens next, how do I improve. As a result of that success actually doesn’t lead to happiness.
As we did this research, if we found that somebody’s brain became more positive, they reaped a unique advantage. The human brain works better at positive then at negative, neutral, or stressed. We found that a positive brain has 31 percent higher productivity; has three times more creativity; 40 percent more likely to receive a promotion over the next two-year period of time; you experience 23 percent fewer negative symptoms from stress; are 39 percent more likely to live to the age 94—the benefits go on and on. Every business and educational outcome improves when the human brain is positive.
But once you’ve made that mindset shift, you need to actually create a habit change so you can get your brain stuck in that new positive pattern. I’ve been looking for the smallest pods of habits that people can do, akin to brushing your teeth, to create these positive changes. [In one instance], every morning when people got into work at Facebook we had them write a two-minute positive email praising or thanking a different person each day; journal about one positive experience for two minutes; think of three new things they are grateful for; exercise for 15 minutes a day; or meditate for two minutes a day. We found that if someone did just one of those things, it can trump not only their genes, but eight decades of experience to raise their levels of optimism above what we would have expected.
And we found that we could actually sustain the patterns. If someone did these positive habits for 21 days in a row, they can go from a default pessimist to a default, low-level optimist. And we found things like the two-minute positive email had all these ancillary benefits. For example, if you write a two-minute email each day, 21 days later your social connections score is extraordinarily high. Social connection is not only the greatest predictor of happiness we have, but it turns out social connection is as predictive of how long we will live as obesity, high blood pressure, or smoking. We fight so hard against the negatives in our society, but we forget to tell people how powerful a two-minute positive habit can be.
Is this a brain chemistry thing?
One of the things we often see when the brain is negative, the amygdala starts to activate, and that steals resources from the prefrontal cortex, the front part of the brain, the part that makes good decisions. So I call the amygdala the jerk and the prefrontal cortex the thinker, and when you are negative, the jerk steals resources from the thinker. When you are positive, more of the thinker is activated, so you can actually see solutions to problems better.
Are people genetically predisposed to having a happier mindset?
We find that happiness is an easier choice for some people just based on their genes. But the crucial part is that’s not the end of the story. That’s where most of the research stopped 20 years ago, but now we know that that story can change at any point in your life. Even at 84 years of age, where by getting someone to do a two-minute positive habit, we can actually get somebody with potentially genes for pessimism, who have been practicing it for eight decades of their life, to become a low level, default optimist. Which is incredible…you can do this with four-year-old children up to 84-year-old men. What’s amazing about that is it shows us that we believe a cultural myth, that you are just your genes and environment. It turns out very small, conscious changes to our life have massive impacts upon the course of our life.
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Why is social connectivity so important?
Social connection is actually hardwired into us. It matters so much to us because that’s how we felt safe and secure all throughout evolutionary history. Without that, we feel panic.
It is the breadth, depth, and meaning in our social relationships. When I was at Harvard, I found that there is a .7 correlation between social connection and happiness. It doesn’t sound that sexy, but it is extraordinarily more predictive then the connection between smoking and cancer. So what we are finding is that social connection is almost equivalent with creating greater levels of happiness in our life.
I’ve traveled to 51 countries doing this research, and we thought political and economic instability would be great predictors of somebody’s level of happiness. What we found in places like Venezuela or Zimbabwe, where people are under the threats of kidnapping, or farmers who lost their land, there were incredibly optimistic and positive people because they had deep social connections. They were deeply connected to their community, their friends, and to their family. Then when I studied bankers in the west, in the United States and in Europe, we actually found, despite the wealth, many people were extraordinarily unhappy. The reason for it, the greatest predictor of it, was social fragmentation. They had scattered away from their family and friends, they were working long hours away from their community, and traveling all the time.
What are some things that negatively affect positive reality?
This is a famous quote someone once told me: “Hurry is not of the devil; it is the devil. [Carl Jung]” Through research we are finding that hurry oftentimes causes us to break the connection between one another. Even filling your micro moments with turning on your phone, its like your brain is constantly bombarded by information. It makes it feel threatened, which means it stops scanning the world for the things you are grateful for.
And lack of sleep. We know that if you lose an entire hour of sleep each night on average, where you sleep less than five hours a night, it turns out you can remember 70 percent of the negative words you learned the day before, but only remember 20 to 30 percent of the positive ones. Your brain can’t even remember the positive when you are in a sleep-deprived state.
How does living in a positive reality affect children?
[At Good Think] I have partnered with a man named Dr. Bobo Blankson, a pediatrician from Yale University who became a military doctor. He says the earlier you can get these positive habits into somebody, the longer an affect it has upon their brain. He says if a child practices gymnastics from age four, they have a higher threshold for change. The same thing is true with the earlier you teach kids gratitude, optimism, or how to build social support, the greater impact it has on their educational outcomes.
How do you help instill this in kids?
One is the parents have to be modeling this. When a parent comes home from work, they can’t focus on the negative at work, but describe work as a challenge instead of as a threat. And around the dinner table, they are not just asking the kids to think of three things that they are grateful for, but are offering things they are grateful for as well. Kids are picking up on those models all the time.
So instilling positive habits, like having them think of three new things they are grateful for each day when they come home from school. Or doing strength training with them, which is identifying what their strengths are, and getting them to work on those even more instead of focusing on [their] weaker areas.
What are some ways to create a positive environment to maintain a positive reality and brain?
I think there are several. One of them is to make some of the gratitude that we talked about visual. One of the companies I worked with would not only think of things they were grateful each day, but they would write them on their white board on their office door as well. So every time someone walked into their room, they would see what that person was grateful for. As a result of that, it starts the conversation at positive.
In addition to that, we found that if people start their phone conversations or meetings not with fires that need to be put out, or stress like hurry, but start with something positive, like how they are socially connected, or praising or thanking one person, the success rate of that meeting or phone call raises dramatically.
Finally, we got people at a hospital to, when they were within 10 feet of someone, make eye contact and smile, and when within five feet they would say hello. It turns out through that simple pattern, the perception of quality of care at the hospital skyrocketed, and the doctors’ engagement levels and happiness at work were the highest in a decade. Very small changes can have huge impacts upon the culture around us.