Science of Happiness: Q&A with Shawn Achor

Shawn Achor - Good Think, Inc. - Science of Happiness - Positive Psychology - South Florida Science CenterFor 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.

   Here, Achor discusses the happiness effect, why happiness is important, and ways to create a positive environment to maintain a positive reality.


Why happiness?

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.

Shawn Achor - Good Think, Inc. - Science of Happiness - Positive Psychology - South Florida Science Center

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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