The Science of Happiness

In the middle of a busy travel schedule, positive psychology expert, Shawn Achor took time out of his day to talk with me about the science of happiness. Shawn started studying happiness as a undergrad at Harvard. He has spent the past several years researching and teaching at Harvard University on the subject of positive psychology. His lectures on happiness and human potential have received attention from The New York Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, CNN, and NPR. With his company Aspirant, Shawn travels across the United States and Europe giving talks on the science behind individual happiness and organizational success.

What inspired you to study the science of happiness? I never expected to get to go to Harvard, so when I did, it seemed like such a privilege.  In the midst of stresses, exams and snows, I never lost the thrill for being there. If I was challenged by people in my classes because they were smarter than me, I just felt happy to be among them.  As I held my optimism and connected with other students who viewed the world with gratitude and happiness I realized there was a connection. Students who maintained their optimism continued to perform better and better. Those who lost their enthusiasm for the privilege became stressed and focused on complaining. This negative mental attitude drained their brain’s ability to create positive change and ultimately prevented them from learning. This fascinated me, so I spent the next 12 years at Harvard studying how happiness changes success rates.

Through your research what has surprised you the most? I expected the wealthy and educated to be the most resilient during down times.  In 2009, I traveled from Zurich to Zimbabwe. In Zurich, I worked with Swiss bankers who were devastated over losing their bonuses. In Zimbabwe, I talked with farmers who lost their field; their entire income. Their currency had completely collapsed; a chocolate bar might cost you a trillion there! The farmers remained positive and believed they could endure the collapse and whatever life has in store for them. This surprised me, I thought I could predict a person’s happiness based on their external world yet it is 90% about the person’s makeup inside and 10% about external world.

What do you think is the biggest obstacle standing in a person’s way of happiness? It is the failure to believe that our behavior matters.  To me, happiness is the joy we feel striving after our potential (as a business person, family person, mother, friend, athlete, musician, etc.). We lose our happiness when we feel that we stagnate and do not grow.  If a person does not believe their behavior matters, they are less likely to create positive habits, less likely to perform acts of kindness, and less likely to pull themselves through a challenge.  If you think you don’t matter at work; you hate work.  If you think you can’t get better at something; you stop trying.  If you think you are unhappy and can’t change; then your brain is less likely to change.  The key to happiness is to remember we can keep growing and taking responsible for our own behavior. How we respond to reality can change that reality.

What are the best ways to make sure our brains operates in happiness? First is to practice gratitude.  I don’t mean be a grateful person.  I mean practice it.  Every day, for 21 days, write down three things you are grateful for on a sheet of paper or say it outloud to someone.  And be specific, why are you grateful for your health or children?  When you do this, your brain will begin to scan the world around you in a more positive way for the rest of the day, and you can train your brain for greater optimism.  In addition, journaling for 5 minutes a day about a positive experience, meditating, exercising (which is the equivalent of an antidepressant) and doing a conscious act of kindness.  Happiness is a work ethic.

What is Positive Psychology? It is a new movement in social psychology which studies happiness, optimism, hope and success.  In other words, instead of a disease model, positive psychology studies people who are above the curve for health, happiness and success.  It studies what works rather than what is broken.

Do you believe everyone is capable of working from a positive optimal level? Yes.  The science is unequivocal: while we may start at different places based on our genes, everyone (except in the rare cases of brain damage) is capable of training their brain for more positivity.

I believe a person’s success can be measured in their ability to create and maintain relationships. Where do you believe happiness fits in this equation? Social support, your relationships, is one of the greatest predictors of happiness.  A study at Yale School of Management found social support contributes to personal success and even greater business success. This research study found that neither the collective IQ of a team or the number of years of experience the team has is as predictive of the profitability and success of that team as social cohesion–the quality of relationships.

How does happiness fuel success? My entire book coming out this Fall, The Happiness Advantage, is based on explaining this and how we can use happiness to increase performance.  In short, when we are positive, our brains process more possibilities in our environment.  Dopamine turns on all the learning centers of the brain causing us to adapt quicker and use more of our intelligence.  Happiness correlates with higher productivity, three times higher creativity, less burnout, greater energy, and fewer sick days.  One meta-analysis found that across 200,000 employees, employees who were positive have an unfair advantage over those who are negative or neutral because people tend to rely on them to do more work. We all know this.  We get more work done when we enjoy the work and feel invested in it.  The problem is that common sense is not common action.  I just spoke with a stock trader in NY and he told me if he sees a member of his team smiling, that person is not working hard enough.  Ironically, stress and negativity turn off the brain and cause us to make worse financial decisions. Happiness raises success and business outcomes.  We have a lot of work to do to get our companies working at their optimal levels given that in January we found the highest rates of job dissatisfaction in 22 years of polling.

I know you have done research on how positivity and negativity spreads…what surprised you there? What long lasting results did each have? I went into KPMG, a large accounting firm, and trained half of their managers for three hours about The Happiness Advantage then tracked them over time compared to a control group.  We found that when you get individuals to make positive habits, it creates lasting impact.  The managers I trained one week after the training showed significantly higher levels of life satisfaction, optimism and energy compared to the control, as well as less stress.  But then remarkably, when I tested them again four months later, the managers who had been exposed to positive psychology still showed significantly higher levels of life satisfaction (quality of life).  Happiness cascades into greater positive change.

Relationships come in both forms; positive and negative. What tips do you have to avoid the negative and inspire the positive? Negative people either were rewarded for being pessimistic or they believe that their behavior and mindset do not matter. If you can help a negative person change one of those, you can help them be more positive.  Second, negativity and positivity can spread.  If you have a person that you realize you are not immune to, you might need to decrease contact with that person, or find ways of increasing your emotional immune system by doing one of the positive daily habits I mentioned before.

What else can you tell me about your book, The Happiness Advantage? It is being published by Random House in September and I’ll be doing the audiobook for it as well.  It is about changing the formula for work.  The old formula, used at most schools and companies, is if I work hard, then I’ll be successful, then I’ll be happy.  This formula is broken.  Every victory we have, we merely move the goalposts of success further out.  But more importantly, our brains work in the opposite order.  Happiness raises success rates and gives our brains an advantage.  Happiness then is a precursor to success, and by finding ways to raise our happiness, we can reap the Happiness Advantage at our work.

Care to share anything about your personal experience with happiness? What challenges your happiness? Happiness takes practice.  I gave 140 talks last year in 36 countries.  That travel schedule definitely challenged my own happiness.  Yet, I’m so grateful, not only for the opportunity to share the research, but it forced me to put positive psychology to practice in my own life.  Here’s the problem, information is not transformation.  We can know all of this information, but we won’t move past New Year’s resolutions that only take us to January 5 unless we find ways to practice and consciously hone our happiness. Happiness and optimism are learned skills. Happiness does not just happen.

Last question, what do you hope your work inspires? I want companies and schools to start realizing the truth: if you sacrifice happiness and mental well-being, you decrease success, not increase it.  If you want a child to flourish, if you want a company to thrive, you cannot work them to exhaustion and you cannot focus only short term outcomes.  We need to take time everyday to consciously practice the happiness that keeps us moving forward and believing that our behavior matters.

To Learn more about Shawn and his work

Sidenote: Learn how to practice “thoughtful introduction” to increase your happiness factor. HINT- It comes back to you when you master this.