Symposium 2013: Shawn Achor The Happiness Advantage Research Linking Happiness and Success
hawn Achor graduated from Harvard with a master’s degree in Christian and Buddhist ethics and taught at Harvard for over a decade. In 2006 he was named head teaching fellow for his course, Positive Psychology, which had become the most popular class at Harvard. In 2007 Shawn founded Good Think Inc. and subsequently he has lectured and researched in 49 countries. Shawn began his research on happiness when he was just seven years old. He was playing with his five-year-old sister Amy on top of their bunk beds when she disappeared over the edge of the bed (with no push or nudge at all from her older brother, of course) and landed painfully on her hands and knees. Shawn’s parents had charged him with making sure they played as quietly and safely as possible and, since he had accidentally broken Amy’s arm just one week earlier, he had to think fast to find a way to keep her from crying out in pain. He quickly did the only thing he could think of and said, “Amy—wait! Don’t cry! Did you see how you landed? No human lands on all fours like that! Amy—I think you’re a unicorn!” This act of desperation was actually a stroke of genius. She had a momentary look of confusion while her brain decided whether to devote resources to the pain, suffering and surprise of falling from the bunk bed or contemplating this new, unimaginable and wonderful possibility that she was, in fact, a unicorn. Rather than crying out, she smiled widely and went back to playing.
Our brains are capable of processing 40 bits of information per second. This is stunningly fast, yet our brains receive 11 million pieces of information per second from all of our nerve endings. So when we construct our reality we are choosing what facts to use. If our brain scans for stresses, hassles and problems first, then that’s all we see in our surroundings because no processing capacity remains to observe the things to be grateful for in each moment.
The Cult of the Average When educators develop classes to teach children, they begin by seeking the answers to questions like how fast a child can learn to read. Scientists will typically answer this question with an average and then classes are geared toward the average student rather than to the students’ potential. Psychologists try to make everyone “normal,” but normal is really statistically average. Shawn suggested that if we study what is average we will remain average in our companies and our schools. He believes we should study the outliers to find a way to move the average up.
The Mirror Neuron Network It’s not necessarily our reality that shapes us. It’s the lens through which we view our reality that shapes our experience. To help illustrate this point, Shawn conducted a quick experiment with the people in the room. He had everyone pair up and one person was asked to remain calm and neutral while the other person looked them in the eye and smiled warmly for seven seconds. He then had everyone switch roles. A quick show of hands revealed that roughly 90 percent of the audience was unable to stay neutral while someone was smiling at them. Shawn has conducted this experiment in 51 countries with similar results. The scientific explanation for this is the network of mirror neurons in our brain. When we smile, specific neurons in our brain light up. When we see someone else smiling, the mirror neurons light up and make our brain think that we are smiling too. This is the same process that makes yawning contagious and it is why we pick up on other people’s stress and negativity as well. We are wirelessly connected to each other through this mirror neuron network. Our brains are designed so that our thoughts and experiences will transfer to the people around us through this network. If we can find a way to buffer ourselves against the negativity, stress and uncertainty around us, then a single positive change we make in our own life can ripple back out through the same network and affect others around us in a positive way.
A Flawed Formula Scientists have found that 90 percent of the variability in our long-term happiness is not based on our external surroundings—it’s about how our brain processes that external information. People in all sorts of different situations can be optimistic and positive or pessimistic and negative. Our reality wraps around the way we think. So the question is—how do we become more positive in the midst of everything we face on a daily basis? Many of us believe if we work harder now we will be more successful in the future and then we will be happy. This idea drives our work styles, our management styles and our parenting styles. However, this formula is scientifically broken. Every time we achieve “success,” we immediately change the definition of what success looks like. Success is a moving target and, because we place happiness after success, our brains never get there. Shawn suggested we flip this formula. We can experience joy not just once we hit our goals, but also as we strive for them. If we can raise the level of happiness in the face of challenges our overall success rate also increases. Happiness turns on the brain to its highest possible levels.
Cultivating Happiness The following five habits take only two minutes per day (except one that requires a bit more) and are very effective at increasing optimism, happiness and success rates. Shawn suggested choosing just one habit to integrate for 21 days. Three Gratitudes: This habit involves writing down three things each day that inspire gratitude. Each thing should be specific and can be as simple as listing a particularly good cup of coffee or a beautiful sunrise. This habit has the power to make us focus on our positive reality. The Doubler: Our brains have a hard time telling the difference between an actual experience and visualization. Simply take two minutes each day to write down every detail of the most meaningful experience of the previous 24 hours. This exercise has the effect of doubling our most meaningful experiences and can be extremely powerful in changing how we view our world.
The Fun 15: Adding just 15 minutes of any sort of cardio activity to our day can have a profound impact. This can be walking the dog, swimming, going to the gym or anything else. Studies show just 15 minutes of cardio has the same effect as taking an antidepressant. Shawn referred to exercise as a starter drug—it trains our brains to believe our behavior matters. Meditation: Meditation is attention training and can be accomplished in just two minutes a day of simply watching our breath. This helps our brains learn to focus on one task at a time. When we become accomplished in this our happiness improves, our stress decreases, our accuracy rates increase and these benefits spread to other people through the mirror neuron network. Conscious Acts of Kindness: This habit involves taking two minutes to write an email praising or thanking a different person in our social support network each day for a 21-day period. When introducing this habit Shawn told attendees that this is the most powerful of the five habits and can become highly addictive. The joy felt when making others happy and appreciated actually makes us feel better about ourselves.
Conclusion Shawn summed up his presentation with the following three conclusions. Happiness is a Choice: We have a limited capacity for experiencing the world, so what you attend to first will become your reality. Happiness Spreads: Picking up one of the positive exercises can have a profound effect on how you view the world, but it will also affect others around you in a positive way through the mirror neuron network. Happiness is extraordinarily contagious. Happiness is an Advantage: Happiness is actually fuel for the human brain—it is not just about pleasure. It deepens our optimism, social connection and the way we perceive stress. Shawn believes picking up just one of these daily habits can transform our perspective of the world away from negativity, stress and uncertainty to one in which our behavior matters, we see the things we are grateful for in each moment and perceive the meaning in our lives.