Happiness is a choice.
– Shawn Achor, social psychologist and author
So now that we know we can choose to be happy, per Shawn Achor’s opening keynote at the Vegas conference that I attended earlier this week, the question remains: How do we start to make change in our lives to be happy or happier and track those changes to stay on that path? I have yet to read Achor’s two books, The Happiness Advantage (2010) ) and Before Happiness (2013), but he did a great job presenting the latter book by offering his 5 habits of practicing happiness, which he called the building blocks for changing our genetic and environmental set point for the better.
Achor entreats us to write for 21 days straight three things that we are grateful for. People know that gratitude is good for us, but social scientists have conducted studies to show that people can learn how to be optimistic – called “learned optimism” from the book of the same name and a concept developed by Dr. Martin Seligman, American psychologist, educator, and author. His studies have shown that even pessimists can evolve to become low-level and even high-level optimists – no matter your age. Octogenarians have experienced this result, proving that “45 seconds of thinking of three things you’re grateful for each day can trump not only your genes, but eight decades of experience,” Achor said. At dinnertime, our family goes around the table and each member talks about the “rose and the thorn” of his or her day. Not quite three gratitudes, but something along the same lines of recognizing what we are grateful for in our day and in our lives.
Spend two minutes writing about a single meaningful experience in the last 24 hours, including as much detail as possible. Studies have shown that visualization is interpreted in the brain’s cortex as actual experience. Therefore, people who journal about positive experiences, for example, actually double the equal experience. When Achor talked about the “doubler,” I thought about my blogging. One of the reasons I started blogging was to get myself in shape as a writer, but I also found that blogging about striving for a meaningful, creative, full life kept my eyes on the prize. Even when I was grumpy, sad, lazy, or disinterested, I forged ahead, knowing somewhere inside that the writing exercise was good for me. And after I published blog posts when in these moods, I more often than not felt the better for it.
The Fun 15
Achor pointed out that 15 minutes of mindful cardio activity a day is the equivalent of taking an anti-depressant. I get on my wind trainer for 30 minutes a day, Monday through Friday, early in the mornings. I confess that there are many mornings when I would rather be doing something else or want to whittle down my set time. After hearing Achor talk about mindful cardio activity, I have tried to focus on what good I’m getting out of literally spinning my wheels. I do spend time on the bike plotting out my day because it makes me feel like I have a game plan and it makes me feel productive. But it doesn’t take the entire 30 minutes. Now I know to treat half of that time as a form of being more mindful, getting in touch with how my body is working.
Find time to meditate. And if you can’t, here is a simple exercise while at work: For two minutes, take your hands off your keyboard and watch your breath going in and out. Achor noted that studies have shown that this exercise increased people’s accuracy of a task by 10 percent, created a significant rise in their happiness, and reduced the negative levels of stress that they were experiencing. I’ve always wanted to return to yoga, but for now, I can easily carve out two minutes in front of the laptop.
Conscious acts of kindness
Take two minutes a day to write a text or an e-mail praising one person you know. Do it for three days in a row. Studies have shown that, 21 days later, research subjects reported having a robust social network support and strong ties, as a result of having “deeply activated” those people from the communications. “Social support is one of the greatest predictors of happiness,” Achor declared. With so many work and school-related acts of violence in our society, imagine if we had help from experts and internal leadership to deepen our social connection within those institutions. “It trumps everything else you can do,” Achor emphasized.
How to keep going: the goal is closer than you think
Sometimes starting out is easy, but continuing is the rub. Achor pointed out that we can speed toward our goals by highlighting the progress we’ve already made. He was recently asked by an NBA team how to motivate its players for the play-offs. “If you tell the team they’re at the start of the play-offs, that’s exhausting,” Achor noted. “But if you talk about how they’re at the end of the season and highlight their victories of the past couple of years and what got them to this point, they perceive the progress and they perceive being closer to the goal.”
To-do lists are good tools that lead us to our goals, but Achor advises not to start our list at the current status quo because we’ll be overwhelmed by the number of tasks yet to be done. Instead, include what we have already accomplished. By highlighting accomplishments, we create what social psychologists call a “cascade of success” and get closer to our goals. When people exercise in the morning, for example, they feel that they’ve done something successful and it cascades into the next activity. Studies have found that people who exercise in the morning are better at doing their in-box in the middle of the day, according to Achor. This is absolutely true for me. Before I even take a shower and walk my daughter to school by 8:30 AM, I respond to work e-mail, do a core and hand weight exercises, walk Rex or 25 minutes in the neighborhood, and spin on my wind trainer for 30 minutes. With each morning routine I get out of the way, I feel like I have done a lot and feel the rush of accomplishment by the time I sit at my desk to work.
Achor entreats us to “cancel the noise.” Especially in this technology-driven world that we live in, more and more our brains are getting overwhelmed from processing all the food of information coming at them, making it difficult to process anything new and stopping us from looking for positive changes in our lives. If we decrease the amount of noise, Achor contends, our bodies can relax. Therefore, he entreats us to carve out an hour a week where we don’t look at your mobile devices or other distracting things. “Studies have shown that a five percent decrease in noise actually boosts our ability to see the signal,” he pointed out. “A little foothold helps people believe change is possible.”
To make it easier to do something positive, Achor says, we also need to get rid of barriers to change, which he calls the 20-second rule, to create positive habits in our lives. Achor talked about sleeping in his gym clothes so that first thing in the morning he could go straight to exercising. My strategy is to have my exercise area all prepped so I don’t waste precious morning time setting up and potentially talking myself out of exercising.
Before we make changes to our happiness, success, or health, our brain first has to get over the barrier of what Achor called the activation energy. “If we can change that activation energy level by 3 to 20 seconds in any direction, I can stop you from doing negative habits or get you to start doing positive habits,” he said. Watching TV – depending upon what you watch, of course – is a well-known time sinkhole. According to Google, the average American watches 5.7 hours of TV a day. Achor used to watch three hours a day, thanks to a low activation energy of plopping on the sofa and hitting the “on” button on the remote control. He added 20 seconds to the activation energy by taking out the remote-control batteries and putting it in various places. It took too much energy to remember where he had put them and then to retrieve the batteries. At the same time, he also put books, his journal, and work on the sofa, and his guitar and its stand in the living room. “I made myself less time efficient,” he explained. By adding 20 seconds to his bad habit, he regained two conscious hours a day or 14 hours by the end of the week. “That’s an entire conscious day I got back,” he exclaimed. Now he only watches TV when it really matters. To create a positive habit, make it 3 to 20 seconds easier to start. “I took the path of least resistance toward the positive habit. My excuses actually went away,” he said. “It created a life-long habit.”
Ultimately, Achor said, “You don’t have to be just your genes and your environment. We can actually choose to have higher levels of happiness based on the choices we make in our lives.” On the other hand, he emphasized, quite emphatically, we don’t want blind happiness – that is, ignorance being blissful and being blind to suffering around us – or irrational optimism, which sugarcoats reality. Achor is enthusiastically advocating for rational optimism. “Happiness is not the belief that everything is great; happiness is the belief that change is possible,” he said. Achor reiterated his definition of happiness, which is one of the themes of Before Happiness: “the joy one feels striving for one’s potential.” It’s the journey.