Happiness is a choice.
– Shawn Achor, social psychologist and author
One of the perks of covering industry conferences for my work is getting to listen to the keynote speakers. In the past nine years, I’ve been fortunate to have a chance to hear Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Freakonomics author and rogue economist Steven Levitt, journalist and New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell, and Atul Gawande, surgeon and New Yorker medical writer. I was in Las Vegas the past three days for a supply-chain management conference, and I had the serendipitous pleasure of listening to and writing about opening keynote speaker Shawn Achor.
Why serendipitous? Early last week I was feeling a bit down about having to endure the long and drawn-out process of sending out queries and waiting to hear back from literary agents. And even though I had just come off of a week devoted to working on my second novel (but with liberal interruptions from work), I was bemoaning how overwhelmed I felt about the amount of research the second novel requires and my lack of big chunks of time – well, time, period – to read, research, sketch and plan, and start writing. Meanwhile at work, I had to draft conference session summaries ahead of the actual conference. One of my assignments was to summarize Shawn Achor’s opening keynote based on a long bio that I was given. At the time, I had no idea who he was.
For those who have never heard of him, Shawn Achor is a social psychologist and author of the New York Times best-selling books The Happiness Advantage (2010) and Before Happiness (2013) and host of the PBS special The Happiness Advantage with Shawn Achor. He is one of the world’s leading experts on the connection between happiness and success, and his positive psychology lecture is the most popular class at Harvard University, where he teaches. He founded GoodThinkInc. in 2007 to share his research on happiness, which has earned him numerous accolades, including gracing the cover of Harvard Business Review.
Achor presented a TED talk that garnered four million views and his PBS-aired lecture was seen by millions. He has lectured or researched in more than 50 countries, with his audiences including Chinese CEOs and South African school children. He worked with the U.S. Department of Health to promote happiness and the National MS Society and Genzyme in 2012 on their Everyday Matters campaign to show how happiness is a choice for chronically ill patients. He earned his master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School in Christian and Buddhist ethics, conducts psychology research on happiness and organizational achievement in collaboration with Yale University and the Institute for Applied Positive Research, and teaches in the Advanced Management Program at Wharton Business School. I’ve added him as another multi-talented person to admire, next to John Halamka.
This is Achor’s second appearance at this conference. Two years ago, he shared his research on the connection between happiness and success, which was the topic of his first book. In his opening keynote this year, Achor discussed the precursors to happiness and success, which he chronicles in Before Happiness, and highlighted what we need to change in our reality in order for us to have long-term, sustainable happiness, success, creativity, and higher levels of performance.
While humans have genetic predispositions, Achor emphasizes that “happiness can be a choice.” According to Achor, we need to get the human brain to change and recharge through activities such as activating our “mirror neurons” that in turn increase our levels of dopamine, which raises our level of happiness and joy. For example, when someone smiles at you, mirror neurons in the brain are activated, causing you to smile. Achor worked with New Orleans hospitals post-Katrina to reverse the view of hospitals as places of sickness and disease. Other industry business models were reviewed, in particular, the five-star hotel experience for customer service – called the 10-5 way – developed by the Ritz-Carlton. When patrons are within 10 feet, staff members offer them a smile. When they are within five feet, staff members say hello.
Within six months of implementing the 10-5 way, a group of hospitals reported a significant rise in the number of unique patient visits, a spike in the likelihood of patients to refer the facility based on the quality of care they received, and high levels of physician engagement. A one-second behavioral change created multiple quantitative benefits, but the intangible and qualitative benefit – happier patients and staff – is arguably the most important one. “We are socialized for reciprocation,” Achor explained. Despite our individuality, human brains are wirelessly connected and through continuous loops of creating positive experiences, humans can experience “neuroplasticity,” which allows us to change our behavior.
On the flip side, being around stress and negativity is comparable to inhaling second-hand smoke, according to Achor. Studies have been conducted, for example, in which a researcher stood among 15 strangers in an airport or train station. The researcher began nervously bouncing in place, tapping his foot and constantly looking at his watch. Within two minutes, between seven to 12 people on average began to unconsciously mimic his behavior. Achor encouraged the audience to try out the experiment at the Vegas airport on our way home, joking that we would be spreading stress and negativity.
The positive, engaged brain
The Harvard Business Journal article, in which Achor was profiled, concluded that “the greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive, engaged brain.” Gallop found that only 25 percent of our job successes is based on our intelligence and technical skills. Three other elements comprise the remaining 75 percent – your optimism or the belief that your behavior matters; the breadth, depth, and meaning of your social support network and relationships; and lastly, the way you perceive stress. Today, at a time when many industries, including healthcare, are undergoing significant changes and transformations, how do we remain resilient, especially when change is often perceived as a threat, which in turn creates stress?
While stress creates havoc mentally, emotionally, and physically, moderate to high levels of stress have also been known to induce the body to release growth hormones that actually rebuild cells, create a robust immune system, deepen our memory, speed up cognitive processes, and deepen our social bonds. The military, Achor pointed out, uses the boot camp to “onboard” its recruits to prepare for combat. The situational stress creates “a shared meaningful narrative” that bonds the recruits. “That’s the message we don’t get amid massive change,” Achor said. Stress can be a “growth-producing opportunity” and the “glue that keeps people and organizations together for decades.”
While, obviously, people respond to stress differently, Achor contends that we can learn how to view stress in a positive way. During the banking crisis, UBS employees taking an online course saw YouTube videos that offered two different paths to handling stress – fight or flee from threats or understand the effects of stress on the human body and leverage that knowledge to treat stress as an enhancement. Six weeks later, employee stress levels remained the same. According to a self-reported survey, however, 23 percent of the employees reported a drop in health-related symptoms usually related to stress and 30 percent of them experienced an increase in their productivity. Stress is inevitable, but negative effects on the human body are not, Achor stressed. (This reminds me of the Buddhist adage, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”) We can view changes that are occurring in the world as challenges and not threats.
Trumping nature and nurture
Many people assume we are hardwired by nature and molded by our early years, and therefore, the average person doesn’t fight their genes, which studies have shown. A researcher who was part of a well-known study of identical twins found that 80 percent of long-term happiness is predicted by one’s genes (he has since recanted that finding, according to Achor). While the researcher was only half-right, Achor contends that he is wholly wrong. One woman who was an identical twin told Achor that while both she and her twin had grown up very negative she was more optimistic than her twin. She had been involved in a terrible car accident as a teenager. She thought she was going to die but didn’t, which instilled in her a new outlook on life. What’s incredible, Achor notes, is that it wasn’t a positive change but post-traumatic growth that caused her to deviate from her genetic set point. “If we can change for the better with trauma, how much so can we change with something positive?” he offered to us.
“People think happiness is complacency, so we stop,” Achor noted. “Happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change; happiness is the realization that we actually can.” He defines happiness in terms of positive psychology, based on the ancient Greeks, and informed by Christian and Buddhist ethics, which he studied at Harvard’s Divinity School: “Happiness is the joy that we feel striving toward our potential.” If happiness is just pleasure, it’s short lived and it dies almost immediately, Achor said. If “happiness” doesn’t have a meaning component, it can’t be sustained. “But joy is something you can experience in the midst of the ups and downs of life,” he declared. “It’s on the way toward potential, so it’s growth-producing. It’s not stagnating, which is what complacency actually is.”
Change your mind set, look at the world differently
Achor is on a mission to get people to stop looking at happiness in terms of optimism and pessimism and instead to look at the world differently. Rather than see a glass as half-empty or half-full, for example, be creative in how we view our world and envision a pitcher full of water next to the glass. Expand your world. As you face the changes in your life, positive or negative, expend energy looking for ways to fill up the glass, which Achor calls an act of positive genius.
Positive genius can be applied to multiple situations and groups of people, which can lead to widespread positive changes in, for example, education and the military. Studies were conducted in which students were given articles to read before having to complete a cognitive task. Half the class read an article about how intelligence is fixed. The other half read an article that stated that intelligence is malleable – people can change their intelligence all the time and can have different intelligence from one year over the previous year. After the students who read the latter article took the test, the studies found that, in aggregate, even the students with higher IQs did better on their cognitive tasks. They had the same IQs and genes going into the experiment, but they experienced a dramatic deviation based on the belief that change is possible.
Another study was conducted with soldiers who had to scale steep hills with heavy backpacks. One group of soldiers was primed to believe that change was possible and they became more positive about the task ahead of them. Once they scaled the hills and were asked to rate their experience, they deemed the hills as being lower and the weight of the backpacks as being lighter than they had anticipated. “What’s amazing is that the optimists were actually realists,” Achor said. “They were pretty accurate in terms of the approximation of the weight and the hills to be.” The other set of soldiers who were primed for a negative experience perceived the hills to be steeper and their backpacks heavier. According to the study, these soldiers’ brains “showed” them pictures of larger hills and heavier backpacks, which caused them to believe that behavior matters less and, as a result, they were more fatigued.
Lastly, Achor presented the findings by Harvard University social psychologist Ellen Langer, who conducted a study in 1979 of 75-year-old men on a week-long retreat. They were “transported” back to the year 1959; the only reading material at the retreat were magazines and newspapers from that year, they wore ID badges with their photos as 55-year-olds, and they could only talk about their lives up to that year. A separate group of 75-year-olds participated in a retreat for the current year of 1979. Langer wanted to prove a revolutionary hypothesis – that the aging process can be reversed if the mindset is changed. She measured all the things we think about that are unchangeable about aging – including strength, posture, and flexibility – at the beginning and conclusion of the retreat for both groups.
In the aggregate, the 1959 group recorded a 10 percent improvement in eyesight and a 50 percent in improvement in memory. Recruited “naïve readers” were asked to examine photos taken before and after the retreat. They rated the 1959 group as looking three years younger in their after-retreat photos. Langer’s research revealed that the aging process is mediated by the way we perceive the world. “If we think about the world in terms of threats, if we think that we can’t change our intelligence, creativity, or the obstacles in front of us, or even the aging process, we start to see those patterns start to bear out,” Achor said.
But what if we approached stressful events as opportunities for growth and we believe that we can change and we can look at the world differently to our advantage? Achor entreats us to do so. Game on.
Stay tuned for Part II of choosing happiness on Friday.