To those who think of happiness as a “nice to have” luxury or something that comes after a lifetime of sacrifice of single-mindedly driving to achieve a goal, happiness researcher Shawn Achor, head of Goodthink and author of “The Happiness Advantage,” is on a mission to change minds, hearts and lives. Happiness, he says, isn’t just about feeling good, it’s about the joy we feel while striving after our potential. His research has found that choosing simple happiness habits that take no longer than brushing your teeth can boost your mood, make you happier and, as a result, healthier, more productive and creative at work and closer to those you love at home. He explains:
Q: We never used to talk about happiness. Now it seems all the rage. What’s going on?
Achor: I think we’re living through twin revolutions. The high-tech revolution allows us to have information at our fingertips at any moment. And hidden behind that is a more powerful one. Because of that technology, we’ve been able to understand the human brain better than ever. We’ve learned that we’re not just products of our genes and environment. But by changing our mindset and habits, we can actually dramatically change the course of life, improve intelligence, productivity, improve the quality of our lives, and improve every single education and business outcome.
There’s a great thing on Google called N-gram. And because they’ve digitized all this literature, you can search language usage over the past 150 years. And you can see that, over the past 10 years, there’s been this massive increase in the use of the word “happiness.”
But if you look over the past 150 years, we are a little blip at the end of a long decline … throughout the entire 20th century. And that maps right onto society becoming more industrialized. And as we got more interested in time management and productivity, we lost the individual, and with that individual loss, we lost happiness as well.
So I think the world has actually been malnourished as we’ve focused so much on productivity and ignored happiness and meaning to our own detriment.
Q: What you’re describing is so much larger than ourselves – industrialization, now globalization – is real happiness out of the hands of individuals?
Achor: What’s hopeful is that happiness is actually an individual choice, even in the midst of negative circumstances. It’s not something our employers can give to us, though they can limit and influence that choice.
We’re finding that happiness is a social creature. If you try to pursue it in a vacuum, it’s very difficult to sustain it. But as soon as you get people focused on creating meaningful connections in the midst of their work, or increasing the meaning and depth of their relationships outside of work, we find happiness rising in step with that social connection.
The big threat to happiness is social fragmentation, which industrialization and globalization of course can contribute to. We don’t find much difference in happiness levels based on economic structures of society. We do find them based on the depth of social connection.
I’ve worked with farmers in Zimbabwe who’ve lost their lands. I’ve worked with people in Venezuela, under threat of kidnappings, whose external world is unstable. But they have very strong social connections with their family and friends. And as a result, they’re able to maintain a greater level of happiness and optimism than I’ve seen from bankers, consultants, or salespeople who are on the road all the time, who follow jobs separated from their families, and, as a result, find themselves missing out on the happiness that comes from those very connections that they severed.
Q: But so many people think that happiness isn’t something you get now but something to earn later, after you’ve become successful. How do you make the case that happiness matters?
Achor: Happiness is such an incredible advantage in our life. When the human brain is positive, our intelligence rises, we stop diverting resources to think about anxiety.
Our creativity triples. Productive energy rises by 31 percent. The likelihood of promotion rises by 40 percent. Sales rise by 37 percent. These figures are all from studies we’ve done in places like Nationwide Insurance, UPS, KPMG.
Most people keep waiting on happiness, putting off happiness until they’re successful or until they achieve some goal, which means we limit both happiness and success. That formula doesn’t work.
If we flip around the formula, investing in happiness now reaps an incredible dividend. The greatest competitive advantage in our modern economy is a positive and engaged brain.
I think that’s so important, because that gets companies to invest in happiness. It incentivizes us to choose happiness for our kids, and to choose it in our own lives, instead of continually pushing off happiness, hoping it will happen to us based upon our successes.
Q: So what can readers do to create more happiness in their own lives?
Achor: I’ve been looking at five habits that are akin to brushing your teeth. Very short habits that if you do them every day, will improve your health, but also improve your levels of happiness.
1. Three Acts of Gratitude. Spend two minutes a day scanning the world for three new things you’re grateful for. And do that for 21 days, The reason why that’s powerful is you’re training your brain to scan the world in a new pattern, you’re scanning for positives, instead of scanning for threats. It’s the fastest way of teaching optimism.
I was working with a large financial company, and we got them to think of three things they were grateful for for 21 days, and it didn’t work. The reason why is they were always grateful for the same three things: their health, their work and their family. So they weren’t specific. And they weren’t scanning the world for new things.
So this only works if you’re scanning for new things and you’re very specific. So if you say, “I’m grateful for my son,” it doesn’t work. But if you say, “I’m grateful for my son because he hugged me today, which means I’m loved regardless,” that specificity actually gets the brain stuck in a new pattern of optimism. It works with 4-year-old children and 84-year-old grumpy old men.
You can take them in a 21-day period from a low-level of pessimism to a low-level of optimism. There’s nothing magical about 21 days. We stole it from Alcoholics Anonymous. But after 21 days, the hope is, the path of least resistance in the brain tilts toward the habit, rather than away from it. So the hope is, it becomes not just a daily habit but a life habit.
It’s really getting people to feel like the change is possible. The habit seems to matter less than the fact that they’ve dedicated time to choose happiness.
2. The Doubler. For two minutes a day, think of one positive experience that’s occurred during the past 24 hours. Bullet point each detail you can remember. It works, because the brain can’t tell the difference between visualization and actual experience. So you’ve just doubled the most meaningful experience in your brain. Do it for 21 days, your brain starts connecting the dots for you, then you have this trajectory of meaning running throughout life.
I did this with the National MS Society. Previous research from the University of Texas found that if you have a chronic neuromuscular disease, chronic fatigue and pain, and you do this for six weeks in a row, six months later, they can drop your pain medication by 50 percent.
3. The Fun Fifteen: 15 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day. It’s the equivalent of taking an anti-depressant for the first six months, but with a 30 percent lower relapse rate over the next two years.
This is not a repudiation of anti-depressants. It’s an indication that exercise works, because your brain records a victory, and that cascades to the next activity.
4. Breathe. We did this at Google. We had them take their hands off their keyboards two minutes a day. And go from multitasking, to simply watching their breath go in and out. This raises accuracy rates. Improves levels of happiness. Drops their stress levels. And it takes two minutes.
5. Conscious Acts of Kindness. The final habit is the most powerful that we’ve seen so far. For two minutes each day, start work by writing a two-minute positive e-mail or text praising or thanking one person you know. And do it for a different person each day.
People who do this not only get great e-mails and texts back and are perceived as positive leaders because of the praise and recognition, but their social connection score is at the top end of the scale.
Social connection is not only the greatest predictor of long-term happiness – the study I did at Harvard is 0.7 correlation, which doesn’t sound very sexy, but is stronger than the connection between smoking and cancer.
Q: Can these little, two-minute habits really make a difference?
Achor: So many people are struggling to create happiness while their brain is inundated by noise. If your brain is receiving too much information, it automatically thinks you’re under threat and scans the world for the negative first. Because the brain is limited, whatever you attend to first becomes your reality.
Same thing happens with the lack of sleep. If you sleep eight hours, you can remember positive and negative words around 80 percent of the time 24 hours later.
But with five hours of sleep, you remember 70 percent of the negative words, and 20 to 30 percent of the positive. So your reality literally shifts based on whether or not your brain feels overwhelmed.
So I find that we either make happiness seem too hard, thinking we need to go on an 80-day vacation around the world, when really, thinking of three things you’re grateful for while you brush your teeth, or smiling at a stranger in a hallway, can not only boost your happiness but help you to make that choice over and over again.
Q: So many people are inundated by the noise and feel overwhelmed, anxious or depressed. You’ve talked about your own struggles with depression. How did you cope?
Achor: Depression is crafty, because it tricks you into thinking that you have no control over it, and that it’s permanent. Having gone through depression, while I was at Harvard, and using these positive habits to pull myself out of it, I realize those are both lies. That depression is not the end of the story, and that we are not just our genes, environment and neurochemicals. Our daily choices can help us trump all three of those.
Q: What are the happiness habits you use?
Achor: My wife and I are both happiness researchers and we’re on the road more than 200 days a year. So we have to put this happiness research into practice, especially with a 1-year-old.
When I first started the research, I decided to move to the same city as my sister, so we could not only be connected but also so our children could know each other.
I do these gratitudes when I’m starting to feel negative. I journal every day, especially when I’m on planes. I exercise every day. The first thing I do when I get to a hotel is go to the gym. I actually look forward to it. I actually look forward to planes. I make it fun by listening to positive or fun books on Audible.
I do something called social investment. I’m constantly investing in people around me, especially when I feel stressed, sad or lonely, instead of doing the opposite, which is what most people do. So I’ll write a positive e-mail. I’ll meet up with a friend. If I’m going to a new city, I’ll e-mail somebody I know who’s there to have drinks.
What we’re finding is that it’s not the macro things that matter, but it’s the micro choices for happiness that actually sustain happiness the best.
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