Shawn Achor has dedicated his life to studying the relationship between happiness and success. A New York Times best-selling author and speaker whose TED talk has been viewed nearly 14 million times, he has helped thousands of individuals and organizations around the world find the power in positive thinking. He sits on BetterUp’s science board.
We had the opportunity to sit down and ask him some of our most pressing questions about the science of happiness including how our level of happiness affects our output, what managers can do to help teammates be happier, why our interest in happiness isn’t actually new, and the real reason you probably hate your email.
Optimism highly correlates with happiness.
BetterUp: What made you decide to go into this field of research? Was it a desire to find meaning (and happiness) in your work?
Shawn Achor: I started my research at Harvard Divinity School. There, I studied Christian and Buddhist ethics, looking at how our beliefs shape our actions in the world. When people in the psychology department said that they could now quantify changes in meaning, joy, and optimism, I was hooked. I went on to work in 50 countries and with organizations including NASA, the NFL, and the White House. Every day, we’re learning more about how to create and sustain positive change.
BU: Where does happiness stem from and why do we care about it so much today? It seems that no one really used to talk about the importance of being happy.
SA: Actually, the opposite is true. If you look at the texts that Google have digitized, people used to talk about happiness a lot more than they do in the present. Only over the past 10 years have we seen an uptick in happiness in our writing. And still, we are well below where we were at the beginning of the 1900s. We need to find ways of being able to talk about happiness not only in the board room, but with soldiers going off to war, and children sitting in cancer wards.
BU: Is unhappiness a generational problem?
SA: We see people struggling with unhappiness across the entire spectrum of age. But I think the younger generation is reminding us that we should demand to connect our daily work with personal well-being.
My work shows that we can change someone’s levels of optimism at any point in their life.
BU: What is the relationship between happiness and optimism? Are some of us just predisposed to being more optimistic?
SA: Optimism highly correlates with happiness. It is hard to create happiness if your brain is continually creating escape routes or planning for the worst. So yes, genetically speaking, I would guess that some people are more predisposed towards optimism, but my work shows that we can change someone’s levels of optimism at any point in their life.
3 daily exercises to cultivate happiness on your team
The opposite of happiness is not sadness.
BU: Is the average person’s baseline somewhere in between happy and unhappy? And can you permanently shift your happiness baseline?
SA: Researchers go back and forth on the average baseline, but the important part of the story is that our baseline can change at any time. We are not just our genes and environment.
BU: What effect does finding meaning at work have on your overall happiness?
SA: If we create happiness in the majority of our conscious hours (the 8 to 14 hours a day we spend working), we’re far more likely to feel satisfied with our lives in general.
BU: Should happiness be our end goal? Some people argue that “everything we do is part of the pursuit of happiness seems to [be] a really dangerous idea and has led to a contemporary disease in Western society, which is fear of sadness.” What do you think of that?
SA: Happiness is both the means and an end. When our brains are positive, we are better at solving world problems as well as personal ones. But more importantly, the pursuit of happiness should make us lose our fear of sadness. When we know we can create happiness and meaning in our life by changing our habits and mindset, we are more likely and able to face the things that make us sad in the world. It is also important for people to finally understand that the opposite of happiness is not sadness. The opposite of happiness is apathy.
BU: Can unhappy people be successful?
SA: This depends on our definition of success. If success is a life well lived and enjoyed, then no. But if success is purely monetary or based upon our position, then I know a lot of successful people who are unhappy, and you probably do, too.
BU: Is there a relationship between the rise of stress and unhappiness at work and certain elements of the modern world? How can we control the world around us, or can we?
SA: Stress does not need to cause unhappiness. Stress without meaning, coupled with lack of sleep and lack of social connection definitely creates unhappiness. The key is to acknowledge our stress, reconnect to the meaning, and then channel our emotional response back toward that original goal.
BU: How can managers help people think about success differently? Is the happiness of my employees my responsibility?
SA: We need to help managers to realize that the best way to see the best parts of their team and to effectively manage their resources is to ensure that the team is running at their optimal level– which means their brains must be at positive. When our brains are not ‘at positive’ we’re in fight, flight or freeze mode, using the less advanced parts of our brain to make decisions. When we’re at positive, we’re better able to empathize, generate creative ideas and explore possibilities without fear.
Happiness is a personal choice, but also an interconnected one. We are continually changing other people and influencing their ability to choose happiness. It is my responsibility to not only ensure that I’m not living out that choice, but that I am helping foster it. It’s easier for me to choose happiness when I’ve helped other people choose it around me as well.
BU: What role does distraction play in happiness, and how do we manage distractions in our increasingly-connected world. (What if I have to be on email all day?)
SA: Research coming out of Harvard makes it clear that distraction definitely gets in the way of our happiness. No one has to be on email every second of the day. So when you can step away from your email, do so fully. Our brains need cognitive breaks in order to be effective at responding to those emails. I think over the next decade we’ll figure out the problem that we created with email, which is we have finite time but everyone’s attentional resources are fully tapped.
BU: Is happiness contagious?
SA: Incredibly so. But so is negativity. We tend to feed off of each other’s emotions (in psychology, this is referred to as emotional contagion), so the key is to be more verbally and nonverbally expressive of your optimism so that others on your team can benefit from it, and feed it back to you.
BU: How can we bias ourselves toward happiness and not discontent?
SA: Scientifically, happiness is a choice about where we devote our mental resources. We can bias ourselves towards happiness by shifting our habits in daily patterns so that we allocate those resources more effectively in a way that causes the human brain to work at its optimal level.
I’m continually surprised at how the smallest interventions can have the biggest effect. Simply saying three things you’re grateful for around the dinner table with your family will not only transform your family, but generations to come.
Try these two other exercises to help bias yourself toward happiness:
BU: Are we trying to achieve too much, and is that making us unhappy?
SA: There are a lot of reasons why we see increased rates of depression, eating disorders, and discontent. I don’t think that ambition is the problem, but along with our desire to achieve come missteps. Often, we sacrifice sleep, social connection, and periods of rejuvenation in an effort to increase our success. But this has a deleterious effect upon not only our well-being, but also our ability to achieve as well.
BU: How can we find happiness, or even just stay motivated, when we’re dealing with a major stressor in our personal life?
SA: Embedded within every stress is meaning. The best way to cope with stress is not to panic and flee from it, but rather to remember why there’s meaning involved. An inbox full of spam causes no stress, that’s because there’s no meaning behind it. But when your inbox is full of leads, you need to get back to building your business or help your family; then, there’s both stress and meaning in your life. We need to reconnect to the meaning in our lives so that stress does not appear to be a threat to our happiness.
BU: It is so hard to establish new habits. How do you recommend making happiness an everyday habit?
SA: I don’t think you can make happiness a habit, but I do think you can create happiness by building habits that are the foundational blocks of happiness, such as practicing gratitude on a daily basis, connecting with your social support network, doing random acts of kindness consciously, and meditating.
The best way to create change is to model it. Your team will never strive for success unless they see you trying for that. Happiness can also be connected to motivation. If your team is disengaged from your culture or company mission, it will be difficult for them to find success and therefore, happiness. Start by reminding people that happiness leads to success not the other way around, and encourage your teammates to find meaning in their work even when they haven’t yet achieved their big milestones