The happy secret to better work | Shawn Achor

Why Happiness Matters

The following is a transcription of the TED talk by Shawn Achor shown in the video above:

"When I was seven years old, and my sister was just five years old, we were playing on top of a bunk bed. I was two years older than my sister at the time. I am two years old and then her now, but at the time that meant she had to do everything that I wanted to do and I wanted to play war. So we were up on top of our bunk beds and on one side of the bunk bed I put out all my GI Joe soldiers and weaponry, and on the other side, were all my sisters My Little Ponies and ready for a calvary charge. There are different accounts of what actually happened that afternoon, but since my sister is not here with us today. Let me tell you the true story, which is my sister's a little bit on the clumsy side and somehow without any help or push from her older brother at all. Suddenly Amy disappeared off the top of the bunk bed and landed with this crash on the floor. Nervously peering over the side of the bed to see what had befallen my fallen sister and saw that she landed painfully on her hands and knees on all fours on the ground.

I was nervous because my parents charged me with making sure that my sister and I played as safely and as quietly as possible, and seeing is how I had accidentally broken Amy's arm just one week before heroically pushing her out of the way of an oncoming imaginary sniper bullet, for which I have yet to be thanked, I was trying as hard as I could. She didn't even see it coming, I was trying as hard as I could to be on my best behavior and I saw my sister's faces wail of pain and suffering and surprise, threatening to erupt from her mouth and threatening to wake my parents from the long winter's nap for which they had settled, so I thought the only thing my little frantic seven year old brain could think to do to avert this tragedy if you have children, you've seen this hundreds of times before I said, Amy. Amy Wait Don't cry, don't cry. Did you see how you landed? No human lands on all fours like that. Amy, I think you're a unicorn. Now that was cheating because there's nothing in the world my sister would want more than not to be Amy, the hurt five year old little sister, but Amy the special unicorn. Of course this was an option that was open to her brain at no point in the past, and you can see, my poor manipulated sister's face conflict as her little brain attempted to devote resources to feeling the pain and suffering surprise she just experienced, or contemplating her newfound identity as a unicorn, and the latter won. Now instead of crying, instead of ceasing our planes of waking my parents with all the negative consequences that would have ensued for me. And so a smile spread across her face and she scrambled right back up onto the bunk bed with all the grace of the baby unicorn with one broken leg. What we stumbled across at this tender age of just five and seven we had no idea at the time, was something that was going to be at the vanguard of a scientific revolution occurring .

Two decades later, and the way that we look at the human brain. Well we had stumbled across something called positive psychology which is the reason that I'm here today and the reason that I wake up every morning. When I first started talking about this research outside of academia with companies and schools, the very first thing they said to never do is to start your talk with a graph. The very first thing I want to do is start my talk with the graph, this graph looks boring but this graph is the reason that I get excited and wake up every morning and this graph doesn't mean anything it's fake data. What we found is if I got this data back setting you here in the room I would be thrilled because there's very clearly a trend that's going on there and that means that I can get published, which is all that really matters. The fact that there's one weird red dot that's up above the curve, there's one weird in the room. You know who you are, I saw you earlier. That's no problem. That's no problem as most of you know because I can just delete that dot. I can delete that dot because that's clearly a measurement error, and we know that's a measurement error, because it's messing up my data. So one of the very first things we teach people in economics and statistics and business and psychology courses is how in a statistically valid way do we eliminate the weirdos, how do we eliminate the outliers, so that we can find the line of best fit. Which is fantastic if I'm trying to find out how many Advil the average person should be taking, two, but if I'm interested in potential, if I'm interested in your potential for happiness or productivity or energy or creativity, all we're doing is recreating the call to the average with science. If I ask a question like how fast can the child learn how to read and classroom scientists change the answer to how fast does the average child learn how to read in that classroom and then we tailor the class right towards the average. Now if you fall below the average on this curve, then psychologists get thrilled, because that means you're either depressed, or you have disorder or hopefully both. We're hoping for both because our business model is if you come into a therapy session with one problem we want to make sure you leave knowing you have 10 to keep coming back over and over again, we'll go back into your childhood necessary but eventually, what we want to do is to make you normal again.

But normal is merely average, and what I posit and what positive psychology posits is that we study what is merely average we will remain merely average. That step, deleting those positive outliers, what I intentionally do is come into a population like this one, and say "Why?". Why is it that some of you are so high above the curve in terms of your intellectual voting athletic ability musical ability, creativity, energy levels your resiliency in the face of challenge your sense of humor, whatever it is. Instead of deleting you, what I want to do is study you. Because maybe we can glean information, not just how to move people up to the average, but how we can move the entire average up that our companies and schools worldwide. The reason this graph is important to me is when I turn on the news, it seems like the majority of the information is not positive. In fact it's negative. Most of it's about murder, corruption diseases natural disasters, and very quickly, my brain starts to think that's the accurate ratio of negative positive in the world. What that's doing is creating something called the medical school syndrome, which if you know people who have been to medical school during the first year of medical training as you read through a list of all the symptoms and diseases that could happen, suddenly you realize you have all of them. I have a brother in law named Bobo, which is a whole nother story. Bobo, married, Amy the unicorn. Bobo called me on the phone from Yale Medical School from Yale Medical School and Bobo said Shawn, I have leprosy, which even at Yale is extraordinarily rare, but I had no idea how to console poor Bobo because he had just gotten over an entire week of menopause.

See what we're finding is is not necessarily the reality that shapes is the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality and we can change the lens, not only can we change your happiness. We can change every single educational business outcome at the same time. When I applied to Harvard, I applied on a dare. I didn't expect to get into my family had no money for college, when I got a military scholarship two weeks later they allow me to go. Suddenly something wasn't even a possibility became reality. When I went there and I assumed everyone else would see it as a privilege as well, that they'd be excited to be there, even if you're in a classroom full of people smarter than you, you'd be happy just to be in that classroom which is what I felt. But what I found there is while some people experienced that when I graduated after my four years and then spent the next eight years living in the dorms with the students, Harvard asked me to. Wasn't that guy. But what happened. I was an officer of Harvard to counsel students through the difficult four years and what I found in my research, my teaching is that the students no matter how happy they were with original success of getting into the school, two weeks later the brains were focused not on the privilege of being there, nor on their philosophy, or their physics, the brain is focused on competition the workload the hassles the stresses the complaints. When I first went in there I walked into the freshman dining hall which is where my friends from Waco, Texas, which is where I grew up, I know some of you've heard of it. When I, when they come to visit me they look around, they say this freshman dining hall looks like something of Hogwarts movie Harry Potter, which does this Hogwarts movie Harry Potter and that's Harvard when they see this, they say, Shawn. Why do you waste your time studying happiness at Harvard seriously, what does the Harvard student possibly have to be unhappy about? Embedded within that question is the key to understanding the science of happiness, because what that question assumes is that our external world is predictive of our happiness levels.

When in reality, if I know everything about your external world. I can only predict 10% of your long term happiness 90% of your long term happiness is predicted not by the external world but by the way your brain processes the world. And if we change it, if we change our formula for happiness and success. What we can do is change the way that we can then affect reality. What we found is that only 25% of jobs successes are predicted by IQ. 75% of jobs successes are predicted by your optimism levels, your social support and your ability to see stress as a challenge, instead of as a threat.

I talked to a boarding school up in New England, probably the most prestigious boarding school and they said we already know that. So every year, instead of just teaching our students. We also have a Wellness Week and we're so excited Monday night with the world's leading expert coming in to speak about adolescent depression Tuesday night school violence and bullying Wednesday night, Wednesday nights eating disorders Thursday nights Alyssa took us a Friday night we're trying to decide to brisky sex or happiness. I said That's most people's Friday nights, which I'm glad you liked, but they did not like that at all silence on the phone and into the silence. I said I'd be happy to speak to your school but just you know that's not a Wellness Week, that's a sickness week. What you've done is you've outlined all the negative things that can happen but not talked about the positive, the absence of disease is not health, here's how we get to health, we need to reverse the formula for happiness and success.

In the past three years I've traveled to 45 Different countries working with schools and companies, in the midst of an economic downturn. And what I found is most companies and schools follow a formula for success, which is this, if I work harder, I'll be more successful. And if I'm more successful, then I'll be happier that undergirds most of our parenting styles or managing styles, the way that we motivate our behavior. And the problem is, it's scientifically broken and backwards for two reasons. First, every time your brain has a success, you just change the goalposts of what success look like. You got good grades, now you have to get better grades. Gone to a good school in Africa better school. You got a good job, now you have to get better job. You hit your sales target, we're gonna change your sales target. And if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there. What we've done is we've pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon as a society, and that's because we think we have to be successful, then we'll be happier. But the real problem is our brains work in the opposite order. If you can raise somebody's level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a Happiness Advantage, which is your brain, positive performs significantly better than does, negative, neutral stress. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise. In fact what we found is that every single business outcome, improves your brain a positive is 31% more productive than your brain and negative, neutral stress, you're 37% better at sales, doctors are 19% faster, more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis when positive instead of negative, neutral stress which means we can reverse the format. If we can find a way of becoming positive and the present, then our brains work even more successfully, as we're able to work harder faster and more intelligently. When we need to be able to do is to reverse this formula so we can start to see what our brains are actually capable of because dopamine which floods into your system when you're positive as to functions. Not only does it make you happier, it turns on all the learning centers in your brain, allowing you to adapt to the world in a different way. We found that there are ways you can train your brain to be able to come more positive in just a two minute span of time, done for 21 days in a row, we can actually rewire your brain, allowing your brain to actually work. More optimistically, and more successfully. We've done these things and research now in every single company that I've worked with, getting them to write down three new things that they're grateful for for 21 days in a row three new things each day, and at the end of the day, their brain starts to retain a pattern of scanning the world not for the negative but for the positive. First journaling about one positive experience you've had over the past 24 hours, allows your brain to relive it exercise teaches your brain, your behavior matters. We find that Meditation allows your brain to get over the cultural ADHD that we've been creating, by trying to do multiple tasks at once, allows our brains to focus on the task at hand. And finally, random acts of kindness or conscious acts of kindness, we get people, when they open up their inbox to write one positive email praising or thanking somebody in their social support network, and by doing these activities, and by training your brain just like we train our bodies. What we found is we could reverse the formula for happiness and success, and in doing so, not only create ripples of positivity, but create a real revolution. Thank you very much." ~Shawn Achor, positive psychology researcher

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