Shawn Achor

The Happiness Advantage 
Due to contractual obligations, the DLC has not been authorized to release the recording of The Happiness Advantage conference session. Below is a summary of his presentation.
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion, if you want to be happy, practice compassion.” – His Holiness the Dalai Lama
While doing divinity studies, Shawn Achor started to explore the science of happiness, after noting that Christian and Buddhist teachings were saying the same thing but using different language.
He’s found a gap between what’s been learned in neuroscience and psychology, and what we do in our daily lives.

Watch Shawn Achor in conversation with the Dalai Lama Center:
Shawn was just seven years old when he started his research. He was playing with his five-year-old sister on the top of their bunk beds - his GI Joe’s lined up on one side, her ponies and unicorns on the other. To stop her from crying and waking her parents when she ‘fell’ off the bunk bed, landing on all fours, he told her that humans don’t land that way, so she must be a unicorn. She managed not to cry, smiled and jumped back on the bed.
Shawn had stumbled across something that he would only understand decades later…that as we construct our reality, our brains pick and choose small facts and architect the rest around it.
Our brain works as a single processor using only 40 bits of information per second out of eleven million pieces received. They are experts at scanning for the negative first – the complaints, the hassles, frustrations and stresses - and because our brains are limited, what we attend to first becomes our reality. So if we have a limited amount of resources to experience the world, our brain never sees the things we are grateful for in the moment.
Optimism is great for a lot of things, but it won’t stop reality from impinging on us. We think we have to be blind to the things going on in the world – racism, discrimination and violence – to be happy. But if we are blind to the world, we can make bad decisions. If we put on rose-coloured glasses, now, we won’t metaphorically wear seat belts because we’ll think nothing bad will ever happen to us.
We want rational optimism: to start with a realistic assessment of the present but maintain the belief that our behaviour matters. It’s important because it allows us to make small, incremental, positive changes that cascade out to others.
So how do we cultivate real happiness and rational optimism?
Escaping The Cult Of The Average 
The role of traditional psychology is about how to make a person normal, average. But science has it wrong. If someone shows up outside the average curve (on a graph), they are the outlier in the room, messing up the average.
But at the educational level when we talk about potential – intellectual, athletic, creative, musical - we create a cult of the average in our schools. If we focus on how fast the average child learns, for example, we miss those who learn much slower or much faster, and tailor the class to the average. If we study what is merely average, we’ll stay merely average because where we focus our attention is right where we’ll be leading people in the future.
Instead of deleting outliers in our schools, how do we look at them for their resilience, optimism, charisma, energy levels, intellectual and creative abilities? If we can glean information about what they are doing, and how they perceive the world to find information - not to move people to the average - but to move the average up.
We are bombarded by negative information through the news. Reality is mostly suffering, mostly negative. We never see stories about a student who suddenly understands an equation, a child who is born. Every single day that something awful hasn’t happened is an incredible thing…that we have so much peace, so much opportunity.
We’re finding it’s not reality that shapes us, it’s the lens we see it through – and that can change the way we educate.
Ripple Effects And Mirror Neurons
If a brain is scanned while someone is smiling, small parts of the brain called mirror neurons light up. If you show someone a photo of someone who is smiling, those mirror neurons fire, tell your brain that you are the one smiling, and your mouth responds with a smile. It’s like yawning.
Not only do smiles and yawns spread, so does negativity. If we’re in the midst of negativity, others pick it up like second-hand smoke. It’s the same way our brains process the world.
The human organism is beautiful because we are wirelessly connected with a neural network. Our thoughts can change the thought patterns of someone sitting next to us.
Some people think they can just cut out someone who is negative. But if we can find some way of buffering our brain against the negative, and create single, positive changes in our behaviour, it creates a ripple effect to the people around us. The best way of changing negative people is to change ourselves first. That’s where we have the most power.
An experiment was done in a hospital after Hurricane Katrina where staff were asked to smile at others in the halls. In six weeks of that one-second change in behaviour, the number of unique visits increased, referrals skyrocketed, and the doctors’ levels of happiness were the highest in the entire system.
Greatest Predictors Of Success 
A Harvard study showed that students who got the most out of school - and gave the most in alumni donations - were those who saw education as a privilege, who appreciated the resources and connection with other students. Of those who focused on workload, stress and competition, 80% experienced depression, and 10% contemplated suicide.
90% of long-term levels of happiness is not about our external world, but how the brain processes our connection to it. If we can change the way we process the world, we can change the way we see opportunities.
The Happiness Advantage
Part of the problem we have in the educational space is that we follow the wrong formula for happiness and success. We think if we work harder, we’ll be more successful and happier. It’s a broken formula.
The human brain is actually designed to work better when it is positive, rather than negative, neutral or stressed – as shown in improvements in scores on 10 different types of intelligence tests, i.e. spatial, verbal reasoning, quantitative. Studies also show that priming subjects to be positive increases performance on the job. For example, happy doctors create 19% faster and more accurate diagnoses, and show three times more intellectual flexibility of misdiagnoses.
Teaching people about the bad things that can happen if you are stressed – it’s the number one killer in the US - you create distress, a fight or flight response. But (in a study) if you talked about it as enhancing – as a challenge – instead of a threat, over a six-week period of time, there were 23% fewer symptoms of fatigue, headaches and back pain.
Every time a student’s brain has a success, it changes the goal posts – we do well on a test and it becomes the need to have a good semester, a good year, a good job, higher sales targets, etc. The problem is where we put happiness – if we wait for it, the brain will never get there. You’ll continually chase something you’ll never attain.
Happiness Has To Be Cultivated In The Present
Mindset changes alone will not remain unless there are behavioural changes, as well. Every single education, business and health outcome improves, with attention to three areas:
  • Raising levels of optimism - the belief that your behavior matters
  • Strong social connections (receiving and providing) 
  • Perceiving stress as a challenge 

With this advantage, outcomes in studies include:

  • 37% greater sales
  • Being 3x more creative
  • Becoming 31% more productive
  • Resulting in 40% more likely promotion
  • 23% fewer fatigue symptoms 
  • Becoming up to 10x more engaged
  • Being 39% more likely to live to age 94
Retraining Your Brain

How do we create the change in our schools and classrooms in the midst of stresses?

In a study in which students were asked to play Tetris, scientists found that if the brain views the same pattern too long – looking at mistakes and errors - it gets stuck, imprinted with a negative pattern. This can also happen to people after a trauma.

To imprint a positive pattern in people’s brains, Shawn looked to see what someone could do for two minutes a day, 21 days in a row, to raise their genetic level of happiness set-point.

After six months, he found the brain could re-wire neural pathways, and levels of happiness were elevated.

Creating Sustainable Positive Change

Happiness is much easier for some than others – it’s a genetic set point. The average person usually doesn’t fight their genes but stays with the behaviour linked to their genes. If people just start this process, they start believing that behaviour matters and create a constellation of positive habits around them.

Other life choices are also affected that make obesity, depression, alcoholism, high blood pressure and smoking less likely. The need for medication drops. Longevity increases.

Small behavioural changes occur after doing five things for 21 days in a row:

  • Three Gratitudes - Write down three things you are grateful for (45 seconds).
  • The Doubler - Think about one meaningful experience and write down everything you remember about it. You get to appreciate it twice.
  • The Fun Fifteen - Fifteen minutes of fun, cardio activity – walking, gardening – is the equivalent of taking an anti-depressant for six months, and a 30% lower relapse rate.
  • Meditation - Two minutes
  • Conscious Act of Kindness – Be compassionate. Thank someone.
Can People Change?

Information alone does not cause transformation. Unless behavioural changes are made – in ourselves and in our classrooms - we’ll never see the long-term benefits of happiness. By teaching people that their behaviour matters, we can help tip the world away from its fascination of negativity, uncertainty and stress.

Life itself is a privilege, so make a better reality, a better external world for all of us.

Bring it to life for yourself.