Shawn Achor is an expert in positive psychology and the CEO of Aspirant, a Cambridge-based consulting firm which researches positive outliers—people who are well above average—to understand where human potential, success, and happiness intersect. Achor is also the winner of over a dozen distinguished teaching awards at Harvard University, where he delivered lectures in Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar's class "Positive Psychology," the most popular class at Harvard. Now he travels around the United States and Europe giving talks on positive psychology to Fortune 500 corporations, schools, and non-profit organizations. His research and lectures on happiness and human potential have received attention in The New York Times, Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, as well as on NPR and CNN Radio. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard with a BA in English and Religion and earned a Masters degree from Harvard Divinity School in Christian and Buddhist ethics.
Professor Achor is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.
Question: What steps should businesses take in order to leverage the happiness advantage?
Shawn Achor: I think the biggest discovery that’s wrapped around this revolutionary finding of the "happiness advantage," that our brain works better at positive, is the recognition that our leadership needs to change. I think oftentimes I think of a good employee or a good leader is one that sacrifices all the type of happiness that they can have to make the company more successful. When we see individuals do that, they might thrive in a very, very short period of time, but in the long run, we find that those individuals burn out, their productivity goes down, their success rates go down, they can’t keep clients, and their turnover rates at their companies skyrocket.
You know, I even talked to this trader on Wall Street and he said that the way that he manages his team, one of the things he looks around is if he sees somebody that’s smiling on the trading floor, he knows they’re not working hard enough. That type of mentality is the opposite of the science we’re actually finding out what causes an employee to thrive. So what it means is that, first of all, a mindset shift. We need to make sure that we’re actually emphasizing the role of social support, the role of optimism, that we have in our companies. That if those start to... if we sacrifice those, we need to realize that we are sacrificing the success in the long run.
The second thing that needs to happen is we need to start doing more trainings. I think a lot of the things we do at our companies are focused on the technical skills and the intelligence. And if I know all the technical skills and intelligence of an employee, I can only predict 25% of the differences in their job successes over the next five years.
Seventy-five percent of our prediction of job success has nothing to do with the technical skills or intelligence that we normally train people on, but on three other factors. The first is the believe that you’re behavior matters, which is optimism levels. If you believe that your behavior matters, you keep working even in the midst of challenge.
The second is your social support networks. Your manager, your teammates, your family members and friends at home, that social support network is extremely crucial in predicting the success rate of that individual.
And the third is, everyone experiences stress, but some people experience stress as a challenge and other people view it as a threat. And when you view your stress in a positive way and manage your energy in a positive way, what we find is those success rates rise. So what we need to do at our companies and at our schools as well is to be able to focus our trainings on that 75%. On the part that actually predicts the long-term success of not only an individual, but an entire company.
I gave a talk at a private school. And they said, we know long term it's not just the intelligence and what we teach in the classrooms is going to keep the success of our individuals of our students working really well in the workforce, so once a year we have a wellness week where we try and cram in all the rest of the things that we don’t normally talk about and we have those experts come in. Monday night, for example, we have an expert coming in speaking about depression and Tuesday night we have somebody talking about eating disorders, and Wednesday night is elicit drug use, and Thursday night is school violence and teen bullying. And then Friday night, we’re trying to decide between either having a talk on risky sex or happiness. And I listened to them and I was like, well I’d be happy to come speak, and that sounds like most people’s Friday nights, but that’s not a wellness week. That’s a sickness week. All we’ve done is we’ve focused upon how do we avoid all those negative things.
I think what we need to do in not only our schools, but our companies worldwide is to start to focusing on things that are our strengths. Not only the individual levels when we do performance interviews, but as leaders we need to be able to come into a situation and be able to realistically assess it, but also maintain the belief that our behavior matters and focus upon those three other elements, the parts that actually predict long term success; the optimism, the social support, and our ability to manage energy and stress in a positive way. If we do so, I really believe that the greatest competitive advantage in a modern economy is a positive and engaged workforce.
Question: What barriers prevent people from embracing positive psychology?
Shawn Achor: I think one of the greatest barriers to us not using the happiness advantage more at our companies and at our schools is that we have a formula for success that’s flawed. Almost every company or school I’ve worked with worldwide—and over the past two years I’ve traveled to 42 different countries so I’ve seen a broad diversity of experience, and I’m finding the same formula in almost all of them. And that is, "If I just work harder, then I’ll be more successful. And If I’m more successful, well then I’ll be happier." The problem is, that formula which undergirds most of our managing styles, most of our parenting styles, most of our economic theories about how the world works, philosophies, the problem is that that formula is broken.
It’s broken scientifically for two reasons. The first is, every time we have a success our brain merely changes the goalposts of what that success looks like. So somebody gets into a good school, great. But they can’t be happy unless they’re getting good grades. Well they got good grades, but that doesn’t matter because now they have to get a good job. Well they got a good job, now they have to rise up in the ranks, and they have to go back to school and they have to rise up in the ranks again. Now, their kids have to do well.
And if happiness if on the opposite side of success in the formula, then what we’ve been doing as a culture is we’ve been pushing happiness over the cognitive horizon, we could keep running after it, but we’ll never quite meet it. The biggest problem though is that the formula works in the opposite direction. All the science we’ve been doing in the field of positive psychology over the past 10 to 15 years has found this. That your brain works better, faster, more accurately, with more energy when you’re positive as opposed to negative, neutral, or stressed.
Which means, the formula actually works if you could raise up your levels of happiness, your levels of well being, your levels of positivity. Then your success rates rise and then you are able to work harder and faster. There is a conference board survey that came out in January of this year reporting that even in the midst of high unemployment we’re seeing the greatest amount of job dissatisfaction in 22 years of polling. I think the reason for this is most of our companies and schools, we find ourselves chasing after so hard of happiness that is seems elusive. When if we change the formula and actually focus our time, energy, and priorities or raising up our levels of happiness, we then see those success rates rise, not only at the individual level, but at the company level as well.
Recorded September 9, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller