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 is positive psychology?
Shawn Achor: Positive psychology is a movement in social psychology which attempts to change the way that we think about humans. Instead of focusing merely the average, which is what we normally do in traditional psychology, we would find out what the average person is like, or how the average person responds. Instead, what we look at are people who are up above the curve for some given dimension. Maybe that means that they are extremely energetic, that they are very happy, they’re very productive. And our goal is to find out why that is.
So we take a group of individuals, or a group of companies and try and find out why it is that they seem to be thriving while other people remain average or even fall below the average. I think a lot of traditional psychology focuses on below the average, which is usually depression or disorder. What positive psychology attempts to do is to study and glean information from people that are up above the curve so we can move people, not just back up to average, but how we can move the entire average up.
Question: How is this different than self-help?
Shawn Achor: I think a lot of the self-help movement is based around people who have a great idea where they think that some things worked out very well for them and they try to press that upon other people. And sometimes that advice can be very helpful and very sound, but what we’re interested in studying in positive psychology is what’s actually going on inside the human brain. What happens to an individual if they took that advice?
So oftentimes in positive psychology we’re actually studying things that we’ve heard about ever since the ancient Greek philosophers, or every major religious tradition and we’re testing what happens not only in terms of what’s going on inside the human brain, but then what happens next.
So for example, if somebody is grateful for something or somebody is optimistic, what then happens to their performance levels, to their productivity, to their energy at work? And part of what we’re attempting to do is to not only validate what we’ve been hearing from the self-help movement, hearing from major religious traditions, hearing from philosophy, but we’re trying to actually help people to recognize that there is a scientific basis to a lot of these ideas and in fact, we need to be rethinking the ways that we work. The ways that we think about the world, the ways that we study people because what we’re finding is that even though we’ve heard some of these ideas from self-help or some of these ideas are common sense, what we’re finding is that common sense is not common action at all.
Question: How do you study happiness scientifically when there is no consensus on what constitutes happiness?
Shawn Achor: The difficulty in studying something like happiness is we’ve been talking about happiness for thousands of years. And so everyone has sort of a different definition. For some people, happiness is a chocolate bar, so it’s pleasure that lasts for about five seconds—and then you might even feel bad later on. So one of the things that we attempt to do when we are studying happiness is not only to allow the individual to define happiness for themselves, but we want to look at a long-term type of happiness. A happiness that exists even with the ups and downs in life that even allows us to raise up our levels of performance.
So, for me, happiness has to be predictive of something else. So I’d go with the Greek definition of happiness, the ancient Greek definition, which is, “The joy that we feel striving after our potential.”
So that definition includes not only a feeling of joy, which we can feel even with the highs and lows in life, which are necessarily going to happen given the vicissitudes of the world that we live in, but also it includes an element of growth in it as well. What we’re finding in our research is that if an individual stagnates or believes that they are stagnating, their happiness actually starts to decline. We actually find that to be a false happiness. As basically what most people think of as being just content.
I gave a talk out in Indonesia and when I went there, the main point of my research is, we need to find a way of raising up our levels of happiness so that people could be more successful, because in the Western world what we find oftentimes is we’re pushing so hard to be successful that our happiness decreases and our brains therefore don’t work as well as they could be. When I was there, some of the leaders came up to me afterwards and said, "We have the opposite problem that you’re facing all over the rest of the world." Our problem is people are too happy. They don’t work, right? So they come into work two hours late and we say, well where have you been, and they say, “Hey, let’s just be happy about it. I’m fine, everything’s good.” And that type of happiness is ephemeral. It’s something that’s very short lived and it doesn’t connect to any type of growth at all. That’s momentary pleasure.
What we’re really looking for is something long term. And it’s predictive of these different elements. So for me, what I study is sort of what I call the “happiness advantage,” which is how your brain actually works at optimal levels when you’re at positive. So what we’re looking for is something that I think might be more akin to positivity or to joy; something that is sustained in the midst of the struggles that we find.
We even found that the top 10% of the happiest people in terms of the way that we normally study it. The top 10% of the happiest people are unhappy sometimes. I don’t actually get to study people that are happy all the time because that’s a disorder. I don’t get to study that. What we find is they go up and down. But they go up and down around a baseline which is higher than it is for some people. When we feel depressed, our baseline drops, so even when our happiness is going up and down, we’re still in a depressed state. The whole goal of our scientific research is to move that baseline up so that even as you’re fluctuating up and down, you’re moving up at an increasing rate.
Recorded September 9, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller