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: Can we actually reprogram our brains to be happier?
Shawn Achor: What we’re finding is that anyone can walk into the room I’m sitting in right now and find something to complain about. That could mean, you know, something’s wrong with the lighting, something’s wrong with what I’m wearing, whatever it is. And I think most of us work with people like that or live with people that no matter what’s going on, they can find the thing to complain about. Those people, scientifically at least, are not bad people. They’re not bad people because what their brain is doing is it’s scanning the world for the stresses, the hassles and the complaints first. The problem is that the brain is like a single processor in a computer. It only has a finite amount of resources for experience in the world, which means that that person that walks into the room is using the majority of the resources to scan for the things which cause them to feel more negative, to make them feel more unhappy.
You can take that same individual and that same brain and divert resources in a different way and find that person actually finding things to be grateful for, finding ways to be optimistic, actually finding ways to ripple that positivity out to other people, if they can merely change the way that the brain is diverting those resources. In some of the research we’ve been doing, we’ve found that it doesn’t require you to go meditate on a mountainside for 80 days; you could actually do this very quickly. In one of the studies they found all it took was taking an individual who was a pessimist, who is diverting their resources down the road of looking for the things that make them unhappy and make them, every morning when they go into work, for a period of 21 days in a row, just writing down three things that they’re grateful for.
What they’re training their brain to do is to scan the world, not for the stresses, hassles, and complaints first, but actually training their brain, like an athlete, to look for the things that they are grateful for. Now, you might assume that that advantage might only help them for about 45 seconds after writing down these three things that they are grateful for, or saying them out loud. But what we found that after a period of 21 days, the pattern gets retained in the brain, it’s what I call the Tetris Effect where if an individual plays Tetris for five hours in a row, their brain retains this pattern where even when they’re not playing Tetris, it’s still parsing the world into how do I make straight lines, which is exactly what you do in that video game.
The same thing is true for a pessimist brain or an optimist brain, but what we find is that if you take a pessimist brain who is used to parsing the world into "How do I look for the negative things first, the stresses, hassles, complaints?" and break them of that, have a diverted path to them, what we then find is that they get stuck in that pattern where the brain retains the pattern throughout the rest of the day of using those resources to move them forward instead of remaining helpless and unhappy.
Question: How effective is positive psychology for treating depression?
Shawn Achor: Depression is a very difficult subject partly because depression is a spectrum. So some people are severely depressed and other people feel just mildly blue for a long period of time. Being at Harvard for a long period of time—I was there for over a decade—I lived in residence with students for a while as an officer trying to counsel them during the first difficult year of their four years of Harvard. And what we find is that many of these students, although they are surrounded by opportunities and resources and might have been thrilled when they got into the school, many of them actually found themselves to be depressed.
Now we might oftentimes think the depression is relational to the external world and what we find is depression can be caused by a whole host of things that can be expectations that we’ve placed upon ourselves, it can be the lack of social support that we feel, it can be us taking a pessimistic view for too long and then finding it difficult to find that meaning that we want to have in our lives.
What we’re finding is that even in cases of clinical depression, positive psychology is found to help people to be able to walk their way back out of the depression. So if an individual starts to believe that their behavior doesn’t matter, the apathy normally associated with depression, what we attempt to do, one of the chapter in my book is devoted to something called, “the Zorro circle,” which is by taking small manageable steps you can get somebody to start... re-start to believe that their behavior matters. When they do that, it helps them to take a larger step and a larger step—and continuing on.
When that happens, that individual who originally started to feel their behavior didn’t matter, or that there’s no meaning to the things they are doing or no meaning in the world, start to actually feel that their brain can devote itself, not to “am I feeling depressed or am I not feeling depressed,” is not focusing those resources on how to move forward.
In cases of severe depression, we oftentimes still recommend forms of anti-depressants, but what we found was that in most cases of depression, we find that if an individual doesn’t build up that belief that their behavior matters while taking that anti-depressant, their relapse rates are significantly higher than individuals that try to do positive actions at the same time to get themselves to move forward.
The goal is this, if an individual feels depressed and they do an action and they see their depression start to decrease, they believe that their behavior matters, which is the definition of optimism. The more that they learn that optimism, the more their brain actually walks itself back out of the depression. We’re finding that this is very difficult for the human brain to be depressed and grateful at the same time. So the more we can get our brain focusing on the things that we are grateful for, the more we can find a way to not only buffer our brains against depression, which only gets us back up to average, but actually find a way for our brains to feel happy again.
Recorded September 9, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller