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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,[…]

A conversation with the positive psychology expert

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

What are five things that people can do to be happier?

Shawn Achor: We discovered about five things so far that we know create a positive "Tetris Effect," this pattern in which the brain diverts resources to actually scan the world to not only make us happier, but actually to raise our levels of performance as well.  One of those is writing down three things you’re grateful for every morning.  Another one of those is journaling for five minutes a day about one positive experience you’ve had over the past 24 hours.  Writing down ever detail you can.  When individuals do that, the amazing thing is, our brains have a very difficult time in telling the difference what we are visualizing and what we’re actually experiencing.  

In fact, if I put my hand in front of my face and look at it, area 17 in my visual cortex lights up.  Now if I close my eyes and think about my hand in front of my face, that same part of my brain actually lights up, area 17 in my visual cortex.  Which means, my brain actually can’t tell the difference between visualization and experience.  So when I journal for just five minutes a day, I’m actually doubling the amount of positive experience that I have.  And then over a period of 21 days when you do this, is what we did for the experiment, when you do this for a period of 21 days, your brain connects the dots between these meaningful moments creating a trajectory of meaning that pulls you through each day instead of having your pattern be, “I got through these lists of tasks and now I’m done.”  

We’ve also found that meditation, for example, creates a positive Tetris Effect in the brain because it trains your brain to do a single thing at one time.  For example, I’m working with Adobe right now trying to take their hands off their keyboards once a day for two minutes at a time.  And when they do that, to just watch their breath go in and out; it doesn’t matter what they’re doing, all we’re trying to get them to do is to do one activity at a time.  

What this helped us to undo is the negative effects of multi-tasking during the day.  It creates a Tetris Effect of us taking those resources we have in our brain and shining it down like a laser on our tasks.  Raising our levels of engagement of happiness and decreasing our levels of stress.  

We also know that if an individual does a random act of kindness over the course of the day, for example, the original study done by [...] had executives do five kind acts.  I can’t get most executives to do that but what I have them do is, when they first open their inbox during the day, I had them write a one- to two-sentence email praising or recognizing somebody on their team, a co-worker, a family member or friend.  When individuals do that, we see something remarkable happen.  Not only does it change the individual’s brain that’s writing the email, so now that they’re scanning the world for ways they can praise and recognize more, which we found in the research, can raise productivity levels on the team by up to 31%, which is amazing.  But in addition to that, you’re also activating an entire team and raising the level of social support around you.   

The single kind act we’ve seen not only rippled to the rest of the team, but because you’ve raised the level of social support... a study done at Yale actually found that social support, the social cohesion of the team was significantly more predictive of success rates than the number of years of experience or even the collective intelligence of the team.  

So we found these several different tactics that we can do.  And the last one is exercise.  Everyone knows that exercise is supposed to make you happier, even if you hate exercise.  But what we’ve found is that exercise, when you do it, creates a pattern in your brain, and a belief that your behavior matters.  I find that when I exercise, I suddenly start eating healthier.  Well I don’t have to eat healthier if I’m exercising, but my brain sees that my actions worked in one domain and it cascades out across the board.  So we find that when people exercise in the morning, for example, it actually affects their productivity and their energy at work, raises their level of IQ at work and in addition to creating this cascade of success, where their brain keeps believing that their behavior matters.  And what we’ve found is that the belief that your behavior matters, or what I find is optimism is one of the key predictors of success.

Happiness relies in part on social connectedness, so is Facebook making us happier?

Shawn Achor: I think that social support is one of the most important things in terms of predicting a happiness level, but is one of the most misunderstood as well.  I think brilliant people sometimes do the most unintelligent thing possible.  As I watch these Fortune 500 companies, or these executives who are Harvard students, when they get stressed, oftentimes they decide that they’re so stressed that they need to work as hard as they possibly can to get over that.  So they divorce themselves from their social support network.  

Or if you’re at work and you find that you have too much on your plate, you’re feeling stressed, so you stop eating lunch with your friends.  You start eating lunch at your desk, or you stop spending time with your family and friends.  You stop doing things in the evenings because you’re tired.  And what we find is those individuals not only do they feel more tired, they feel more depressed, they get less work done and they feel more and more overwhelmed.  The reason is because our brains thrive in the midst of social support.  In fact, the top performers are the ones who actually invest in their social support network instead of divesting from it in the midst of stress.  

It’s what I call in my book, “The Social Investment.”  It’s a period where individuals seem to do the opposite of what you’d expect in the period of challenge.  Thinks like Facebook, things like Twitter, things that try and connect can be helpful, but with a caveat to it.   We know that if an individual creates a lot of social networks, but doesn’t actually meet up with any of those individuals, they’re not getting of the activation in their brain around parts, like the mirror neurons, which increase levels of empathy and increase our feelings that we have social support.  

So if you spend all your time on Facebook, but never actually meet up with them in person, we find that being on Facebook doesn’t seem to have any effect on your social support, in fact, it probably decreases over time.  But, if you use those social networking sites, like Facebook to find out more things about those individuals so that you do meet up with them, your social support actual rises.  So I’d say it’s how we use the technology instead of how the technology is affecting us.  

The other thing that we find interesting is that if you take time to Facebook or to email people, but you consider it to be a waste of time, something you’re just doing to procrastinate, we find that it doesn’t have any rejuvenating benefits to you.  You finish that activity and you feel less happy and with less energy.  But if you see being on Facebook as something that’s exciting, something that’s connecting you to other people, that’s helping you grow your social support network, or you see the email as something that is valuable, instead of something that’s just taking away time or that is a pastime that doesn’t have any impact, we find that not only does it rejuvenate the system, it actually causes your success rates to rise.  Because what we’re finding is that social support is the greatest predictor of success in happiness during a time of challenge.  Every time I test this at companies, we test all these different metrics.  We try optimism, stress levels, number of years of experience, resources, every single time that we’ve tested this we’ve found that social support is the greatest predictor of your happiness and success.  In fact the correlation is .7, which is even higher than the correlation between smoking and cancer.

What parts of our brains are involved with happiness?

Shawn Achor: So the focus of my research is on how when an individual is positive it raises not only the success for that individual, but for the entire team and organization, which is why much of the work that I’m doing is out in organizations, Fortune 500 companies.

And what we’ve found that's remarkable about happiness, and unhappiness as well, is how it spreads through an organization.  Now we’ve seen this happen before.  We know that positivity and negativity can spread very quickly, like wildfire.  The interesting thing is, what we found inside the human brain that explains this.  What we found are these small little parts of your brain called mirror neurons.  Mirror, like what you look at in the morning and neuron, like a small part of the brain.  These mirror neurons are the reason for; they’re the mechanism for that spreading or that contagion that we can see.  So for example, if I put myself into a brain scan and start to smile, part of my brain lights up and says, “Shawn, you’re smiling.”  And that’s not that interesting, but if I’m in that brain scan trying not to smile and somebody is smiling at me and I see them in my visual field, these small parts of your brain called mirror neurons light up and they say, “Shawn, you’re smiling.”  But I’m not smiling, you’re smiling.  But before I can stop myself, my brain drops a chemical called dopamine, which raises my levels of happiness and my levels of enjoyment and my face starts to contort into a smile before I can stop myself.  

These mirror neurons are the reason why a yawns spread at board meetings.  Where one person yawns, you see other people yawn; it spreads like wildfire throughout the group.  The reason is, your brain, when you see something in your visual field, raises the likelihood of your experience in that as well.  And that can be great news if you’re surrounded by positive individuals, if you have positive leaders, but what we’re finding a lot of the times is that a lot of the people that are working in companies are working next to people who are... who we term as “toxic employees.” Or they’re getting a whole spate of negative economic or market news.  And when this happens, what we find is that even if a person is an optimistic leader, when they’re surrounded by so much negativity in the media or from the market data they’re receiving or the people around them, their brains raise the likelihood of them starting to feel stressed and unhappy as well.  What we’ve seen is that this can spread very quickly.  You can have one person on the room that is very expressive of their negativity and stress and it can spread to the entire team.  

But the interesting part is because we all have these mirror neurons, that actually gives us extraordinary amounts of power as leaders and as individuals on a team because not only does everybody have these mirror neurons, but it means we are soft-wired for a connection of empathy.  So if I raise up my levels of happiness by training my brain to become more positive, doing many of the things that my book, "The Happiness Advantage," that raise the levels of happiness and the levels of productivity, that doesn’t stop with just the individual, that spreads out to the team because people around you are actually starting to pick up on that as well.  

So what we need to find a way to do is to buffer our brains against the negative impacts of media or the information that we’re receiving or the people around us so that we can create a one-way street, using our brain as an advantage of rippling that happiness advantage out to other people.

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.

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.

What is the biggest misconception about happiness?

Shawn Achor: I think we think that happiness is something that you find or if you reach some level in a company or a school, then you’re happier.  And what we’re finding is that happiness is not something that happens to you; happiness is a work ethic.  It’s something that requires our brains to train just like an athlete has to train.  In order to become happier, we actually have to focus our brains down on things that actually move us forward instead of getting stagnating in the things that... for example, stressing about things that are outside of our control doesn’t move us forward at all.  

So what I think that what we need to be able to do is to not only change the formula for success, to help us to be able to focus upon this idea that if we prioritize happiness, it will then raise our success rates, but also a recognition that is something that we actually have to be conscious about on a daily basis because it’s something that actually requires effort, it requires training and requires us to be able to focus our attention on this.  And if we do so, I think the thing that we oftentimes think is that if people get happy, they’ll stop working hard or that happy people are unintelligent.  And what we're finding is just the opposite.  I think it is the most counter-intuitive thing we’ve found, which is happiness actually raises an individual’s intelligence and their success rates.  

We find that the happy people aren’t always the smartest people, we know that there are... I’ve met tons of people that are very successful and not happy, and people that are extremely intelligent and not happy.  So we might assume that those two things are divorced, but now what we really realize in the science is that both of those individuals are actually underperforming what their brain is actually capable of.  And if we have more role models in our companies and schools of individuals that are positive and infect other people with that positivity rippling out through those mirror neuron networks, not only can we raise the levels of happiness and engagement in our schools and companies again, but we’ll actually raise their levels of success as well.

Recorded September 9, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller