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Five Steps to a Happier Life

Question: 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.

Recorded September 9, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller

The Harvard positive psychology guru offers a few concrete ways for you to become happier today.

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