Like millions of others, the first time I became aware that there was such a thing as positive psychology—a “science of happiness”—was in 2006, when I read a news item about some Harvard professor whose course on happiness was packing in hundreds of students. The press dubbed the class Happiness 101 (it was actually called Psychology 1504), positive psychology became “the happiness revolution,” and the rest has become some pretty remarkable history.
Starting with the work of Martin Seligman and his colleagues in the late nineties, positive psychology—the proposition that scientists study what goes right in the human condition, rather than what goes wrong—sprang up virtually overnight, generated an avalanche of new research on the roots and impact of happiness. Soon school systems, Fortune 100 corporations, and the U.S. military were all creating happiness programs, governments were floating proposals to begin measuring GNH—“gross national happiness”—and the New York Times bestseller list was flooded with new books about the science of happiness. One of these, The Happiness Advantage, was penned by Shawn Achor—one of the creators of that Harvard class that triggered so much national attention.
Shawn is that rare scientist who is both a distinguished researcher and highly engaging speaker (his TED talk is justifiably one of the most popular ever), and has garnered a well-earned reputation as one of the world’s top authorities on positive psychology and its impact in the workplace.
Michelle Gielan, who with Shawn cofounded the Institute for Applied Positive Research, worked as a network news anchor for two national news programs, The CBS Morning News and Up to the Minute and was a correspondent for The Early Show. Michelle left the news business “at the height of her career in media,” as Shawn puts it, “because she realized she was telling negative stories and wanted to find a more positive way to communicate to people.” Today she works with Fortune 500 companies on ways to raise employee engagement and drive success.
One more thing: Shawn and Michelle are extremely bullish on network marketing as an ideal Petri dish for spreading the “positive social contagion” of happiness.—J.D.M.
Shawn, how did you get started in this whole happiness thing?
Shawn: I fell backwards into happiness research. I was at Harvard Divinity School, taking classes in Christian and Buddhist ethics and studying what causes us to wake up in the morning and find meaning in our lives. Since I was also doing some teaching in several courses in the psychology department, I was approached by an instructor there named Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar.
Tal had taught a seminar class in a new branch of science called positive psychology, and he wanted to see if we could take this subject matter to a larger group of students.
I’d had no idea there was such a thing as positive psychology, and I was fascinated. These scientists were looking at the same questions I was asking at the Divinity School, and validating a lot of what we had been learning in religion.
I started studying the Harvard population and found that when people viewed the world through positive lenses and were doing certain positive habits, their success rates were significantly higher and they were much better able to navigate through difficult times than the other Harvard students.
We started trying these ideas out in the workplace and found the same observations magnified everywhere in the world.
Since then I’ve gone from teaching a few students in a classroom, to giving lectures to a few thousand Harvard students at a time, to traveling to more than fifty countries, exploring what causes people to experience high levels of happiness and success in their lives.
You were part of the famous “Happiness 101” course at Harvard in 2006, weren’t you?
I helped Tal design that course. Part of my work was to come up with weekly habits people could be doing, ways to expand the concepts into an experiential course. We ended up having 1,600 students taking the course over two semesters.
While these students were brilliant, they weren’t necessarily very good at creating happiness. Four out of five Harvard students reported experiencing depression at some time during their four years there, and one in ten had contemplated suicide over the previous year.
I did a study of those 1,600 students to find out what factors caused them to experience greater levels of happiness in their lives. We looked at everything, from the number of friends on their Facebook pages, to their grades, to how much money their parents made.
We found that the most significant factor was their mindset. If that was positive, their health, happiness, and success rates improved dramatically. If they were only seeing the negatives—the hassles, complaints, and competition—then their ability to succeed and be happy dropped dramatically.
To what degree is that a learned perspective, and to what degree are some of us just inherently gloomier or happier?
We know that people have inherent predispositions for a lot of things—obesity, high blood pressure, alcoholism, and that there are genes that predispose us towards certain personality types and viewpoints.
What we didn’t realize until recently was how much people can change.
Research in neuroscience over the past decade has shown us how malleable the human brain is. The brain can not only change, which is called neuroplasticity, but also create new patterns and connections all the time, which is neurogenesis.
We started linking neuroscience to positive psychology and found that, if we could get people to make some very small, practical changes to their life, we could actually get them to raise their levels of happiness above the baseline set for them by their genes, their childhood, or their previous experiences.
We started exploring what kinds of interventions we could be doing in people’s lives that would change the conversation they are feeding their brain.
That’s the research Michelle has been focused on—not only how we change the information coming in, but also the information we’re broadcasting out to other people and the impact that has. She taught me that we can not only change ourselves but actually change other people as well.
Michelle, how did you get into this?
Michelle: I started at CBS News in mid-2008, and every time that little red light over the camera went on, knowing we were broadcasting at that moment to millions of people, I would think, “Wow—I have a real chance to make a difference here.” That was why I got into broadcasting in the first place, to inform people and help make a positive difference in their lives.
A few months later the recession hit, and suddenly it was one heartbreaking story after another about how the economic downturn was tearing apart people’s lives, careers, and retirements. The news cycle was just flooded with negativity—and I started thinking about the lens through which we were viewing the story itself.
I wondered, what could we do to help people to move forward in more positive direction?
We decided to do a week-long series of interviews focusing on how we can foster more happiness in our lives, relationships, homes, and workplaces. We brought in experts in positive psychology to talk about how we can be happier right now. If our relationships are struggling, or we’re feeling financially strained, or our kids are dealing with stress at school and their grades are falling, what practical things we can do to refocus our attention and become happier right now, regardless of our external circumstances?
We called it Happy Week.
We got more emails from viewers from that week alone than we’d had in the previous six months combined.
That did it, for me. Learning that there was a science behind all this, behind being able to alter our own mindsets and seeing what kind of results that had, changed the trajectory of my life.
I went back to school and got a master’s in applied positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, read Shawn’s book when it came out, and then reached out to him to connect.
You two were so destined to meet.
There’s such a synergy to our work. And I love what he does with the science. The research, with all its academic jargon, can sometimes be a little dry and boring, but Shawn makes it interesting and practical for people to start implementing in their lives immediately. That’s really important to me, because it’s only when we start using the results of this research in our lives that we start seeing positive change. And catalyzing positive change is what journalism could be at its best. Disseminating valuable, positive, inspiring information could transform societies at large.
That red light blinking over the camera makes me think about how in network marketing, we often have the opportunity to communicate with a lot of people—and that we have the choice with every communication whether it’s good news or bad news we’re sending down the pipes.
That’s spot on. I totally agree—and to me, that’s where the science gets really exciting.
When I work with companies and individuals, I try to impart to them how much potential and power they have with the way they think, the words they choose, and how they express themselves to other people—because those little interactions can have a big impact on our levels of connectedness with others and overall success in life.
Shawn, can you say more about the kinds of daily “interventions” you’ve worked with?
Shawn: There are two ways we can create great change in our lives: by changing our mind, and by changing our habits.
In terms of making a mindset change, what we want people to do is change the formula for happiness and success.
Most people think that if they work harder, they’ll be more successful and then they’ll be happier. That seems to make sense—but it turns out that every time we reach a goal, our brain moves the success goalpost back. So instead of being happy because of the goal we’ve reached, we just push happiness further off into the future, and never end up feeling that happiness we were expecting.
But we can flip that formula around, and actually use happiness in the present to then reach those greater levels of success. If we can take somebody who is negative or neutral and raise their levels of optimism significantly, they experience a 37 percent increase in the amount of sales they make over a six-month period!
We found that if you’re negative, neutral, or stressed and we raise your level of happiness, we can improve your level of everyday productivity by 31 percent, across industries.
We found that when people provide social support to others, they’re ten times more engaged with the work and find it more meaningful. If they’re in the corporate world, they’re also 40 percent more likely to receive a promotion over the next two years. And the list goes on and on.
That is amazing! So happiness doesn’t just make you happier. Happiness pays.
We want people to realize that happiness is something that we need to cultivate in the present. If we keep looking at happiness as the future result of success, then we’ll never get it. And more importantly, we need to cultivate it in the present because happiness itself is an incredible advantage.
So that’s the mindset change. What about the habits?
Michelle and I have been looking at some very simple, often overlooked things people can do in their lives that can have extraordinary effects. These are habits that, if you do them for two minutes a day for even twenty-one days in a row, can literally rewire your brain, so that you will see improvements not only in your long-term levels of happiness but also in your success rate, sales, energy levels, and productivity. And it also works for people with genetic predispositions for pessimism or depression.
We have four of those two-minute habits, and a fifth one that takes fifteen minutes.
Let’s do it! What habit comes first?
The first, and the one where we’ve done the most research, is a simple gratitude training: every day when you wake up in the morning, write down three new things you’re grateful for.
A lot of people do gratitude exercises but repeat the same ones over and over. The point of making these three new things every day is that we’re training your brain to scan the world for positive information, rather than for threats or negative information. We’ve taken people who continually test as pessimists, had them do this for twenty-one days in a row, and found their levels of optimism rise significantly.
So while optimism does have a genetic component, it can also be learned and trained to become our new default position.
And the second habit?
Journal for two minutes a day about a single positive experience that occurred over the past twenty-four hours.
The brain can’t tell much difference between visualizing an experience and actually experiencing it. When you journal about a meaningful experience you’ve had, as far as your brain is concerned you double the experience. We found this is the fastest intervention we have for raising people’s levels of charisma and positive leadership as judged by other people, and it’s also the fastest way of increasing the amount of meaning you feel in your work, because your brain is actually scanning for it and connecting to it throughout the day.
Third, we have people exercise for fifteen minutes a day—fun, mindful cardio activity. We found that doing this for fifteen minutes before starting the workday was the equivalent of taking an antidepressant, and for those who had been experiencing depression there was a 30 percent lower relapse rate over the following two years than for those using the antidepressant.
The reason exercise is so successful is that it acts almost as a “gateway drug” for positive habits. When you exercise you believe your behavior matters, and then you’re more likely to pick up the phone and talk to people in your downline. You’re more likely to persevere in the face of low levels of sales over time. And you’re more likely to pick up some of these other positive habits, too.
And the fourth habit?
The fourth is meditation, and we don’t mean anything fancy here. For two minutes a day, just be still and watch your breath go in and out.
The point of this is to train yourself to do just one thing with your brain. We all try to multitask so much, and it’s stressful. We’ve found that if you just train your brain for two minutes a day to do one thing at a time, not only does your accuracy rate go up at work, but your stress levels drop dramatically—and for people around you who aren’t even meditating, we’ve found that their levels of cortisol drop as well.
The final habit is that we have people do conscious acts of kindness.
For twenty-one days in a row, we have people write a two-minute email every morning, praising or thanking a person in their social support network, a family member, someone in their downline, a friend, one of their kid’s teachers, whoever.
Of the five habits we’ve been researching, this turns out to be the most powerful one.
Not only do people enjoy the experience and have a boost in happiness, but more importantly, their brain now perceives themselves as having very deep social support. And from the research we’ve done at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, we’ve found that social support is the single greatest predictor of your success at work and your long-term levels of happiness.
A simple act of kindness, like writing those daily two-minute emails, is as predictive of how long you’ll live as obesity, high blood pressure, and smoking.
I think it’s fascinating that these simple habits can not only increase your own happiness, but also have an impact on the people around you.
Michelle: It’s amazing to watch the ripple effect. And especially with network marketing companies, more than in any other context we see, because people in this business are connecting with so many others on a regular basis, and they have the power and ability to influence them dramatically through their words.
For example, network marketers are very expressive on Facebook, Twitter and other social applications, and what they say influences the people who are reading it. In our research we’ve seen that positive news stories spread much faster on social media than the negative news stories.
In my work I teach a strategy we call the “power lead.” The power lead is when you start emails, conversations, and other interactions by saying something positive. This came out of our analysis of news reports, which are overloaded with negative events, stresses and worries. Producers will typically choose the most dramatic or sensational or negative story to grab our attention. But what if we were to start with the positive?
In our research we consistently see that if we begin with the positive, our brain is more prepared to tackle challenges. Chemicals are released in the brain that improve thinking, memory, and problem-solving skills. Leading with positivity changes the game by priming our brain to perform better and influences others to see a more positive reality. Starting off your conversations, phone calls, meetings, or Facebook posts with something positive transforms the whole dynamic of the conversation. It tips it towards the positive.
Let’s say in your network marketing organization, there is one person who always sees the glass as half empty and is constantly bringing up the negative. What can we do to change the interactions with someone who continually brings the tenor of the party down?
Shawn: I think it’s the wrong strategy to think, “How can I change that person?” It’s very difficult to get somebody else to choose happiness. Happiness and optimism is a personal choice, which means that person has to consciously make it.
So we suggest two things.
First, the most effective way to buffer yourself against the negative effects of negative people is to start doing the positive habits yourself. The more you fill your brain with these positive habits, the more it is buffered against the negative.
We have these connections between our brains based on mirror neurons, so that when I smile, it actually makes your brain light up as if you’re the one smiling.
Mirror neurons are the biological underpinnings of social contagion. If you see me yawn, your brain lights up as if you’re yawning, and then you’re more likely to actually yawn. And when you start making positive changes in yourself, these mirror neurons make it more likely for that negative person to also start becoming more positive.
The second strategy is, instead of going directly to the negative person and trying to change them, we can increase the social influence around them. Social influence is defined by three things: the strength of the message, the immediacy and importance of the message, and the number of sources.
So if you’re trying to influence someone to be more positive, you can increase the number of positive sources around that person. Go for the lower-hanging fruit—look to the people around that person who can be tipped in a positive or negative direction and help make them more positive. Now what you’ve got is that negative person being surrounded by positive social influence.
Michelle: In our work in network marketing, we’ve actually seen how that plays out in action, where you get enough other people beating the drumbeat of positivity.
We’ve done events where we created a “gratitude wall,” where people write down one thing they are grateful for and put it up on this wall. It was absolutely beautiful. It created an opportunity for everyone to take part in setting a social script of positivity together.
It’s always seemed to me that the biggest thing people get out of the network marketing experience is not the product experience or the income experience but the social experience and how it changes them. And without being too Pollyanna about it, it feels like this stuff you’re doing can literally have an impact on the state of the world.
Shawn: We see the same thing—the potential revolution in this information.
As a society we’ve been focusing on how we can get our cell phones smaller and our computers to process faster, but we’ve been overlooking how we can get the human brain to work even better. And when we do think about it, we go completely in the wrong direction and look at how to increase the number of hours and workload, or get students to learn more information at a younger and younger age.
But we’re overlooking how fast and successful the human brain becomes when the brain is set on positive.
For the past six years, we’ve been working with Fortune 100 companies testing the long-term effects of these simple habits. At KPMG we taught them these positive habits and then tested them four months later, in the middle of the worst tax season in history—and we found that the group we had trained had significantly higher levels of happiness and job effectiveness.
We know this works, and people in the business community are starting to embrace it. In January 2012 our research on the happiness advantage made the cover of the Harvard Business Review, which validated the fact that companies need to focus their attention on the value of positive people in their organization.
We see this huge opportunity in the direct selling industry. When we talk to people in network marketing, we never hear them talk about the product or frustrations or sales or money—every single conversation we hear is about personal development.
And if you can drive personal development, your success as an organization is going to rise dramatically.
Michelle: People don’t realize how much of our own long-term happiness is dictated by how we process the world, which is completely under our own control. That’s incredible! If we take ownership of how our brain looks at the world, then we can make enormous improvement in ourselves, and that has a contagious ripple effect on everyone around us.
And network marketing is such a great context to see that in.
We have these titles and goals and income levels we’re striving for, and I think that’s great—but while that’s all great, it’s not the source of happiness. In fact, it’s much more that happiness is at the source of achieving all those goals.
If we keep thinking we’re going to be happier off in the future, we’re missing out on what our brains are actually capable of. Happiness is here and now, and it’s the starting point for greater levels of success.
Scientifically speaking, these are the three big discoveries: happiness is a choice, happiness is an advantage, and happiness spreads.