Shawn Achor on happiness as a competitive advantage


SHAWN ACHOR: When I
first went off to college to start collecting debts, my
father was buoyed by the idea that he knew I would just come
back with a high quality job. I’d come back and be a doctor
or a lawyer or a banker. And when I came back from
college and told them, Dad, I want to study the science
of happiness, he sat me down. And he said, Sean,
I just want to let you know that the average
scientific journal article is only read on average by
seven people total, which is incredibly depressing
research– statistic for us researchers to hear. Because we know that
that statistic also includes our moms. So we’re down to
six people that read these studies,
which is a tragedy. Because I believe
that research is the key to bridging the gaps
that we’re hearing about what we’ve been learning
about in terms of theory and what we’ve been seeing
applied in practice. My very first talk was
out at a large Swiss bank at the beginning of
the banking class. And when I was introduced, I
was introduced by a senior level leader there who was asked
by HR to introduce me. And he did not want to do so. And instead of
reading my bio, he said, well, we don’t have
bonuses for everyone, but here’s a talk on happiness
from a guy from America. You can imagine the cold
response as the tech team unfortunately in the back turned
on the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” theme music as I walked up
from the back of the room. But within 10 minutes
of talking to them, as I start talking about
research that was directly aimed at how we can actually
get people to believe that their behavior matters
again, to restart forward progress in the
midst of a challenge, you could see people start
to pick up their pens and start to take
notes that they wanted to bring
back to their teams. Seven years later,
earlier this year, I was out at the Pentagon. I was invited to give a
talk there on happiness. And I was brought into a room
full of senior level leaders– people that were leaders of NATO
forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, who were Special Forces. And I did the bravest thing
I think I’ve ever done. I started a talk at the
Pentagon with a story about a unicorn, which
if you see my TED Talk, you know what I’m talking about. But afterwards, one of the
senior leaders came up to me and said, Sean, 10
years ago, we could not have had a talk on
happiness at the Pentagon. And I think he’s right. That’s where I want to
start my talk today. Because I believe we’re at
the midst of twin revolutions. Of course, we’re
sitting in the heart of the technological revolution
that we already know about. But we’re also realizing that
while technology can increase productivity, we’re
also finding that we can’t increase the amount
of workload and stress and strain on the
same individual and still hope to maintain those
same levels of productivity and profitability. The second realization
and revolution will be the idea that we
can increase productivity by increasing optimal
human flourishing. And that’s what I want
to talk about today about that research. We were asked to talk
about one thing that was– they were going
to put it out there that there was going
to start debate. And what I would like argue
is that you are not just your genes and your
environment– that scientifically, happiness
can be a choice. But it’s a choice
that we can influence through our organizations. And when we do so, it
becomes the greatest competitive advantage
in the modern economy. This is my third time
out speaking at Google. One of the times I came
here was with Ming Tan to do a Google Talk. And while I was
talking to them, I started noticing all
these comparisons between what we saw
at Google and what I was seeing during my
12 years at Harvard. For example, when I talk to
my friends from Waco, Texas where I grow up about
going off to Harvard, they say, why would you
study happiness there? They seem to have everything–
opportunities, resources, wealth, and successes. And when I was at Google,
I was talking to people and I asked them if
they walked around in a constant state of ecstasy. And one of the women in
the accounting department said with– sheepishly–
that she actually felt very frustrated sometimes
on Fridays because she would see the line for the free
sushi and it was way too long. How is she expected
to be productive when the line is that long? I ask you. But what I started
realizing what– it wasn’t about
the external world that causes people
to become happier. And that’s not
what causes Google to be so successful as Lazlo
was mentioning earlier. What I want to talk about is
what I was seeing at Harvard. One of the very
first studies I did was a study of 1600
Harvard students. I was looking to
see, can you predict, in a population that’s very
intelligent, very successful, very creative, who will rise
to the top in terms of levels of happiness and success
while they’re there? I looked at everything. We asked their familial
income, their SAT scores. We looked at their GPA. We looked at a number of clubs
that they were involved in. We found out their number of
romantic relationships, which we found at Harvard was,
on average, less than one per Harvard student, which
is why many people come out to Stanford. And we found it was 0.5 sexual
partners per Harvard student, which I only mention
because I still have no idea what that
statistic even means. We were always
taught to round up. But 0.5 sexual partners with
the equivalent of second base. And it was useless
information to us. But imagine a student who, ever
since they were a one-year-old, was placed into a crib wearing
a onesie that you can buy at the bookstore that
says, bound for Harvard, and maybe a cute little Yale
had in case something terrible happened. And ever since they
were in pre-K school which they got into four years
before they were conceived, they were the top
1% of their class– junior high, high school,
standardized test, top 1%. They walk into Harvard and they
have a terrible realization, one that many people when they
come to Google have as well. They suddenly realize that 50%
of them are now below average. To put it more poignantly,
when I talk to these students, I said it seems based on
my research that 99% of you will not graduate in the top
1%, which they don’t find that funny either. But the reason
that’s interesting is they’ve decided to pin
their levels of happiness on their future success which
is related to something small, like grades, which if you
know the statistics on grades, I can roll a pair
of dice and that’s equally predictive of
your future job income as your college GPA actually is. But they consign
99% to unhappiness. And the top 1%
when we study them is actually not
that happy either. The system is broken. It’s based upon a flawed system
of happiness and success– a formula for it which is
the heart of my research. What I do is I
study what I believe to be one of the
fundamental problems that’s causing us to limit both
our happiness and success with an organization. And it’s a formula we get there. And it’s the way that we
manage, the way that we parent, and it’s the way that
we do self-development. Most people follow the formula,
which is if you work harder, you’re going to be
more successful. As soon as you
achieve these goals, think how happy
you’re going to be. Think how often we do that. Soon as I finish this
project, I’ll be happier. Soon as I finish
this presentation, then I’m going to feel happier. As soon as I finish all this
travel, then I’ll feel happier. As soon as I get into the right
school, I’ll feel happier. Soon as I get the right
job, I’ll feel happier. But what we notice
is that formula which undergirds most
of our parenting styles in organizations is
scientifically broken and backwards for two reasons. The first reason is, every time
your brain has had a success in the past, what have you done? You’ve change the goal
post of what success looked like almost immediately. You got good grades in school? Don’t get excited yet. You don’t even have a job. You get a job. That’s great, you have a job. But now you have to
hit your sales target. Well, you hit your sales target. That’s great. But we’re going to
raise your sales target for the next
quarter, right? So in each moment, we
want to see sales rise. We want to see growth
and improvement. We want to see grades improve. That’s not the problem. The problem is
where happiness lies in the formula for our
managing our organizations and for ourselves. What we’ve found is
that if happiness is on the opposite
side of success, you’ve pushed it over
the cognitive horizon. Your brain never
quite gets there because it’s a moving target. But flip around the formula. If you cause people to invest in
their social support networks, deepen their social
support networks, raise their levels of optimism,
and change the way that they view stress from a
threat to a challenge, it turns out every single
business and educational outcome we know how to test
for rises dramatically. We find that
productivity rises 31% when people move from a neutral
state to a positive state. We find that sales rise
by 37% cross industry. We found similar to
the research you’ve found in the great book “Give
and Take” by Adam Grant, we know that if you provide
social support at work, you’re 40% more likely
to receive a promotion over the next two
year period of time. We know that you live longer. Your symptoms are less acute. We find that you stay at
organizations even longer. All of that
information is great. But the problem
is that if you try to raise your levels of success
rate for the rest of your life and you’re successful at that,
your happiness levels flatline. They don’t move. Flip around the
formula, if we find some way of investing in our
engagement levels at work, if you’ve read Dan Ping’s
fabulous book “Drive”, if you’ve been looking at ways
to deepen social connection, if we could change the
way we view stress, suddenly a different
picture emerges. That’s what I wanted
to talk to you about. Because what works really
well in the laboratory sometimes doesn’t work out
in the messiness of life. So since I’ve spent
my time at Harvard, I left in the middle
of the banking crisis to try and figure out how we
could apply this research out within the real world. And a lot of the work
I’m going to talk about is at organizations. But I’ve also traveled to 51
countries working with farmers in Zimbabwe that lost
their land, working with children at St. Jude
Children’s Hospital trying to find out from
some of the doctors there why it is that
four-year-old children with terminal cancer
are more likely to tell their parents everything’s
going to be OK then the reverse. Why is there access to
resilience at childhood that we lose sometimes
in adulthood? And how do we import that
to soldiers coming back from combat services? That’s not what we’re going
to get to talk about today. What I wanted to talk
about is some of the ways we’ve seen these organizations
be able to thrive. We do two things. One of the things to
do it do is if you’ve read Charles Duhigg’s fantastic
book “The Power of Habit”, you know how important
habits can be. And over the past
seven years, what I’ve been doing is I’ve
been looking to find out, are there habits that take less
than two minutes a day that are akin to brushing your
teeth that if you did them up for a period of 21 days in a row
that you could trump your genes and even up to eight
decades of experience? And that’s exactly
what we found. We found small little
habits– something simple, as Martin Seligman found, where
you write three things that you knew that you were grateful for
each day for 21 days in a row can actually move people
that are continually testing as pessimists at an
organization to testing as low to moderate level optimists
and that the pattern exists for even six months. One of the things
I’ve found that I love is if you write a two minute
email praising or thanking one person you know, it turns
out if you do that every day for a different
person for 21 days, if you do it for
the next three days writing to somebody, a two
minute email praising them or thanking them, you’re going
to get fully addicted to it. Because you’re going to
spend all day long thinking about how amazing you were for
writing that in the morning. And you get these
great emails back because they don’t know
about the two minute rule. So they keep writing
how great you are. And you’re like, yep, this
is– all this is true. But 21 days later, when we ask
about your social connection, you realize you have incredibly
deep social connection. The breadth, depth, and meaning
in your social relationships has increased dramatically. We found that social
connection is not only the greatest
predictor of happiness with inside
organizations, but we also found that social connection is
as predictive of how long all of you will end up living
as obesity, high blood pressure, or smoking. We sure fight hard
against the negative and we forget to tell people how
powerful the positive can be. With my last minute,
what I wanted to do is to tell you about what
we’re doing with organizations. We’ve seen these fantastic
organizations take these ideas and run with them. In fact, Nationwide
Insurance, for example– I’m working with the
Nationwide Sales Academy where when people are onboarded
to become a sales leader there, they’re taught that the new
social script is when you come into the organization, it’s not
that once you hit your sales then you’re going
to feel happier, but that happiness and
optimism and social connection are exactly what’s
going to fuel the sales. So when we talk about this
later on, it’s not a surprise. That’s what causes
people to be successful here. one of the groups we were
working with that has been led by Gary Baker actually
went through one of the positive psychology
training programs. We found, as I was talking
to Larry from Gallup earlier this morning, we
founded that their Gallup scores actually improve
dramatically in terms of their engagement with just a
very short positive psychology intervention. But their revenues have moved
from 350 million to 950 million over the past year and
that it’s actually– they think it’ll happen
again this coming year. We’re finding at KPMG, we
did a three hour intervention with them in December, 2008,
right before the busiest tax season in history. Four months later during the
busiest tax season in history, in April, we compare
them to a control group that got a technical training. And what we found is
exactly what Gallup found. Only 25% of your successes
over the next five years are predicted based
on your intelligence and technical skills which
is how we hire, educate, and train. 75% of your successes
will be based upon the belief that
your behavior matters, your social connections,
and the way that we perceive the stress coming in. And the final thing
I want to mention is the work we
were doing at UBS. Alliah Krum and Peter Salovey
from Yale University– Allie’s now out in Stanford–
and I went into UBS. And we found that most of the
stress management programs that we put people through
was actually causing people to get sicker. Because we tell
people that if you go to stress
management program as, companies make you
more stress, we say, do you know stress is related to
the 10 leading causes of death and disease in
the United States? Did you know stress was found
by the World Health Organization to be the number one killer? Do you know that
stress is catabolic? It tears down every
organ in the human body. After that, what do you feel? Stress– you’re like,
stop emailing me so much! You’re destroying
every organ in my body! Which I think would make a great
away message while you’re here. But what I think is
fascinating is all that information is true. But there’s equally
true information that shows that stress–
not good stress, I’m talking about high levels
of negative stress– actually causes your immune system
to turn onto its highest possible level, cognitive
function to improve, memory to deepen. It turns out our
social bonds deepen to its highest
possible level, which is why when we go through– when
the military onboards people, they don’t put them
through a beach vacation. They onboard them
with boot camp. And that creates these
meaningful narratives that people talk about for their
entire rest of their career. What we did is we showed
two two-minute videos to these individuals in the
middle of the banking crisis– stress is enhancing,
stress is debilitating. Here’s how you fight it,
here’s how you embrace it. Six weeks later, equal
levels of stress. But the group that saw
stress as a challenge instead of as a threat had a 23% drop in
their health related symptoms. Stress is inevitable, but
its effects upon us are not. And I believe that all
this research comes down to these three conclusions. Scientifically, happiness
can be a choice. You don’t have to just be your
genes and your environment, and we can actually
influence it. The second one is that
happiness spreads. When we choose to
do this, it actually cascades to other people,
changing the social script. And finally, happiness
is an advantage. In fact, what I would argue
is that because it improves every single business and
educational outcome we know, I believe that happiness,
optimism, social connection are the greatest
competitive advantages in the modern economy. And all it takes is taking
this research that’s only read on average
by seven people total and just bringing it to life. So thank you so much opportunity
to share this research.

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