This Waco native (his parents were a Baylor neuroscience professor and academic advisor) spent twelve years at Harvard as an undergraduate and graduate student, guest lecturer, and teaching fellow. His observations and studies from that time led to surprising conclusions about the relationship between happiness and success, which he has distilled into a slim 210-page volume, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work (Broadway Books, $25). Achor argues, quite convincingly (and accessibly; no academic jargon here), that his methods will improve personal contentment and lead to success in life, school, and work. Today, he makes his home in San Antonio, where he runs the consulting firm GoodThinkInc. and plans to launch the Institute for Applied Positive Research.
Happiness is a very simple concept—you go to school, land a job that pays well, find a spouse, and then you’re happy, right?
That’s the formula for happiness that most of us are taught in our schools, workplaces, and families. It’s the happiness we are sold in commercials and in movies. It’s also the very reason we see so many unhappy people in modern society. Think about it. Every time we buy something or have a victory, instead of being happy, we merely change the goalposts of what success looks like. You got into a good school? Now you have to get good grades or you can’t be happy. You get good grades? Now you have to get a good job. Get a good job? Now you have to get a promotion. Get to be CEO? Now your kids have to do well in school. If happiness is on the other side of success, we will never reach it, because it is always just over the horizon. This is the formula for success we are taught, and even teach our kids: If you work harder, then you’ll become more successful, and if you’re more successful, then you’ll be happy. But research in the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience reveals that we have the formula precisely backwards. When our brains are happy and positive first, then our success rates rise and we are able to work faster and more intelligently.
If happiness is a cause, not a result, of success—what creates happiness?
Happiness is not just the momentary pleasure of a chocolate bar. The happiness we study has to be long-term, sustained, and meaningful. Real happiness is the joy our brains feel when we are striving toward our potential. Neuroscience has confirmed what our grandparents often told us: Happiness is about the journey, not the destination. The joy of authentic happiness is predicted by our optimism, the belief that our behavior will matter, our ability to be grateful, our social support network, and how we manage our energy and stress. Most important, the key to what causes happiness is not our external world. I work with Harvard students and CEO’s of huge companies. You would think based on their opportunities and resources that they would be happy, but many if not most are not. And I have worked with impoverished children in Africa, and you would think they would be unhappy, but many were not. In fact, research shows that if I know all the externals of an individual, I can only predict 10 percent of their long-term happiness. Ninety percent of our happiness is not based on the external world but the lens through which you view it. You can create happiness merely by changing the lens.
Changing those internal attitudes would seem to be a complicated (and hit-or-miss) process—is it?
Actually, we have spent the past decade researching whether change is possible, and if so, is it hard? We have discovered seven strategies, or patterns, that train the brain to become happier and more productive in a very short span of time. For example, most people think they are grateful, but we spend most of our working day scanning the world for stresses, hassles, and complaints. Research shows if you write down three things you are grateful for when you get to work for just 21 days in a row, you literally rewire your brain to become more optimistic. Even six months later, you are happier, take fewer sick days, and get better evaluations.
When did you first begin to ponder the lack of correlation between traditional success and real happiness?
I grew up in Waco and never expected to go to Harvard. So even in the midst of stress, competition, and insane workloads, I was happy and saw it as a privilege. When my friends from Waco came to visit me at Harvard, they would look around at all the Hogwarts-like buildings and wonder how any Harvard student could be unhappy. But that was not the reality. Four out of five students at Harvard report experiencing debilitating depression.
There’s a tendency (especially in America) to distill complex ideas to make them marketable—if a “positive psychology” movement grows, how do you prevent it from losing the process you describe and devolving into a New Age-y buzzword?
I hope we eventually get rid of the phrase. Positive psychology should just be “reality psychology” as my mentor said. But there is one big difference between positive psychology and most New Age, self-help movements: scientific research. The only way this movement will revolutionize the way we think about work and happiness is if we are holding tight to our touchstone of science.
How does “positive psychology” differ from conventional psychology?
Traditional psychology is interested in the average or below average. The problem is that if we keep doing this over time, we create a Cult of the Average—all of our information is only true for the average person, but most people are not average. If someone falls below the curve, it means they are usually depressed or possibly have a disorder. So then traditional psychologists attempt to find out what is wrong so that we can raise them back up to being normal again. But remember normal is merely average. Positive psychology asks why are some people so high above the curve for happiness, energy, sales, productivity, musical ability, creativity, etc. By focusing our study on “positive outliers” or people above the curve, we can glean information not how to move people up to average, but how to move the entire average up.
Would you say this is a mental health analogue to preventive medicine—that our goal should be to keep people (mentally) healthy, not just treat them when they’re ill?
I would go one step further. The only way to truly prevent disease is not by focusing upon eliminating the negative but by increasing the positive. For example, at one of the most prestigious boarding schools in the U.S., I was asked to give a talk during a “wellness week.” Monday night they invited an expert on depression. Tuesday: Eating Disorders. Wednesday: Bullying and school violence. Thursday: Illicit drug use. Friday: They were trying to decide on either Risky Sex or Happiness. I told them that sounds like most people’s Friday night, but that that’s not a wellness week. It’s a sickness week.