The Happiness Advantage: An Interview with Shawn Achor
PC: As the Teaching Assistant for Harvard’s most popular course, what effect on the students most influenced you?
SA: Lots of people work out at the beginning of a new year or semester. But I remember going into the gym in early December, and almost everyone in the weight room said hi…because they were all in positive psychology. I met with over 1,200 students individually for coffee at Starbucks during my years as a teaching fellow, which gave me an insight into the patterns of concerns and successes that the students had. It was like reading 1,200 biographies and getting to sift through what best creates happiness and success.
PC: What first drew you to positive psychology?
SA: I actually started my research in religion. After studying religion as an undergraduate at Harvard, I stopped my Navy scholarship so I could go right to Harvard Divinity School. I became fascinated with how our lens for evaluating the world changes the decisions we make: why we love, why we wake up in the morning, where meaning comes from, what fuels our work. This naturally led to positive psychology, where I got to ask the same questions but from a rigorous and empirical lens.
PC: How do spiritual beliefs enter into your work?
SA: They were the impetus for me wanting to understand how people see the world. While I rarely mention my beliefs in corporate settings, I have had numerous religious people come up and say that my role is very similar to a missionary. I believe that religion provides a narrative, one I believe to be true, but regardless provides an additional level of meaning and significance to the world. If I see a sunset, I’m happier not just because of the light, or how it reminds me of impressionism, or because the universe is so beautiful, but because I believe there is a loving creator in it. So while I do not talk about it unless asked, I like knowing how positive psychology is merely proving what every major religious tradition already knew about what causes flourishing.
PC: How would you describe your style of introducing people to the field of positive psychology?
SA: I’m a pragmatist, so research to me is useless unless lived. But many of the conclusions of positive psychology sound like common sense or like they should be spoken not by a scientist, but a Care Bear. So, I immediately highlight the science behind it, and once people’s cognitive guards can be lowered, then immediately move to how to make the conclusions practical. So in my talks I use a lot of humor and business examples. I spend 90 percent of my time working with Fortune 500 companies, so I’m using what they care about (performance) as a leveraging tool for speaking about flourishing, which of course leads directly back to higher performance, or the “happiness advantage.”
PC: What do you see as the “tipping point” for positive psychology?
SA: Over the past few centuries, you could make a good case for either academia, government or the church as being the key to making societal change. I think antiestablishment sentiment acts as a limit to how much the latter two can do, and academia has fossilized itself behind tenure based on publications, not impact, obfuscating technical language, and an archaic peer-review process that retards the understanding and new discoveries. As little as I like it, I think the current power invested in corporations gives them the tipping point power. When massive, seemingly soulless corporations recognize that the happiness of the workforce is a great predictor of long-term sustainable success, then you’ll see the societal tip occur. I believe it has already begun. Tipping points occur best in times of intense strife. Business has already reached the point that it cannot keep squeezing productivity out of people by increasing stress and workload, so it is scrambling for a solution that positive psychology can provide.
PC: What most excites you about the future of positive psychology?
SA: More and more real-world studies. Positive psychology will increase in popularity in proportion to how effectively we can use it to deal with the world. Philosophy as a major decreased in popularity because it became fascinated with math and postulates that made it seem unrelated to our world. So I would love to see more and more academics sanction and pursue out-of-the-lab experiments, in collaboration with NGOs, hospitals, businesses, and government.
PC: Is there a downside to positivity in business that you have noticed or can foresee?
SA: No. But that’s because I equate positivity and rational optimism. There is a huge downside to irrational optimism, which gives a bad name to happiness. These people put on rose-colored glasses, sugarcoat the present, and then make bad decisions. Positivity, if based on rational optimism, starts with as realistic assessment as possible of the good and bad, but maintains a belief that our behavior eventually will matter. There is no downside to this.
PC: Who has had the biggest influence on your work?
SA: C.S. Lewis, an Oxford don who used stories to make the complex so understandable, even a child could understand, yet could also lead intellectual elites into deeper discussions. That’s an extraordinary skill. I also love Jonathan Haidt (loved Happiness Hypothesis) and Ellen Langer’s work (I served in her lab).
For more information on Shawn Achor, visit http://www.shawnachor.com/
Daniel J. Tomasulo, Ph.D., TEP, MFA currently is a degree candidate in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) at the University of Pennsylvania. He also is a licensed psychologist specializing in group psychotherapy and psychodrama, and author of Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir. Visit www.formerchild.com for more information.
Performance coach and consultant Daniel Lerner works with established and high-potential talent in industries ranging from music to finance. He currently is a degree candidate in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania. He and Daniel J. Tomasulo, PhD, jointly worked on this article. Please contact Mr. Lerner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tomasulo, D. (2012). The Happiness Advantage: An Interview with Shawn Achor. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 3, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/01/17/the-happiness-advantage-an-interview-with-shawn-achor/