The Happiness Advantage: An Interview with Shawn Achor
“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.” ~Shawn Achor
Shawn Achor spent over a decade living, researching, and lecturing at Harvard University, and has been involved in one of the largest studies of happiness and potential at Harvard and others at companies like UBS and KPMG. He brings a truly unique perspective of applying positive psychology to the business world.
In 1998 Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, set a new direction for the discipline: Positive psychology. What has followed is an unprecedented publication of robust research and applied interventions. In 2000, Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, published an article in the American Psychologist that anchored positive psychology as an evidence–based practice.
Since then the positive psychology movement has boomed. Founded with the intention of building thriving individuals, families, and communities, proponents of the discipline can be found in popular and academic publications, working with an array of corporate entities, and teaching on college campuses throughout the world. There are even graduate degrees in positive psychology.
In 2005, under Seligman’s guidance, the University of Pennsylvania offered the first applied positive psychology master’s program. It continues to thrive today. Undergraduate courses are showing up in the curriculum of colleges around the world. Dozens of universities now offer masters degrees in positive psychology. Csikszentmihalyi has even created a Ph.D program at his Claremont, Calif. campus.
Shawn Achor is rapidly becoming a leader in each of these areas. In 2006, he was Head Teaching Fellow for Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar’s “Positive Psychology,” the most popular course at Harvard University at the time.
The following year, Achor founded Good Think Inc. to share his research with a wider population. He has since gone on to speak in over 45 countries, and found tremendous success with his book The Happiness Advantage.
Achor offers a dynamic, research-based shift for businesses wishing to apply positive psychology. He has taken time out of his busy schedule to do an enlightening interview for Psych Central about the background and direction of his work.
PC: In “The Happiness Advantage” you seem to employ a careful balance of science and storytelling. How did this develop?
SA: I was a debater in high school, which means two things: I didn’t date much, and I write like I’m making a case. But watching my academic heroes, I realized that they were terrible communicators. Fantastic ideas presented in a non-engaging way means that the passion for the subject and its import are not translated to the listener.
Even more importantly, stories help you remember and implement the information. My favorite professor at Harvard, Brian Little (who wasn’t even tenured), used to fill his lectures with engaging stories. I actually thought it was a waste because I’d have to listen to like 3 to 5 minutes of a story before finding a single nugget to write down in my notes to prepare for the exam. But I not only remember almost all those stories, I remember all the nuggets, whereas intro psych courses are often a waste because they are an information dump, which leads to your brain quickly dumping that information from working memory.
So after crafting the scientific case for why happiness fuels performance and not the other way around, I then went back through and actually highlighted in blue jokes, interesting facts, or stories in my manuscript. If I had a block of black on a page with no blue, I went back in and added more blue-worthy sections.
PC: What are the main effects of the happiness advantage?
SA: The biggest effect is the belief that your behavior matters. If you start a positive habit and see that it has a positive effect upon your business or health outcomes, your brain is more willing to utilize resources to continue that behavior and scan for new ones. The resulting effect is a cascade of success as greater meaning and well-being fuel more successes than garnered by defensive pessimism or cynicism.
In HBR Magazine this January, I talk about an assessment I’m working on testing not whether you receive social support, but if you give it. Individuals in the top quartile on this assessment were 40 percent more likely to have received a promotion in the past year and were 10 times more engaged at work than those in the lowest quartile. Companies who are interested in engagement, which was the flavor of the year for 2011, should start understanding more about what causes engagement than merely evaluating it. Yet many companies think, “we can talk about happiness once the economy recovers,” but if positive mindset leads to greater success rates as Lyubomirsky’s meta-analysis suggests, then it’s too late.
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 April 28, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/01/17/the-happiness-advantage-an-interview-with-shawn-achor/