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Happiness and Competitive Advantage with Shawn Achor

Shawn Achor is the winner of over a dozen distinguished teaching awards at Harvard University, where he delivered lectures on positive psychology in the most popular class at Harvard. Shawn has become one of the world’s leading experts on the connection between happiness and success. His research on happiness made the cover of Harvard Business Review, his TED talk is one of the most popular all time with over 4 million views, and his lecture airing on PBS has been seen by millions. He is the author of New York Times best-selling books The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness.

…Change is possible, and…happiness is ultimately a choice.

SPEAKING.COM: What is positive psychology, and what are a few of the ways it differs from standard psychology?

ACHOR: Positive psychology is a new movement and branch of social psychology. Rather than studying depressive disorders, it examines what causes a human to thrive.

SPEAKING.COM: When did you become interested in positive psychology, and what drew you to that field?

ACHOR: I spent 12 years at Harvard, initially studying ethics and looking at how our beliefs affect our actions. During that time people in the psychology department were saying that they could quantify if someone was becoming happier or finding more meaning in life. I was hooked.

I also went through two years of depression while at Harvard and positive psychology helped me climb out of that state. This taught me that change is possible, and that happiness is ultimately a choice.

SPEAKING.COM: In your book, The Happiness Advantage, you say that the most commonly held formula for success is broken. How is it broken?

ACHOR: Most people think if you work harder you will be more successful and therefore happier. This formula is broken because success is a moving target for the human brain. Every time you have a success, the goal post shifts to a new location because your image of success changes.

On the contrary, if you can raise your levels of happiness in the present, every single business and educational outcome improves dramatically.

…Sales do not lead to happiness, but happiness does lead to greater levels of sales.

SPEAKING.COM: What are a few of the ways that businesses can fix this broken formula within their organizations?

ACHOR: As we’ve seen with numerous Fortune 100 companies, leaders can stop suggesting that hitting a sales target or doubling growth will lead to any greater levels of happiness. Rather they can do what places like Nationwide Insurance are doing. We are working with the Nationwide Sales Academy where they are now teaching that sales do not lead to happiness, but happiness does lead to greater levels of sales.

SPEAKING.COM: What is typically the biggest obstacle organizations face in changing this broken formula for success?

ACHOR: There are two big obstacles:
1. There is a lack of awareness regarding how much happiness leads to success.
2. We assume that greater amounts of workload, hours, and stress will lead to greater levels of productivity, but scientifically the numbers don’t support this. The greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain, and the more that we arm our leaders with that information, the more they can infuse their leadership practices with the ways in which the human brain actually works best.

SPEAKING.COM: You’ve said that changes in our own minds can ripple out across an organization and effect positive change. Can you provide an example of how that happens?

ACHOR: At Nationwide Insurance, revenues rose from $650 million a year to $950 million while application rates rose by 237%, thanks to two simple initiatives: 1. Getting the call center leaders to become more positive. 2. Infusing positive leadership with the practices for the managers at the top.

Oschner Health Systems, instituted something called the “10 five way”, which meant people within 10 feet of each other in the hospital hallways made eye contact and smiled. People within 5 feet of each other said hello. Six months later the doctors had significantly higher engagement scores, the number of unique patient visits to the hospital rose, and the likelihood of patients to refer that hospital based on the quality of care that they received skyrocketed, which is the most important metric at the hospital.

These are examples of small positive habit changes that resulted in better outcomes for the organization.

…If you get someone to make a positive habit 3 to 20 seconds easier to do, their likelihood of sticking with the habit rises significantly.

SPEAKING.COM: What is “activation energy,” and why is it necessary to initiate change?

ACHOR: In order to catalyze a reaction in a chemical formula there’s an initial investment of energy called activation energy. The same is true for our brains at work. In order to create any change after a talk or at a conference, there is an initial investment of energy, which requires the most energy at the beginning. Then once you start the habit it becomes increasingly easy to continue.

In my work, I have found that if you get someone to make a positive habit 3 to 20 seconds easier to do, their likelihood of sticking with the habit rises significantly. This can be as simple as making sure you have a pen right next to a checklist, or keeping a gratitude journal right on your desktop, or going to sleep in your gym clothes so that in the morning you’re more motivated to work out. Anything that makes positive habits easier makes them more likely to happen.

SPEAKING.COM: What are a few of the ways that a leader or organization can raise the belief that individual behavior matters in accomplishing work goals?

ACHOR: The human brain accelerates towards completing goals when one of two things happens: you see progress, or you see that the finish line is close. This means that if we want to create goals for our team, we need to make them short-term goals where the finish line may be less than a month away, rather than an entire quarter and or an entire year into the future.

Any time we create a goal we must first start with highlighting progress. When I make New Year’s resolutions now, I write down five things I’ve accomplished over the previous year before writing a single new thing that I want to start. When you do this the brain records a victory, which cascades to the next task, allowing your brain to believe your behavior matters. The most successful leaders that I’ve worked with highlight the progress that has been made towards goals, and that, combined with small mini goals lining the way, makes the finish line seemingly closer, the goals more attainable, and a positive culture.

SPEAKING.COM: You still actively conduct psychological research on happiness. What are you specifically studying at present, and have any of your findings surprised you?

ACHOR: The most important thing coming out of modern psychology is the idea that you are not just your genes in your environment; by making small conscious changes in your life you can actually trump your genes and, in the case of older individuals, up to eight decades of experience.

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To bring Shawn Achor to your organization, please contact Michael Frick at: Mike@Speaking.com.

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  • Shawn Achor Shawn Achor is the winner of over a dozen distinguished teaching awards at Harvard University, where he delivered lectures on positive psychology in the most popular class at Harvard. Shawn has become one of the world’s leading experts on the connection between happiness and success. His research on happiness made the cover of Harvard Business ... more


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