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Shawn Achor, New York Times bestselling author and researcher on positive psychology, joined with MX to give practical tips about how happiness habits can lead to a better life at work and beyond. Achor is renowned for his books Big Potential and The Happiness Advantage, and his TED talk “The Happy Secret to Better Work” is one of the top 20 most-watched of all time.
You can watch the presentation and read a few highlights below.
Achor starts his presentation by recounting something his dad, a neuroscientist, told him. “He told me that the average scientific journal article is only read by seven people total,” Achor says. “That’s incredibly depressing for a researcher to hear because I know that that statistic also includes my mom, so honestly now we're down to like six people who read these studies, which is a travesty because what we've been learning about literally transforms what it means to be human.”
Achor’s work takes these transformative academic studies and makes them engaging, easy to understand, and actionable. He cites studies that show that “whatever you attend to first, becomes your reality,” and that as a result it’s important to attend to positive things in your life — to be optimistic and grateful. "We fight so hard against the negative we forget how powerful the positive can be," he says.
Of course, Achor says that it’s important to practice rational optimism. To illustrate this point, he tells the story of getting in an executive’s fancy car one morning and discovering, as they were speeding to the airport, that the executive wasn’t wearing his seatbelt. Achor asked the executive whether he intentionally didn’t wear a seatbelt and was told, “I listened to your talk. I love your research. I'm an optimist, too.”
“That’s not optimism,” says Achor. “That's irrational optimism. If we sugarcoat the present, we make terrible decisions for the future.”
So, how do you turn rational optimism into a habit?
According to Achor, it’s about starting small and working against our genes, which tend to prime us to see the negative. “Everyone has genes for teeth to rot out by age 15 in our high sugar society,” he says, “but if you get people to create a 45 second habit of brushing their teeth every day, what it is to be human changes dramatically. The same is true with happiness. I believe, and the research shows, that you have genes that predispose you to threat detection. But if you create a 45-second change to your day, you can change what it is to be human.”
Achor then gives six specific 45-second activities you can do to work against your genes and have lifelong habits of happiness.
1. Gratitude Exercises
Write down three things you're grateful for that occurred over the last 24 hours. They don't have to be profound. It could be a really good cup of coffee or the warmth of a sunny day.
2. The Doubler
Take one positive experience from the past 24 hours and spend two minutes writing down every detail about that experience. As you remember it, your brain labels it as meaningful and deepens the imprint.
3. The Fun Fifteen
Do 15 minutes of a fun cardio activity, like gardening or walking the dog, every day. The effects of daily cardio can be as effective as taking an antidepressant.
Every day take two minutes to stop whatever you're doing and concentrate on breathing. Even a short mindful break can result in a calmer, happier you.
5. Deepen Social Connections
Spend time with family and friends. Our social connections are one of the best predictors for success and health, and even life expectancy.
6. Conscious Act of Kindness
At the start of every day, send a short email or text praising someone you know. Our brains become addicted to feeling good by making others feel good.
The presentation then moves into a Q&A session. When asked about happiness levels during this global pandemic, he says that his research has shown we’re the unhappiest we’ve been in 50 years. “I think that's partly due to the lack of social connection we feel,” he says. “It's not just the number of people around us. When we look on social media and we're on Twitter and we feel like people are so separate from us, and we feel alone.”
When asked about whether we need optimists and pessimists, Achor talks about how his mind has changed on this topic over the years. “Initially when I got into this research I thought you need pessimists because they can see the problems within the world,” he says. “It turns out that I misunderstood pessimism and optimism. Now that I've gone deeper into this what I’ve realized is that both pessimists and optimists can equally see a problem. In fact, we don't even know if you're an optimist or a pessimist by the time you perceive the problem in the midst of an unstable environment. It’s what happens next that determines whether or not you're an optimist or a pessimist.”
“The pessimist sees a problem and thinks that it's permanent and pervasive,” he continues. “The optimist sees a problem and recognizes it's local and is only one part of the reality.” He adds, “What we're finding is that pessimism is actually never valuable because pessimism is a stagnation with the current situation. What you're looking for is how do you build up a brain that actually is more creative dealing with this problem. So you stop acting from the jerk center of the brain, the amygdala, and start activating the thinker, the prefrontal cortex, that actually makes good financial decisions and solves for those problems.”
Because of this, he says, it’s critical to develop habits of rational optimism and work on the six simple activities he outlines above. By developing these habits, we can ultimately enjoy life and be more productive.
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