We are now a couple weeks into the New Year, and I am still in the spirit of New Year’s resolutions. I am going to make a guess we all have at least two things in common: we have made a New Year’s resolution at some point; and we have broken a New Year’s resolution at some point. I know in my past, I’ve let my focus drift off those resolutions, but I also have to remind myself that just as long as it takes to break an old habit, it usually takes time to create a new habit, especially when we are pursuing a big goal. It can be easy to get discouraged when we waiver, yet you can’t rush a good thing. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!
The path to success is full of obstacles. We will undoubtedly stumble as we pursue our goals. In the process, we learn how to confront future challenges. This all has a lot to do with our perspective, doesn’t it? That’s why I thought I would share the message of recorded lecture I recently came across, called “The Secret to Happy Work”, presented by Shawn Achor, an American educator, author and speaker.
Shawn begins by telling a story about a time when he was seven, playing with his younger sister, Amy, on top of their bunk bed. Shawn, in the role as oldest sibling, naturally assumed this meant she had to do everything that he wanted to do—and he wanted to play war. As they played on top of their bunk beds, he lined up all of his G.I. Joe soldiers and weaponry. On the other side, were all of his sister’s My Little Ponies, ready for a cavalry charge.
Then, somehow during the game, “Without any help or push from her older brother at all,” he claims, “Amy suddenly disappeared off of the top of the bunk bed and landed with a crash on the floor.” As Shawn nervously peered over the side of the bed to see what had befallen his fallen sister, he saw that she had landed painfully on her hands and knees on all fours on the ground.
Now even more acutely aware of his role as the older sibling, Shawn knew he was in trouble. His parents had asked that he make sure they played safely and as quietly as possible. As he looked down at his sister’s face, he saw a wail of pain, suffering and surprise threatening to erupt from her mouth and threatening to wake his sleeping parents. So he did the only thing he could think to do in his frantic state to avert this tragedy: “Amy, Amy, wait. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Did you see how you landed? No human lands on all fours like that. Amy, I think this means you’re a unicorn.”
Of course, being a unicorn was an option that was open to her brain at no point in the past. He could see how this had taken her aback, as she nearly forgot her pain while contemplating her new-found identity as a unicorn. Instead of crying, instead of ceasing their play, instead of waking their parents and all the negative consequences that would have ensued for Shawn, a smile spread across her face and she scrambled right back up onto the bunk bed with all the grace of a baby unicorn…with one broken leg.
Shawn identified this as the moment he stumbled upon a concept that some 20 years later would be at the forefront of a scientific study: positive psychology. Today, Shawn has devoted his life to research in the field, and in particular how we can be happier by realizing it’s not necessarily reality that shapes us, but the lens through which our brain views that reality. He says, if you change your lens, you can not only change your happiness, but the outcomes.
To that end, he explains that our society’s most commonly held formulas for success are broken. Conventional wisdom holds that if we work hard we will be more successful, and if we are more successful, then we’ll be happy. We think, “If I can just find that great job, or win that next promotion, lose those ten pounds, or (fill in the blank), then happiness will follow.”
But Shawn’s extensive research and other recent discoveries in the field of positive psychology have shown that this formula is backward: Happiness fuels success, not the other way around. When we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient and productive at work.
He believes the three greatest predictors of happiness are optimism (the belief your behavior will eventually matter), social connection, and how we perceive stress (as a challenge or as a threat). If we want to raise happiness, we need to make both mindset and behavior shifts.
This discovery has been supported by rigorous research in psychology and neuroscience, management studies, and the bottom lines of organizations around the world. Shawn now spends his time teaching, advising and lecturing at top organizations on how we can reprogram our brains to become more positive in order to gain a competitive edge at work and create more success, happiness and reward in our lives. What are the five key steps that we can take each day to increase our experience of happiness?
- Bring gratitude to mind – Write down three NEW things that you are grateful for each day
- Journal – About a positive experience you’ve had recently for 2 minutes once a day
- Exercise – Engage in a minimum 15 minutes of mindful cardio activity
- Meditate – Watch your breath go in and out for 2 minutes a day
- Engage in a random, conscious act of kindness – Write a 2-minute positive email or note thanking a friend or colleague
Do these steps for 21 days, and experts believe you can reprogram your mindset toward being more positive. And by doing these activities and by training your brain just like we train our bodies, Shawn believes we can create ripples of positivity. In the end, happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change. It is the belief that we can.
“Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. This day…is too dear with its hopes and invitations to waste a moment on the rotten yesterdays.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
Watch Shawn Achor’s full presentation at TEDxBloomington: