World-renowned happiness guru, best-selling author, researcher and speaker, Shawn Achor knows first-hand what it’s like to be on the other side—in the trenches hit with depression—and he wants you to know that you can train your brain to be more positive and optimistic.
For more than a decade, Shawn Achor has been sharing positive psychology research on happiness around the globe, earning himself recognition as one the world’s leading experts on human potential. His research has made the cover of Harvard Business Review, millions of people have watched his PBS special “Inspire Happiness,” and his TEDxBloomington talk has received a staggering 19 million views.
He has worked with scores of Fortune 100 companies, as well as NASA, the NFL, the NBA, and the White House. Not too long ago, he wound up on Oprah Winfrey’s couch as a guest on her self-help talk show. His appeal underscores the degree to which people are yearning to be happy, and they can be—because, according to Achor’s research, being happy is actually a choice, one that can be practiced.
Achor understands this yearning well.
Growing up, he had always been popular and optimistic. But as a graduate student at the esteemed Harvard Divinity School, exposed to multiple belief systems while studying Christian and Buddhist ethics, he began questioning elements of his own faith. At the same time, he missed the close social network he’d formed as an undergraduate at Harvard University. Lonely and increasingly withdrawn, he started spending more time in his room playing video games and, although scrawny at the time, lost 20 pounds.
Still, he had no idea he was struggling with depression—even though he was serving as an Officer of Harvard, talking with first-year students about whether they felt depressive symptoms. When a counselor at the school picked up on Achor’s own symptoms and suggested that he see a therapist, he did, although he felt guilty for feeling unhappy while surrounded by opulence at one of the country’s most esteemed institutions.
“I talked to a therapist at something called the Bureau of Study Counsel,” he recalls. “That way you feel like you’re talking about academics, but you’re going in there to talk about mental health. It was a soft way of exposing students to what they desperately needed.”
Even so, he found himself unable to move forward. He continued to question whether he should get out of bed in the morning, eat well, or go to the gym. He started a journal; in his first entry he wrote, “I don’t remember being happy and I don’t think I’ll ever be happy again.”
“That was a really difficult period,” says Achor, 41. “I didn’t think I’d ever get out of it.”
Achor, who lives in Texas, found meaning in his experience with depression, ultimately co-founding the applied research consulting firm GoodThink, which delivers positivity and productivity trainings to workplaces in over 50 countries. He is a New York Times best-selling author of six books, including The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness. And in 2013 he married fellow happiness researcher and author Michelle Gielan, founder of the Institute of Applied Positive Research, with whom he has two children—five-year-old son Leo and one-year-old daughter Zoe.
The turning point for Achor was opening up to a small group of family and friends—and asking for help.
To explain why, he points to what he calls “my favorite study right now,” one he mentions in his most recent book, Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises our Achievement, Happiness, and Well-Being. Researchers from the University of Virginia found that if you judge a hill you need to climb while standing by yourself, your brain will perceive the hill as being 20 percent steeper than if you’re standing next to a friend—even if that friend is looking in another direction. In other words, we perceive reality differently when in the presence of others.
Achor connects this back to depression because, he says, we should allow ourselves to be supported by those around us “instead of hypercomparing and hypercompeting” with each other, which is often what society in general and social media in particular goad us to do.
He continues to journal, although he uses the space mostly to document why he’s grateful. He cautions against journaling about negative things when dealing with mental aguish, because it can lead to rumination.
“I feel depression sometimes knocking back on the door,” he admits. “It makes me cling tight to my social support network and to positive habits. I can brush my teeth for 20 years but if I stop, I still get cavities. The same goes for happiness. If you don’t practice it, your brain will default to scanning for threats.”
That’s because negative emotions come from the most primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, which responds to fear and threat. It takes a skilled form of deeper thinking to create positivity.
Nonetheless, being in the midst of depression can be scary, which is why Achor is taking advantage of his time in the spotlight to share his experience and encourage others to believe that hope lies ahead.
“Depression’s not something we need to fear,” he once said to icon Oprah Winfrey, “because it’s not the end of the story.”
The journey to “rational optimism”
In 2006,after college and Divinity School, Achor was Head Teaching Fellow for a course at Harvard University called “Positive Psychology,” taught by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. The seminar course had seven or eight students when he started the position and was asked to boost enrollment.
Within two years, the course became so popular, one out of every six students at Harvard had signed up.
The results drew heavy media attention, which led companies reeling from the global economic downturn to ask whether he could help their leaders charged with pushing through the devastation.
“People were starving to find happiness, but they’d lost the levers they thought would create it,” he explains.
Achor felt he could relate to their sense of hopelessness. When he was depressed, he feared he had an irreparable chemical imbalance that would keep him from getting better. He had been told that happiness was due to his genes or his environment, but through both his personal and professional work he was learning how much behavior and mindset mattered.
“When I saw that my mood was changing my environment, I wanted to share that with other people.”
Knowing he needed to get his research out of the laboratory, to see what positive psychology looks like “when you can’t control all the variables in life, in the messiness of life,” Achor, the son of a neuroscientist, embarked on a year-long tour to 33 countries in 2009. He met with wealthy bankers in Zurich, farmers in Zimbabwe, students in South Africa. It turned out the farmers who lost their fields and entire income, but who had solid social connections, remained more positive than Swiss bankers devastated over losing their bonuses.
What he took away from conversations with South African schoolchildren? That they were grateful for the opportunity to get an education, compared with many Harvard students who complained about how many classes they had.
“I feel like I learned more about happiness traveling to those countries than in 10 years studying at Harvard,” he says.
By that point, Achor was co-founder and CEO of GoodThink, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The positive psychology consulting firm, founded in 2007, uses research to understand the points at which human potential, success and happiness intersect.
Since then Achor’s star has been rising. And more than once he has been in the company of media mogul Oprah Winfrey, including a first-time interview with her in 2014 at her estate in Montecito, California, for her daytime series “SuperSoul Sunday.” That interview did not go exactly as planned; the hour-long interview ended before Achor admitted he wished he’d talked about his experience with depression.
After Winfrey then confided she’d gone through two years of depression at the height of her career, they filmed a second hour about what to do when the pursuit of potential gets in the way of joy. To further share the message about happiness being a choice, Achor and The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) teamed up to create an in-depth, two-part Happiness Course.
One of Achor’s consistent messages in his talks around the globe is that people need to pull away from what he calls the standard “scientifically broken and backwards” formula that equates harder work with more success and higher levels of happiness.
At the same time, there is life-altering power in a positive mind, one that can choose happiness even when life is difficult—because life will be difficult—although that choice must be accompanied by conscious, positive habit changes to see any benefit.
“You can’t just say ‘I choose happiness’ because that wears off in an hour,” Achor says.
In one of his talks, referring to a “rational optimism” that starts with a realistic assessment of the present, he explains: “Optimism is a daily spiritual practice, and when we do it, we can transform this world.”
When the brain rallies around the positive, depression and anxiety drop, connections deepen, trust rises, we live longer, and business outcomes improve—sales by 37 percent, productivity by 31 percent, and the likelihood of promotion by 40 percent. Academic performance also is affected. Achor’s Orange Frog program, which helps schools around the country teach empathy, compassion, and other science-backed tools for sustainable peak performance, has been instrumental in moving Schaumburg Community Consolidated School District 54, in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, from the 73rd percentile of academic achievement statewide to the 95th percentile.
Achor shares his research in approximately 100 talks each year, though at fewer international destinations these days because his two children are still young; when he does travel far, he tries to take them along.
He admits to needing those talks as much as his audience does. They are a constant reminder that happiness is habitual—something he has embraced since he opened up to friends and family about his depression and “allowed myself to be human.”
On that note, he adds, “It’s not that being human is hard. It’s that being human is increasingly hard right now.”
Rising rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide among young people. The corporate world’s stress epidemic. Cyclical poverty. Increased threats and violence in our schools.
Achor’s work always comes back to that rational optimism. One foot in front of the other, coupled with the knowledge that what we do—however we are feeling in the moment—will have an effect on our long-term happiness.
“The starting point is getting people to see why their behavior matters,” he says. “If they take a step forward, then it might work.”
Printed as “Shawn Achor: Choosing Happiness,” Summer 2019
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