In my ongoing quest to not work on my thesis, I spent a good portion of today watching TED talks. It was a great day for a whole slew of reasons, not least of which is that I love watching engaging speakers.
[Editorial digression: Like everyone else, I make the decision about whether someone is engaging within the first twenty seconds of a speech… so let me just take a moment here to reinforce the first rule of giving a speech: Be Happy To Be There! If you’re not genuinely excited to have the privilege of a platform, you better get excited about it, because your attitude is contagious and will set the tone for the way your audience receives every word. Nerves are fine, but getting up there like Eeyore? Forget about it! Got that, kiddos?)
I’ve written about Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability before, and if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to check it out (Brene Brown on Vulnerability), but today I stumbled across a real gem I’d never heard before: A guy named Shawn Achor, and a talk called The Happy Secret to Better Work.
Achor is a fantastic public speaker. He opens with a funny story about his little sister, and then moves quickly to make a great point about the way we work with statistics and averages, and the mistake we make in eliminating the outliers. When researchers are asked, for example, How fast can a child learn to read in this classroom?, they generally redirect the question to: How long does it take the average child to learn to read in this classroom?
That’s a very different question, isn’t it? It refocuses the entire matter at hand, from a consideration of possibility to one of probability.
Achor’s point is that by seeking the “average” of everything, we eliminate all of the outliers …. but also eliminate the potential that the high-performing outliers unlock. In the question about reading, for example, we may get data that tells us that while Johnny and Judy learned to read in two weeks (they’re the outliers), the rest of the class took five weeks. Five weeks then becomes the benchmark, while the X factor that we ought to consider — What is it that allows Johnny and Judy to learn to read so quickly, and how can we replicate it in everyone? — gets eliminated. The X factor of success is sacrificed on the altar of the average.
Achor says we ought to ask, “Why are some of you high above the curve in terms of intellectual, athletic, musical ability, creativity, energy levels, resiliency in the face of challenge, sense of humor? Whatever it is, instead of deleting you, what I want to do is study you. Because maybe we can glean information, not just how to move people up to the average, but move the entire average up in our companies and schools worldwide.”
From there, Achor moves to the typical “formula for happiness” that the vast majority of us employ, in school and work and life. Here’s the formula:
- Work harder.
- Be more successful.
- Be happy.
The problem with this formula, Achor says, is multi-faceted. One problem is that it assumes that we depend on the external world for happiness, when in fact, external factors have very little to do with happiness — it’s not reality that influences happiness nearly as much as it’s the way your brain processes reality. The lens you view your life through, rather than the facts of your life, is what determines your happiness.
The second problem with using the formula of work harder/achieve success/be happy is that every time we actually achieve a measure of success, the measure changes! So if you reach a professional goal of moving up a notch on the ladder, your goal then moves to the next rung, and then the next. And since those benchmarks of success are standing between us and happiness, every time we move the goalpost out …happiness gets farther away.
This is not to say that goals are bad — not at all! Rather, it’s to say that happiness cannot and should not be an after-effect of reaching goals, because the thing we need to achieve goals? Happiness.
Happiness needs to come before goals, not as a result of them.
Why does happiness need to come first? Good question. Happiness needs to come first because science has proven beyond a doubt that happiness is a MAJOR advantage when it comes to achieving anything. The dopamine that floods a happy brain positively affects the ability to learn, the ability to think creatively, the ability to be productive,the ability to sustain high energy levels, and the ability to synthesize information intelligently…among other positive benefits!
So if you have goals to reach, whether they’re personal or professional, getting happy needs to be the first step, not the last.
But what if your Spirit Animal is more Eeyore than Tigger? More Charlie Brown than Snoopy? More Shaggy than Scooby? (That last analogy is not entirely fair, since they were both continually afraid of ghosts, and only really happy in the presence of snacks. That being said, however, I do think Scooby had a natural zest for life that Shaggy was missing, probably due to the spirit-dulling and intellectually incapacitating effect of Shaggy’s excessive marijuana use. Zoinks, indeed.)
What if your natural inclination is to not only look at a glass as half empty, but to also anticipate that it will never, ever be full again?
No worries, Grasshopper. Master Po have answer.
Forget Master Po. According to Achor, there are things you can do to achieve the “Happiness Advantage” in your own brain, and thus, in your life. And honestly, they’re all pretty easy, and we should try them, because Achor only asks us to do them for three weeks. [After that, we’ll either be Achor Diehards (Achorians? Achorites?) or fire off an email telling him where he can put his happiness quackery.]
Are you ready? Here’s what he wants us to do:
- Record 3 gratitudes every day. Big, small, medium, whatever — just 3 things you’re grateful for.
- Write down 1 positive event from the last 24 hours each day, so that your brain can relive it.
- Get some exercise, even if it’s a short walk, because exercise teaches your brain that behavior matters.
- Meditate. Take a few minutes to focus on one thing, instead of constantly multi-tasking.
- Do one act of intentional kindness, by emailing a note of praise or thanks to someone every day.
Achor says, “…by doing these activities and by training your brain just like we train our bodies, what we’ve found is we can reverse the formula for happiness and success, and in doing so, not only create ripples of positivity, but a real revolution.”
So what do you say, are we gonna get happy, or what?! I say, let’s try it. [View Achor’s TED talk here: Shawn Achor.]