John David Mann | July 2013
Like millions of others, the first time I became aware that there was such a thing as positive psychology—a “science of happiness”—was in 2006, when I read a news item about some Harvard professor whose course on happiness was packing in hundreds of students. The press dubbed the class Happiness 101 (it was actually called Psychology 1504), positive psychology became “the happiness revolution,” and the rest has become some pretty remarkable history.
Starting with the work of Martin Seligman and his colleagues in the late nineties, positive psychology—the proposition that scientists study what goes right in the human condition, rather than what goes wrong—sprang up virtually overnight, generated an avalanche of new research on the roots and impact of happiness. Soon school systems, Fortune 100 corporations, and the U.S. military were all creating happiness programs, governments were floating proposals to begin measuring GNH—“gross national happiness”—and the New York Times bestseller list was flooded with new books about the science of happiness. One of these, The Happiness Advantage, was penned by Shawn Achor—one of the creators of that Harvard class that triggered so much national attention.
Shawn is that rare scientist who is both a distinguished researcher and highly engaging speaker (his TED talk is justifiably one of the most popular ever), and has garnered a well-earned reputation as one of the world’s top authorities on positive psychology and its impact in the workplace.
Michelle Gielan, who with Shawn cofounded the Institute for Applied Positive Research, worked as a network news anchor for two national news programs, The CBS Morning News and Up to the Minuteand was a correspondent for The Early Show. Michelle left the news business “at the height of her career in media,” as Shawn puts it, “because she realized she was telling negative stories and wanted to find a more positive way to communicate to people.” Today she works with Fortune 500 companies on ways to raise employee engagement and drive success.
One more thing: Shawn and Michelle are extremely bullish on network marketing as an ideal Petri dish for spreading the “positive social contagion” of happiness.—J.D.M.
Shawn, how did you get started in this whole happiness thing?
Shawn: I fell backwards into happiness research. I was at Harvard Divinity School, taking classes in Christian and Buddhist ethics and studying what causes us to wake up in the morning and find meaning in our lives. Since I was also doing some teaching in several courses in the psychology department, I was approached by an instructor there named Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar.
Tal had taught a seminar class in a new branch of science called positive psychology, and he wanted to see if we could take this subject matter to a larger group of students.
I’d had no idea there was such a thing as positive psychology, and I was fascinated. These scientists were looking at the same questions I was asking at the Divinity School, and validating a lot of what we had been learning in religion.
I started studying the Harvard population and found that when people viewed the world through positive lenses and were doing certain positive habits, their success rates were significantly higher and they were much better able to navigate through difficult times than the other Harvard students.
We started trying these ideas out in the workplace and found the same observations magnified everywhere in the world.
Since then I’ve gone from teaching a few students in a classroom, to giving lectures to a few thousand Harvard students at a time, to traveling to more than fifty countries, exploring what causes people to experience high levels of happiness and success in their lives.
You were part of the famous “Happiness 101” course at Harvard in 2006, weren’t you?
I helped Tal design that course. Part of my work was to come up with weekly habits people could be doing, ways to expand the concepts into an experiential course. We ended up having 1,600 students taking the course over two semesters.
While these students were brilliant, they weren’t necessarily very good at creating happiness. Four out of five Harvard students reported experiencing depression at some time during their four years there, and one in ten had contemplated suicide over the previous year.
I did a study of those 1,600 students to find out what factors caused them to experience greater levels of happiness in their lives. We looked at everything, from the number of friends on their Facebook pages, to their grades, to how much money their parents made.
We found that the most significant factor was their mindset. If that was positive, their health, happiness, and success rates improved dramatically. If they were only seeing the negatives—the hassles, complaints, and competition—then their ability to succeed and be happy dropped dramatically.
To what degree is that a learned perspective, and to what degree are some of us just inherently gloomier or happier?
We know that people have inherent predispositions for a lot of things—obesity, high blood pressure, alcoholism, and that there are genes that predispose us towards certain personality types and viewpoints.
What we didn’t realize until recently was how much people can change.
Research in neuroscience over the past decade has shown us how malleable the human brain is. The brain can not only change, which is called neuroplasticity, but also create new patterns and connections all the time, which is neurogenesis.
We started linking neuroscience to positive psychology and found that, if we could get people to make some very small, practical changes to their life, we could actually get them to raise their levels of happiness above the baseline set for them by their genes, their childhood, or their previous experiences.
We started exploring what kinds of interventions we could be doing in people’s lives that would change the conversation they are feeding their brain.
That’s the research Michelle has been focused on—not only how we change the information coming in, but also the information we’re broadcasting out to other people and the impact that has. She taught me that we can not only change ourselves but actually change other people as well.
A few months later the recession hit, and suddenly it was one heartbreaking story after another about how the economic downturn was tearing apart people’s lives, careers, and retirements. The news cycle was just flooded with negativity—and I started thinking about the lens through which we were viewing the story itself.
Michelle, how did you get into this?
Michelle: I started at CBS News in mid-2008, and every time that little red light over the camera went on, knowing we were broadcasting at that moment to millions of people, I would think, “Wow—I have a real chance to make a difference here.” That was why I got into broadcasting in the first place, to inform people and help make a positive difference in their lives.
I wondered, what could we do to help people to move forward in more positive direction?
We decided to do a week-long series of interviews focusing on how we can foster more happiness in our lives, relationships, homes, and workplaces. We brought in experts in positive psychology to talk about how we can be happier right now. If our relationships are struggling, or we’re feeling financially strained, or our kids are dealing with stress at school and their grades are falling, what practical things we can do to refocus our attention and become happier right now, regardless of our external circumstances?
We called it Happy Week.
We got more emails from viewers from that week alone than we’d had in the previous six months combined.
That did it, for me. Learning that there was a science behind all this, behind being able to alter our own mindsets and seeing what kind of results that had, changed the trajectory of my life.
I went back to school and got a master’s in applied positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, read Shawn’s book when it came out, and then reached out to him to connect.
You two were so destined to meet.