Achor’s Happiness Advantage: Link Positive Brains to Performance

By Liz Griffin/Conference Daily Online, Feb. 12, 2016

In seven seconds, positive psychology expert Shawn Achor proved that happiness is contagious. He asked people at the AASA conference’s 2nd General Session on Friday morning to pair up for a short experiment.  

One person was to look directly into the partner’s eyes with kindness and not get angry, even if the other person hit them. The other person was to maintain eye contact for seven seconds, but show no emotion at all.

Within seconds, lips twitched, then became smiles. Giggles and chuckles overcame the crowd. Achor grinned as he reported: “Ninety percent of you couldn’t control their emotions for 7 seconds!”  

A smile is literally contagious, Achor said, because of the way our brains work. The opposite is true, too: Negativity and stress will spread throughout a crowd. He cited the results of his experiment with roughly 15 people calmly waiting inside an airplane. When a man who was part of the experiment team began tapping his foot and looking frequently at his watch, about eight people within a short time began imitating his behavior. (Achor laughingly suggested people try this experiment the next time they are at an airport.)

The research implications mean that our brains respond to the environment. The good news is that positive changes in the environment can trump our genes. It counteracts the cultural notion that “You are your genes.”

Achor shared stories about his work with UPS, Google and a hospital in New Orleans where stress was taking a toll on employees. The Ritz-Carlton uses the positivity principles with its 10-5 rule. If a customer is within 10 feet, smile; within 5 feet, say hello. And when a hospital adopted this low-cost approach, admissions and referrals increased.

Happiness, his research shows, doesn’t just improve mood, it elevates performance. “Intelligence rises, creativity rises and energy levels rise when you are happy,” Achor said. This is the “happiness advantage.” 

For the past 10 years, Achor has focused on the link between happiness and human potential. He has studied the outliers of highly performing individuals at Harvard, banks and Fortune 500 companies to find out how to improve human potential. His work gained traction with the publication of  The Happiness Advantage and his TED talk.

Most people think success works like this. If I work harder, I’ll be more successful, and if I’m more successful, I’ll be happier. Science proves this is backward for two reasons. First, every time your brain has a success, you change the goal posts. You get good grades and now you have to get better grades. You get into a good school, now you’ve got to get into a better school. Get a good job, then you need to get a better job, and so on.

If happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there, Achor said.  

What we need to do is reverse the function – make ourselves happier so that we can perform at our best. Achor pinpoints five habits that improve happiness and performance and take only two minutes each day. They are practice gratitude; exercise for 30 minutes; practice two minutes of meditation; do journaling and use praise.

“Send an e-mail to someone in your favorites that they do something well,” Achor says, and you will reap the benefits. “First, you will be thinking ‘I’m a great person for doing that,’ so you’ll be feeling good about yourself. Second, often you’ll receive a really nice response to your e-mail.”

We can choose to be happy. If we introduce this into our schools, there will be “more optimism, more compassion and higher performance,” Achor said. 

(Liz Griffin is senior reporter for AASA’s Conference Daily Online.)