Shawn Achor: Before Happiness @ Talks at Google (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of psychologist Shawn Achor’s talk on Before Happiness @ Talks at Google conference.


CHADE-MENG TAN: Morning, everybody Thank you all for being here.

My name is Meng. I’m the Jolly Good Fellow of Google, and I’m delighted to be here with my friend Shawn, a fellow Jolly Good Fellow and also a fellow international bestselling author, whose latest book is “Before Happiness,” available at all major bookstores. The first thing you need to know about Shawn Achor is that he is genuinely really nice. You know about his public persona. He’s that nice, smiling, happy guy. And in person, he is really that guy.

So that’s the first thing you need to know about him, genuinely beautiful human being. The second thing you need to know about Shawn is that he has one of the most popular TED Talks ever, almost 6 million views the last I checked, like 59 million or something. So if he has $1 per view, he’s going to be the Six Million Dollar Man.

He’s going to run in slow motion all the time. His lectures airing on PBS have been seen by millions. He is the winner of a dozen Distinguished Teaching Awards at Harvard University, a fairly good university the last I heard. Just kidding; Shawn is one of the world’s leading experts on the connection between happiness and success, and he has traveled to 50 countries.

The first 49, it’s kind of meh. But 50, that was impressive. With that, my friends, please welcome my friend Shawn.

SHAWN ACHOR: Thank you. Thank you, everyone.

CHADE-MENG TAN: So thank you for being here. I’ve been looking forward to having you for a really long time.

SHAWN ACHOR: Me too. I’m absolutely thrilled. And thank you so much for coming out.

It makes it so much more fun to have even all the people that are being streamed in. So thank you.

CHADE-MENG TAN: So this is going to be purely a conversation Q&A is a composition between us and Shawn. And I’m just going ask a couple questions, and about halfway into this conversation we’re going to invite you to ask him questions.

Feel free to embarrass him. Don’t embarrass me. Embarrass this guy. So Shawn, my first question for you, a very simple question, how do you define happiness?

SHAWN ACHOR: It’s actually pretty difficult for us to define it. As Meng mentioned, I’ve traveled to now over 50 countries over the past seven years studying happiness, which is great.

And one of the things that I realized very quickly was that everyone had a different definition of happiness. What they thought would create happiness, the triggers for happiness seemed to be different based upon different cultures, different individuals, even at the same organization.

So if you can’t define it, maybe can’t study it. And if you can’t study it, then we can’t have things like positive psychology that are looking at how do we raise levels of happiness for other people. Part of what we found is that even though everyone in this room and everyone watching has different definitions of happiness, if I ask you on a scale of 1 to 10 how happy you felt over the past two weeks, most of us can kind of put ourselves on that spectrum. We can put ourselves somewhere on that range.

What we found is that even though that’s a subjective experience, if I go into a hospital with a broken arm, there’s no pain meter they can hook me up to that automatically means, I’m experiencing an 8 out of 10 on a pain scale, the same thing is true with happiness.

We treat people based upon the pain that they actually experience, and we can actually study people based upon their subjective experience of happiness that they’re experiencing in the world. Part of what I’m hoping to do and part of the reason I wanted to come to talk with you is that what I’d love for us to do is to help the world redefine what happiness actually means. Because I think that there’s a lot of confusion about what happiness actually is.

And if we do come up with a definition that’s aspirational, maybe we can start a movement not only within our schools and in our families but in our companies worldwide. There’s a lot of articles that are coming out right now talking about how having a happy life and having a meaningful life that a meaningful life is so much better than having a happy life in terms of the levels of health you experience in the long run.

I think those studies, while well-meaning, are actually leading us astray. Because I think it’s impossible for us to sustain happiness without meaning. And as soon as we start to try to define happiness in our life without having meaning, all we’re talking about is pleasure. And pleasure is very short-term, right? We could put chocolate bars in front of each of you, and then we’d be done in terms of our happiness.

Somebody’s like, wait, was that an option this morning? I didn’t even know that that would be an option.

CHADE-MENG TAN: It’s Google. It’s always an option.

SHAWN ACHOR: Exactly. Exactly.

You’ve got pleasure at your fingertips, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you automatically have happiness at your fingertips. Because happiness, the way that we are hoping to start you redefine this for the world is to not have happiness be pleasure, because that’s very short-term. And we get addicted to it. We were talking about that this morning. If happiness is just a pleasure, it becomes a trap, right? So if I’m not feeling pleasure right now, well, then I must not be happy.

Then I’m not going to keep working at this, or I’m not going to keep trying, because this is too difficult now. What I’m interested in is how do we redefine happiness to be– I stole this definition from the ancient Greeks– the joy that we feel striving for our potential? And I love this definition.

I was at the Divinity School before getting into studying positive psychology, and I was studying Christian and Buddhist ethics. Because I was interested in how does the beliefs you have about the world change the actions you decide to do within that world. And one of the things that I loved about this definition when I saw it is it changes the way that we pursue happiness.

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Because if happiness is just pleasure, we have to keep running after it very quickly, and we know it’s not going to last. But if happiness is joy, joy is something we can feel in the ups and downs of our life. It’s something we can experience even when things are not pleasurable, when you’re working on a very difficult project, when you’re going for a difficult run, or when you’re biking into and it’s a really long bike ride, whatever is it you’re experiencing.

Even childbirth is not a pleasurable experience all the time, but you can actually feel joy in the midst of that. What I want people to do is to recognize and to actually seek out that joy, which I know is one of your pet projects as well.

How do you see joy, but joy that’s connected to growth? Because if happiness is actually disconnected from growth, it turns out we stagnate and our happiness goes away pretty quickly. I love playing video games; I love them. And they’re very high levels of pleasure, and I’m OK at them. But in terms of long-term meaning, there’s not too much for me in my life.

Now for some people, there’s a lot of meaning in video games. But for me, not so much. So if I keep doing it, even though I’m having pleasure that pleasure actually dissipates after a while, because I’m not actually pursuing any of my potential except within that one domain. The thing I love about joy that we experience striving towards our potential is that potential could be anything. It could be as an entrepreneur, as a business leader.

It could be as a lover, as a son, as a daughter, as a human being. And the more than we actually strive towards that potential, that’s where people experience that greater levels of happiness, and it allows us to stop making that disjunct between happiness and success. Because I was out in Indonesia, and I was speaking out at one of the factories there.

And one of the managers came up to me and said, this talk on happiness might work at places like Google or it might work in places in America, but seriously actually our problem in our country is not that people are unhappy at work. Our problem is sometimes people are way too happy.

Because I had this guy come into work three hours late today, and I tried to yell at him, and he was like, what are you doing? Let’s just relax and just enjoy ourselves. And I was like, that guy didn’t make me happy at all. But what he’s talking about there is not happiness, right? That’s short-term pleasure. The guy decided to stay home that morning and didn’t do the work that he was supposed to be doing. But if that’s what it is, then long-term his levels of happiness are actually going to decrease.

He’s never going to get to see what his potential was within that organization. He might not get to see what his potential was in terms of applying his self-control and his behavior to his task. So what we want people to do is to recognize that that can be more on the side of apathy. I think the opposite of happiness is not unhappiness. The opposite of happiness is apathy, which is the loss of joy that we feel within our lives.

Because if you think about it, unhappiness can sometimes make us breakup with people we shouldn’t be dating. Or unhappiness can cause us to move to do different jobs, or it can cause us to want to get better grades in school. Unhappiness can be very helpful. What I think becomes the problem is when we’ve lost that joy in our life, when we lose that joy striving towards our potential. So I think that there’s a revolution inside of us.

If we can help people realize that happiness is joy that we feel on the way to our potential, some amazing things start to change.

CHADE-MENG TAN: Fascinating. It’s especially fascinating in the context of one of your teachings from your previous book, which I thought was ground-breaking. And when I first read it, I was really impressed. In your previous book, which is “The Happiness Advantage,” you talk about the relationship between happiness and success. And you put it on its head, the reverse of what everybody else was thinking.


CHADE-MENG TAN: Which is everybody was thinking that if you’re successful, you’re happy, which is basically the premise of Asian parenting. Right? Trust me, I know. But what you say, and I agree with you, is that it’s the reverse. It’s that happiness brings about success. So can you talk more about that?

SHAWN ACHOR: Sure. So you guys might have heard “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” book that came out about tiger parenting, which is the style of parenting you’re describing, which is I’m going to push you so far right now, and you’re going to hate me for it, but when you’re successful, when you’re off at Harvard, Stanford, when you’ve got a good job, then you’re going to be happier.


SHAWN ACHOR: And it turns out that that formula, which undergirds our managing styles at most companies, our learning styles, our personal development styles, it’s scientifically broken and backwards for two reasons.

The first reason is that every time your brain has a success– and you’ve experienced this. Everyone in this room has experienced this– your brain just changes the goal post of what success looks like for you almost immediately. You’ve got good grades in school? Don’t get excited yet, because now you need to get into better schools. You got into a better school? Don’t get excited there, because then you have to get a job. You don’t even have a job yet, right? So you have to get that internship and job.

You hit your sales target? We raise your sales target. You had double growth earnings last year? That’s phenomenal. That means we can double the growth again this year. And that’s not the problem. We want to see what your brain is capable of. We want growth to improve. We want to see sales improve, all of these different types of things. The problem is where happiness comes in that formula.