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.
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.