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

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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