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

CHADE-MENG TAN: Right.

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.

Because if happiness comes after success, which is a moving target, the brain never gets there for very long. We can raise your success rates your entire life. We can raise your income. We don’t actually do this. We watch people whose success rates rise. That’d be very hard for us to do. We watch people whose success rates rise dramatically, and their happiness levels flatline. They actually don’t move.

So as your success rises in your life, your happiness levels will actually remain about the same. But flip around the formula, if you can get people to deepen the social connection they feel, the meaning embedded in the relationships, the breadth and depth of the relationships, if you change and raise their levels of optimism, if you get people to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat, when our brain is positive first, every single educational outcome and business outcome we can test for rises dramatically, and our success rates rise.

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So raised success rates, happiness flatlines. But raise levels of happiness withinside organizations and schools, and their success rates rise dramatically, which is phenomenal.

I spent 12 years at Harvard, first as an undergraduate and then I was at Divinity School, and then I was a teaching fellow there. And when I first got into Harvard, I applied on a dare, so I didn’t expect to get in. We didn’t have any money for college, but I got a Navy ROTC scholarship, which allowed me to go there through MIT. And so I found myself in classrooms full of people who were incredibly smart and were just amazing.

And I remember that I could have felt bad about myself, like the mistake, but I remember just sitting there thinking this is amazing to get to have the opportunity like this morning, to get to spend time with all these incredibly brilliant and motivated people.

And you can look around, and for many of you– I know some of you are from Harvard, actually– and you could see the students who saw their education as a privilege. They saw what they were doing as an opportunity, and they invested in it in completely different ways. They’d take classes that they’d get a bad grade in, like an A-minus, just because they wanted to learn. Or they’d get involved with a sport–

CHADE-MENG TAN: Obviously not Asian. That’s like an Asian C.

SHAWN ACHOR: Exactly. I like that.

CHADE-MENG TAN: I’m just kidding. Almost.

SHAWN ACHOR: We’d have people that would ride the bench on a sport for three years just so they could make friends, and those are the people who loved their time there.

And actually, in one of our studies we found that those are the people who give the most in alumni donations back to the school later on, which is why Harvard got interested in happiness in the first place. But afterwards, I got the opportunity to stay at Harvard. I knew that if I left they wouldn’t let me back in. And so I stayed there for the next eight years, and I lived in the dorms with the freshman as a Proctor there. And Harvard invited me to do that– I wasn’t that guy who stays in the freshman dorms meeting people– for most of it.

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So what it meant was I could watch these students transition from high school to college. And what I saw very quickly was no matter how happy they were getting into that school, two weeks later, many of them, their brains were not focused on the privilege of being there or even fully focused on their philosophy or physics. Their brains were scattered thinking about the competition, the workload, the stresses, the hassles, and complaints. And very quickly, what was promised to create great happiness wasn’t 80% of Harvard students, according to the “Crimson” poll that they had, 80% of them reported experiencing depression at sometime during the four years there.

And a study that came out in 2003 by the University Health Services, they measured 6,000 undergraduates and found that 10% of them had contemplated suicide at some point during their time there, which is extraordinarily high. And I know that these are statistics, but those are human beings. And it was heartbreaking watching some of these students and some of the people that we know lose that connection to meaning in their life and the potential that they had.

One of the studies that I got to do early on was I looked at 1,600 Harvard students to find out who rises to the top. If you have people that are extremely intelligent, extremely successful, ambitious, who rises to the top in terms of their happiness and success? And I looked at everything.

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