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

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

Shawn Achor @ Talks at Google

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

I looked at what grades they got in school. I looked at their familial income. We looked at the SAT scores before getting into school. We looked at the number of friends on Facebook. We looked at the number of romantic partners that they had had. Which by the way, at Harvard they’ve dated less than one person, on average, after their entire four years of college.

CHADE-MENG TAN: Must be engineering? I don’t know.

SHAWN ACHOR: Yeah. Possibly. It was lower than any school we saw so far. It was actually 05 sexual partners per Harvard student.

CHADE-MENG TAN: Yep, engineering.

SHAWN ACHOR: Yeah. Which I only mention because I don’t even know what that statistic means, 05. We were always taught to round up.

CHADE-MENG TAN: Better than MIT.

SHAWN ACHOR: Possibly. Probably. But 05 sexual partners, it’s the scientific equivalent of second base, and it was useless information to us. What we did find was imagine a student who ever since they were one-year-old was placed into a crib wearing a onesie that you can buy at the bookstore, at The Coop, that says “Bound for Harvard” and maybe a cute little Yale hat, in case something terrible happened.

And ever since they were in special pre-K school that they got into four years before they were conceived, they were at the top 1% of their class Junior high, high school, standardized tests, top 1%. They get into Harvard, and they have a terrible realization 50% of them are now below average. And to put it more poignantly, when I was counseling students I would tell them it seems as if 99% of Harvard students do not graduate in the top 1%, which they don’t find funny at all.

But the reason that’s interesting is they decide the only way I can be happy is if I’m in the top 1% of one category of one institution, right? Not worldwide. And they pick grades– which if you know the research on grades, you can roll a pair of dice, and that’s as predictive of your future job success as your college GPA is, which is why a lot of people who make straight A’s in college work for people who got straight C’s in business school.

Some of you are like, yep. But part of what I think is fascinating– What I think is so fascinating about this is that we’ve got the formula backwards. They thought, well, if I got into a good school, if I got a great job, if I got to where I am in life, of course I’d be happier. And it turns out that it doesn’t automatically cause greater levels of happiness. But amazingly, the formula could actually work in the other way.

We found something that we now call the happiness advantage, which is when the brain is positive it has an unfair advantage over the brain at negative, neutral, or stressed. You’re 31% more productive. Sales rise from a neutral salesperson to the same salesperson at optimistic by 37%. We found that people who provide social support work, you’re 40% more likely to receive a promotion over the next two-year period of time. We find that you live longer.

We just did a study, actually I love this study I got to work with one of my friends who was one of my students at Harvard, Alia Crum. And she went off to Yale. We did a joint study at UBS in the middle of the banking crisis, the big Swiss bank.

And one of the things we were looking for is that oftentimes the companies would want to push you very hard, and then your stress levels rise, and then they give you a stress management program. And the stress management program goes something like this. Did you know that stress is related to the 10 leading causes of death and disease in the United States? Did you know that the World Health Organization found stress to be the number one killer? Stress is related to 80% to 90% of all doctor-related visits. And stress is catabolic. It literally tears down every organ in the human body.

As soon as you hear that, what do you think of it? More stress. You’re like, stop emailing me so much work. You’re destroying every organ in my body, which I think would make a great away message at work. But part of what we found is that all of that’s true. All of that information is absolutely true.

Stress is a terrible killer. But just like with Vitamin C and coffee and alcohol, we keep finding studies that are like, alcohol will save your life, and it will kill you. Vitamin C causes cancer and cures cancer. And we get so frustrated. We’re like, well, what am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to drink coffee or not? Am I supposed to drink red wine or not? The reason is that it’s less about the external world but about how your body and your brain process what comes into your system and what you experience.

The same thing’s true with stress. So there’s an equally true information that says that stress actually releases a growth hormone that speeds up the recovery of your cells faster than anything we’ve seen. Not low levels of stress but moderate to high levels of stress actually turn on your immune system to the highest possible level. We found that stress deepens your social bonds more than anything, which is why last week I was out working at the Pentagon, and one of the things they were saying is that’s why we on-board people in the military with bootcamp and not a beach vacation, because we know that that stressful period doesn’t tear people down. It actually causes them to create these meaningful structures, these narratives, and these relationships that they talk about for the entire rest of their life.

In fact, every moment of high human potential occurs in the midst of stress, not the absence of it. So what we did is we just showed them videos and created a small training for the UBS employees in the middle of a banking crisis when they went through four restructurings and they were told that they didn’t get their bonus. One of my very first talks was actually at a Swiss bank out in Zurich. And the introduction was, we don’t have bonuses for everyone, but here’s a talk on happiness from a guy from America.


SHAWN ACHOR: Exactly. Which is amazing, because they immediately stonewalled the information. But 10 minutes later, as soon as they started hearing that there’s research about this, suddenly things started to change. Because it wasn’t about just, oh, let’s be happier in the midst of this challenge. It was like, here’s how we can actually change the way that we view this world and actually ripple this out to other people around us.

I’m going off track. We can come back to that. But the part of what I found was so interesting about the stress study was we had two groups. One group saw stress as debilitating, and one group saw stress as enhancing. And we tracked them for the next six weeks.

And I was hoping that the group that saw stress as enhancing would actually have lower levels of stress. That was my hope, and we were wrong. Turns out they had equal levels of stress and extremely high. But their health-related symptoms, their back aches, headaches, and fatigue, their energy levels at work improved by 23% for the group that saw stress as enhancing, a nearly 30% increase in their productivity, and their levels of happiness improved. What that means is stress is inevitable in our lives, but the way that we perceive stress changes how it affects the human body.

And the reason why we feel such a negative effect from stress is because stress should be meaningful, right? If I tell you your inbox is full of spam, you’re like, OK, I don’t care. But if your inbox is full of things you need to get back that you wanted to get back to that are meaningful for your job or connections you want to make, suddenly you care about it. Or if I tell somebody that somebody’s kid is failing English, they don’t really care. If their kid’s failing English, they care a whole bunch. Stress has meaning in it.

But when we separate the energy from stress from meaning, that’s when we get these negative health effects. So what we found is we can actually train people out of these ideas, which is incredible. So all we have to do is deepen somebody’s social connection, change their optimism, or change the way that they view stress, and we can actually improve every single business and educational outcome worldwide, which is incredible.

CHADE-MENG TAN: Lovely. Your first book, that really spoke to me on one level. Because when you talk about the happiness advantage, like happiness before success, I reflect on my life. And for me, I’m a meditator. I’ve been doing it 20 years. And if your meditation practice is deep enough, you get into a state where you are happy independent of sensations and thoughts. You are just happy.

And then everything you experience is bonus. And then I found that when I’m consistently in that from of mind I became even more successful. And what you gave me was the vocabulary and the research to understand this whole experience. So I’m really grateful to you for that. So for me, I decided to dedicate my life to creating the conditions for world peace by making peace, joy, and compassion universally accessible.

And I know that’s what you want to do as well. And so my question next to you is, how do you spread it? How do spread happiness? You and maybe in general. How do you spread happiness in general?

SHAWN ACHOR: Well, we’re actually helped out by our brains. One of the things that I’ve found so incredible in some of this research that’s coming out is one of the experiments that I have people do in some of my talks– which actually we can do it right now, if you want. Let’s do it real quickly.

So you don’t have to do any of my experiments today. I’m not allowed to bring consent forms to talks, because we had an electric shock problem a couple years ago. But here’s what I need you to do. And you can do this even if you’re watching from a remote location. All I need you to do is just partner up with someone that’s sitting next to you.

Partner up into pairs of two. Of course pairs of two. Partner up into pairs. The only caveat is legally I’m required to tell you you cannot partner up with someone that you’re married to for this experiment or that you want to be married to. So move around if you’re struggling with this.

CHADE-MENG TAN: You know who you are.

SHAWN ACHOR: Yes, exactly. So does everyone have a partner? You can move closer, because you need to sit next to them. So here’s what I need you to do. The person that’s sitting closest to this wall, to the exits is your person number one in the pair.

The person furthest from that wall, you’re person number two in the pair. If you’re remote, just pick one person to be number one. Some of you are like, I already knew I was person number one in this pair. There should be a two and a one in each group. So raise your hand if you’re person number one.

Raise your hand if you’re person number two. OK. That’s not the experiment. I have to do that. Because I did this experiment on Wall Street a couple months ago, and it literally took that struggling bank five minutes to figure out who number one in the group was.

Which explains what’s going on there. So here’s what I need you to do. How many of you, by the way, have a psychology background, read a lot of psychology books, studied psychology? OK. So for my psychology friends, this is the emotional prime of the experiment. For everyone else, this is nothing.

But here’s what we ask you to do. Over the course of your life, you’ve taken your genes, your genetic predispositions, you’ve beat both those genes out through your self-discipline and your self-control. You were able to pass the classes that you needed to in school to get into the schools you wanted to to apply yourself to your job here at Google. What I’d love for you to do is to use all of that self-discipline and control that you’ve been cultivating for decades, and I’d like you to use it to control your behavior for just seven seconds of this experiment, if you can. At eight seconds, you can do whatever you want to or with your partner.

But for seven seconds, you’re mine. So what we ask you do in this experiment, person number one, is to not get angry with person number two when they do to you what I’m about to tell them to do to you. Don’t get angry. Don’t get sad. Please, please don’t cry like the group at the Pentagon. I was so embarrassed.

CHADE-MENG TAN: Those generals.

SHAWN ACHOR: Person number one, you basically are going to do nothing with person number two. So person number one and two, please turn and face one another. Person number one, make sure you’re within striking distance of person number two. And person number one, just go neutral on the inside. Try to feel no emotions, and try and think no thoughts, which for some of you might be extremely easy right now. Then control your hands, person number one. Don’t move your hands even to defend yourself from person number two. And person number one, just control your face.

Show zero emotion on your face. No fear, no flinching, no frustration, zero emotion. Once you’re ready, person number one, you’re using your decades of self-discipline to control your thoughts, your emotions, your hands, and your face. Then person number two, please turn to them, make sure you’re looking at them directly in the eyes, and for the next seven seconds, person number two, please just smile genuinely and warmly but directly up into the eyes while looking at them warmly and deeply. Ready? Go.

Some of you already failed. And stop. So we’re going to switch it around, because some of you were terrible at that. Just switch it around real quick. My psychology friends know you never repeat a psychology experiment with some form of deception in it, but just switch it around.

It’s incredibly easy, we know at this point, for person number to control themselves. But just try it. Person number two, go neutral on the inside. Using your self-discipline and control that makes you a lot more successful than person number one is at life, just control yourself. And person number one, look at them.

Make sure you look at them directly, deeply, warmly in the eyes. And for the next seven seconds, it’s your turn for retaliation. Go. And stop.

So what I love about this experiment is even if you’re successful at it, as soon as you say stop people relax as if that was the hardest thing they had to do all day, which literally was doing nothing for the seven seconds. But first of all, I’m just curious in this room, it’s a quiet room, so it’s hard. This experiment works much better if you’ve got more priming going on. But I’m just curious, failure at this experiment means you smiled when I asked you not to, and success means that you did not smile. Raise your hand if you failed miserably at this by smiling Oh, OK.

So a lot of you. That’s terrible. Raise your hand if you successfully did what I asked you to for the full seven seconds. So 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 18 liars.

What we find is–

CHADE-MENG TAN: Pants on fire.

SHAWN ACHOR: Exactly. Actually, I don’t know why I counted you, because I don’t know how many people are in the room. But what we find is 80% to 85% of people worldwide cannot control themselves for the seven seconds of this experiment. I did this with senior-level bankers, all men, all in their mid-50s in Tokyo, Japan, and the smile percentage was 77%.

What we’re finding is it’s extremely universal. You mentioned I’ve been to over 50 countries, and I’ve done this experiment in all of them. But one I made a mistake with. And this gets directly back your question. But I wanted to tell you about this.

So last year I got invited by the royal family in Abu Dhabi, as one does, to get to give a talk on happiness. And I was so excited about this opportunity that I went over there and was meeting all of these people that I’d never met before and been to a place I’d never had that I wasn’t thinking when I got into the talk, because I was too excited. And one of the talks there was for 300 women in the Middle East about how we can raise up levels of happiness and positive leadership there. And some of you are smiling because you know the mistake I made. I tried the smiling experiment in the talk and only halfway through realized that 90% of the room was veiled for the smiling experiment, which had I thought it before I would not have made that mistake.

But I’m so grateful I did, because the women in the room taught me something. They told me that the experiment still worked because they could see the smile in the other woman’s eyes. And even behind the veil, the smile was contagious. The reason why this is so fascinating is what we found is inside the human brain, what we discovered also by accident is over the past 15 years we’ve discovered these things in the human brain called mirror neurons. So if you put me into a fMRI brain scan, scan my brain while I’m smiling, parts of my brain will show activation telling me that I’m smiling.

But if I stop smiling, which is what you were just trying to do, and someone smiles at you or you see a picture of somebody smiling, those small parts of your brain called mirror neurons will show activation, and they’ll tell you you’re the one that’s smiling. And your motor neurons will cause your face to contort into a smile before you can stop yourself, because you already think you’re smiling. So if you were looking at your partner and their lips were quivering while they were trying not to smile, that’s weird. That shouldn’t be happening. But what’s occurring there is their mirror neurons are fighting against their motor neurons.

Your brain already thinks you’re smiling, so it’s like, what’s the problem here, face, as your brain is trying to find out what’s going on between those. These happen with yawns. So if you see somebody yawn, our likelihood of yawning increases because our brain actually tells we’re the one that’s yawning. But why this is so fascinating and why this is crucial to this contagious effect that we can have is it turns out that if you have 15 strangers waiting for a plane– they don’t even know they’re part of the experiment yet. They’re just at an airport– and you introduce an undercover researcher, a confederate to stand in the middle of the 15 people and bounce nervously in place, tap his foot on the floor and look at his watch repeatedly with a frown on his face, within two minutes of waiting for that plane or train, depending on the study, 7 to 12 of the 15 individuals will unconsciously start bouncing nervously in place and/or tapping their foot on the ground and/or looking at their watch more than four times in two minutes.

If you don’t believe me, this is one of the experiments you can do yourself the next time you get on a plane, if you want to spread stress and negativity to the people on your plane, which is why do this at a different gate. But the reason I love this experiments is it shows this, that not only do smiles and yawns spread, it turns out negativity, stress, uncertainty, pessimism we can pick up like secondhand smoke. You can be optimistic, but if you’re surrounded by people who are negative, your brain through these mirror neurons can pick it up. And when we tell people that, they’re like, OK Well, here are the people I’m cutting out of my life.

I’m not going to hang out with this person. I’m going to de-friend them on Facebook. I’m not even going to look at this person anymore, which is awkward because they’re in my family. And what happens is in each one of those moments we’re eliminating social connection. But these mirror neurons give us the power to actually spread positive change even better.

Because as we’ve been studying you, we’ve been studying you wrong. There’s no wires connecting your brains. There’s no organic material. So we’ve made the mistake of assuming that all of your brains were separate, and they’re not. It misses out on how beautiful the human organism actually is, because our brains are not wired together.

Our brains are wirelessly connected through a mirror neuron network. Your thoughts right now are changing your nonverbals, how you’re sitting here, which is changing the way that people sitting next to you are processing this information. We’re in a continual feedback loop with the people that we walk past in the cafeteria. We’re in a continual feedback loop with our family members and our friends. And what we found is if we can buffer our brain against the negative, if we can create even a single positive change in our life, meditation, exercise, gratitude, whatever it is you’re doing, we can actually watch that positive effect that’s occurring in your brain wirelessly impact the people’s brains of the people around you.

One of the opportunities I got last year was to work at a hospital. And hospitals have a terrible time, because when you think about hospitals you think about sickness and disease, Right? And you can’t change that. But we went into the Ritz Carlton to figure out what they were doing to get people to love coming there. And they have nice buildings, but one of the things that the train– maybe you know this– they teach them to do something called the 10-5 Way, which is if you walk within 10 feet of somebody at a Ritz Carlton, they’re trained to make eye contact and smile at you. And within 5 feet, the employees are trained to say hello.

It’s actually really fun to go in and out of those sphere with them at the Ritz, even if you’re not staying there. But what we love about the experience is that we could import it down to this hospital, to these groups of hospitals. And we trained them post-Katrina down in Louisiana. And some of the doctors were like, why would you have to train people to smile? Isn’t that human nature? But then other doctors were like, uh, you hired me to save people’s lives. It doesn’t matter how I walked down the hallways.

I save people’s lives. That’s what I’m hired for. I’m not going to do this stupid smiling initiative from HR. So we said, that’s fine. But then we trained 11,000 of their coworkers to make eye contact and smile and to do the 10-5 Way.

And what happens is everyone started picking up the pattern, the doctors, and nurses, the staff. But the cool part was the patients, who didn’t know what was going on, picked up and then started initiating the social script, because they were learning that when I walk down this hallway I’m supposed to treat people as if they’re human beings. We pick up social scripts all the time. If you get onto subway in New York or The T in Boston, you start smiling, some people start moving away from you, right? Because we know the social script. Let’s not necessarily do eye contact, and let’s not actually smile at strangers.

We know that rule. But part of what we were finding was not only did hospital hallways change, which would be a cute story about how hospitals can change, what I was interested in is what happened six months later to their business outcome. Six months later, the hospitals that did this, they saw a significant increase in their unique patients that came to the hospital. The likelihood of patients to refer the care, the quality of care that they received skyrocketed. And the doctors’ happiness level at work were the highest not only in the hospital chain but in a decade at that organization.

That’s a one-second behavioral change that shows we can change the social script around this and actually impact not only our happiness but the quality of care that we provide and our business outcomes. My question– and it’s the one that you have been championing here at Google– is, what if we had more than one second with somebody? What if we could change somebody not just short-term? But what if we could actually change the very lens with which we viewed the world? And that’s where things become really powerful, I think.

CHADE-MENG TAN: I have a suggestion for that–


CHADE-MENG TAN: –wish is to look at human being and to think, I wish for this person to be happy. You don’t have to do or say anything. Just think. And that thought alone changes everything. Because it changes your facial expression, changes your behavior, and eventually people, they like each other, and they don’t really know why. This operates on an unconscious level.


CHADE-MENG TAN: So I suggest that to everybody, that one thought I wish for this guy to be happy. And then leave it at that. See what happens.

SHAWN ACHOR: That’s cool.

CHADE-MENG TAN: Oh, I love how you say it’s beautiful, I see it, and I raise you one–


CHADE-MENG TAN: –which is I think that in addition happiness is contagious. The other thing I found to be contagious is calmness. If you walk into a room in a meditative, calm state, no matter how bad things are, if you walk in and sit down meditatively calm, it starts to spread.

People start calming down. So for those of you who are meditators, practice that in a meeting where things are not going well. Give that a try. See if you can change anything. And sometimes people notice. That guy, every time he walks in the room, something changes. See if that happens to you.

SHAWN ACHOR: That’s cool.

CHADE-MENG TAN: Which leads me to the next question. The thing I really like about this book are two words that you use, which I thought was genius. And the words you use are positive genius. And can you talk about what is a positive genius and how that relates to happiness and success?

SHAWN ACHOR: Sure. So only 25% of your successes here at Google are predicted based upon your intelligence and technical skills.

CHADE-MENG TAN: The rest is their good looks, right?

SHAWN ACHOR: The rest are good looks. Which we know from tech, financials, and medicals, where I thought IQ would matter more, it doesn’t. About 25% of job success is predicted by how smart you are. 75% of your successes are predicted by three other factors, your optimism, the belief that your behavior matters, your social connections, and the way you perceive stress.

What we found are that there’s these individuals and organizations– and not even organizations, nonprofits and families– that we call positive geniuses, who, regardless of the environment that they find themselves in, are able to continually architect these realities that cause them to see past to not only success but to happiness as well. Your brains are phenomenal. Some of you are like, yeah, I knew that. That’s why I work here.

But your brain can process about 40 bits of information per second, which is really fast. The only problem is your brain receives 11 million pieces of information per second from all of your nerve endings. So as you’re constructing a picture of the world, your brain picks and chooses two to four small facts, and then you architect an entire reality around them. And if we know what those facts are for you, if we hear how you’re describing your work or your relationships or your life, those facts you go to immediately, those actually predict not only your levels of happiness and your stress levels and how calm you are, but it predicts your success rates, your educational outcomes, your health outcomes in the future.

Part of what we found is that these positive geniuses have practiced or have created these patterns where they can continually architect these positive realities over and over again. And what I loved about this is it was something that could be taught. I think one of the deepest and coolest parts of this research in positive psychology is this idea that I believe at base is just that change is possible, which I actually think most people would give lip service to but don’t actually believe that. Because I think most people think that just their genes are their environment, that that person’s happy because they were born happy. Or I’m happy because I was born optimistic or my parents were optimistic, and that’s the end of the story.

Or there are some people that are pessimistic as well. There is a researcher up in Minnesota who’s studying twins. And they found if you take identical twins and raise them apart– they were already going to be raised apart. They didn’t do that for the study, but that they have identical twins raised different families, different environment, same genes, and what they found is, on average, the levels of happiness were very similar. So he concluded 80% of your long-term happiness is based upon your genes, which actually I believe most people believe.

They think the majority of our happiness is based upon the way your brain was wired from the beginning. And if you believe that statement, you have to believe the next one, which is his famous statement. Stop trying to change your happiness. You’re as likely to change your happiness as to change your height, which is also 80% determined by genes. He’s since recanted that statement, because it turns out he was only half right, which in this case makes him fully wrong.

Because genes do set the initial baseline. We can shine a light at a three-day-old, and if they turn towards that light and that auditory click, they’re trying to increase their neocortical arousal, and they’re more likely to be an extrovert at age 10. They turn away from it, and they’re more likely to be an introvert. That’s day three. We haven’t even had time to screw them up yet, right? They’ve got these predispositions for this.

Some of you, genetically happiness is a much easier choice than it is for other people. Same thing with obesity, with alcoholism, all of these different types of things. But that’s only the beginning of the story. The reason why we keep finding genes to be so important is that average person doesn’t fight their genes. And if you’ve seen my TED Talk, one of the things I talk about is how most of our research we’re interested in the average.

We want to find out how many aspirin the average person should take if they get a headache, which we should already see a problem. Because regardless if you’re 90 pounds or 250 pounds, yeah, about two pills should do it. But as soon as we ask questions about potential, about happiness, about optimism, about success, those are a different group of questions. And when we ask questions like that, what we do is we create a cult of the average. Because if we ask questions like, how fast can a child learn how to read?– and in our research, we changed it to, how fast does the average child learn how to read, and then we tailor the classes right towards that average.

Same thing with genes. If we look at how much genes matter, we look at the average, and the average person does not fight their genes and their environment. But if you look at those same graphs with those same twins, we find that they can scatter dramatically from their genetic set point and from our environment. Only 10% of your long-term levels of happiness are predicted based upon the external world. 90% of your long-term levels of happiness is predicted by how your brain processes that external world.

And one of the things we found– and there might be people here in the room, you’ve seen a change in your life. You’ve actually seen how you’ve become more optimistic or more jaded in your life, whatever direction you’ve been going on that trajectory– I was telling you this morning, I had an identical twin come up to me after one of my talks and she said, I used to be a very negative person, just like my sister, but now I’m extremely positive. I’m like, that’s amazing. What did you do? How did you break that cycle from your genes? That’s what I study. And she thought about it, and she was like, actually, I think it happened when I was 15.

I was involved in a horrific car accident, and I almost died. And I realized that life was a privilege and that I had a whole new lease on life. And from then on, I’ve seen the world in a completely different way. What I love about that is that’s a trauma that caused growth. It wasn’t just post-traumatic stress, which is all we hear about.

But actually, it was trauma that caused somebody to not only grow, create post-traumatic growth but a deviation from our genes. And that is what I find that these positive geniuses are able to do is to realize that they can actually be co-creators of the lens with which they view the world with their environment and their genes, so much so we can get people with genes for pessimism to act in the world and to become high-level optimists.

We actually haven’t found anyone who is not capable of changing if they’re willing to be able to make some of these positive changes within their life, which shows us that if we just push against our environment and our genes and create some of these positive habits that you’ve been doing here at Google and the programs where you get people to create these ideas, if you take advantage of some of the exercise equipment and all of the incredible things you have, you can actually get people to change from their genetic set point and create a whole new trajectory, which is amazing.

CHADE-MENG TAN: Yeah. Thank you. So Alex has the mic Let’s get some questions from the audience. Yeah, Alex, you get to choose who to give the mic to. He has the power.

Question-and-answer session

AUDIENCE: Hi. A direct follow-up to what you just said. I grew up with the quote 10% of the world is what you make of it, and 90% is how you take it, which is kind of what you just said. You said 90% of your happiness is based on how you process your external world. Do you have some scientific fact? How did you come up with that 90%? Because before I thought that that was made up.

SHAWN ACHOR: Yeah. That research comes from a researcher named Sonja Lyubomirsky. And part of what they were looking at initially was if we know your external world, we can predict short-term happiness very easily. If a stock goes down, your happiness goes down, unless you short the stock. Or if something bad happens to you, immediately you have a response period. If you don’t actually have a response period completely, sometimes that can actually be problematic.

I don’t study people that are happy all the time, because that can actually be a form of a disorder where they don’t–

CHADE-MENG TAN: Or they live in Colorado.

SHAWN ACHOR: Exactly. So anyway, what they found was your happiness levels in aggregate over time, which is when we watch your patterns move, only 10% of it was predicted by any of those external factors that we were looking for. So the rest of it had to be determined based upon your genes and what she calls the voluntary actions you make in your life. Those are the habits.

I like where she’s going with this, and it’s helpful sometimes to say those things. But I also think we get stuck with the percentages. Because if I’m born with genes for pessimism– actually, I was born probably with genes for depression. I actually went through two years of depression myself when I was at Harvard while I was at the Divinity School. And as I was coming out of that, what was helping me pull out of it was positive psychology and some of these habits that we were doing.

I was doing this journaling exercise where you actually journal about positive experience and meaningful experience over the day. And because our brains can’t tell the difference between visualization and actual experience, it doubles the experience for the brain, and you start to see more meaning. Even though I have genes for that, I don’t actually experience depression very much any more. And when I start to go down into a trough a little bit, I know it’s short-lived, and I can actually pop back out of it faster and faster now. And if that’s the case, then how much are the genes mattering at this point? Are the genes starting to go from 40% down to 30% down to 0%? If I have genes for pessimism but I’m acting like an optimist, maybe they have 0% of effect upon people.

So part of what I think is just the recognition that the external world does not have a tyranny over people’s levels of happiness, which is why if you’ve traveled a lot you’ve seen– I’ve worked with very wealthy bankers who have just been so depressed and devastated in the middle of a banking crisis. And I’ve worked with farmers in Zimbabwe who lost their land who are living under a military dictator, and they’re some of the most optimistic people I’ve ever met. So I think it goes with the common sense that we can find people within every environment that are positive and negative. I think the key, though, is how do we view reality. Because I was actually out in northern California out here speaking to a group of software companies, all CEOs of these top software companies.

You probably know all these people. And one of the CEOs offered to drive me to the airport after my talk, because he wanted to figure out how we could cascade this research out through his organization. And so I got into his really nice car and put on my seat belt, and he got in on the other side and immediately started talking to me about what his company was experiencing, all the change and stress.

And that bell was going off in his car because he hadn’t put on his seat belt yet and just kept going off and eventually got tired and just stopped. And I turned to him and I was like, you don’t wear a seat belt? And he said, no, I listened to your talk. I love your research. I’m an optimist. I was like, oh, you’re an idiot. But I’d love to work with you. Optimism is great for a lot of things, but it doesn’t stop cars from hitting us.

It doesn’t stop reality from impinging upon us. And that’s irrational optimism. And there’s books and ideas out there that if you’re like, if I just change my mindset, everything will change for me. And that’s actually irrational. Because if you sugarcoat the present, we make bad decisions in the future. And if we think that reality won’t impact us, we don’t make any changes to that reality, and it causes us to be blind to injustices that are going on in the world or to racism or to weaknesses in our life that we want to improve.

Irrational optimists don’t put on a seat belt because they don’t think anything bad can happen to them, and a pessimist doesn’t put on a seat belt because they think they’re going to die anyway. But a rational optimist, which is what I’m hoping people go for with this idea, rational optimism doesn’t start with rose-colored glasses. It starts with a realistic assessment of the present, both the good and the bad, but maintains the belief that our behavior matters. It’s linked to our social support networks.

I love that. The rational optimism takes a realistic assessment of the present first but maintains the belief my behavior matters. It’s linked to the people around me. And that, I think, is where we want to go with this. I get people after my talks who say, I’m not an optimist or a pessimist.

I’m just a realist right now, which usually means they’re a pessimist. But what they’re saying is actually nonsensical, because both optimists and pessimists can both be realists. Realism’s seeing the problems in this world and in our work and in our lives. Optimism and pessimism is what happens after the problem. So you have to see reality.

You know that reality has an impact. But do I believe that that problem is permanent and pervasive, it affects everything, or it’s local, it’s one part of your reality, and that it’s temporary? This too will pass. That’s where we want people to get to, not to ignore the reality but to realize that they can change it. So I love that quote that you were talking about that you grew up with, because it really is about, how do you take the world that you have and move forward? So thank you.

AUDIENCE: I’ve heard the saying you are the average of the five people you associate with the most.


AUDIENCE: And whether it’s five or six, I don’t think the quantity really matters. And the intent of the question is you grow with the people around you. And so I started to really question my relationships from high school to college and now Google and moving forward. Were these relationships based– they’ve changed so much, and people that I used to care about I haven’t talked to in so long. And I’m progressing forward in my career, and I’m really only associating with people– I try to have genuine conversations with everyone. But then I realized two years later that, oh, I ‘t even talk to this person I cadonred about so much, just because he’s not a part of my career anymore. Because it’s such a huge part in my life.


AUDIENCE: And so it’s really tough to see are all my relationships that superficial to the point of helping me just kind of be a more powerful force in the world? Because I think we all care about changing the world and having an impact, and that’s really hard when you try to really build relationships. And when you say cut people out of your life that are bringing you down, it may be that they’re in a stage in which they need the most, and you’ve just cut them out. Sometimes I reflect on this, and I go into a very dark place very quickly.


AUDIENCE: I’m pretty happy guy, more or less than not. But I think about this stuff a lot, and I was wondering what your opinions are.

SHAWN ACHOR: Yeah.Thank you for sharing that, because I think about this lot too because I find the same thing. It’s less about my career. It’s more about who’s in my immediate vicinity.

I even saw it with my freshmen then when I was a Proctor. I’d be so close and tight with my freshmen. And then as soon as they got moved off to the River Houses or the Quad, I was like, OK, I’ve got my new friends, the new freshmen that came in this year. And what I found was it was so frustrating because I cared so much about my family members, these friends that I had had in the past, but they were outside of my sphere, because we’re so used to interacting with the people that are in your sphere, which at work, if you’re focused on work, that entire sphere might be here. So of course the people closest to you might be the people that are directly related to that career.

And I make a little bit of fun of cutting the negative people out of our life, because I actually don’t want people to do that. I think it misses out on how powerful we can actually be in these relationships, even if they’re short-term. Because at Yale they found that if you have three strangers come into the room, all with different emotions– I get asked a lot, who’s more powerful, the positive people in your life and the negative people? You might have a positive team, but there’s this one negative guy on the team that’s dragging the whole team down, or one positive person that you’re talking about that’s very calm that gets everyone else to be calm. We can’t answer that question, because it’s different every time we test it. Sometimes it’s the positive person.

Sometimes it’s the negative person. What we found is it was a different variable. They found that the other two people in the room leave with an increased likelihood of experiencing the emotions of the most verbally and non-verbally expressive person in the room. So what that means is verbally or non-verbally, if I’m very expressive of my pessimism or my negativity, I’m changing that social script. And what we found is social influence in our lives is defined by three things, the strength of our message, the immediacy, how important that message is to people, and the number of sources that are giving that same message.

What we found is that if you’re wanting to try and create a positive effect upon other people, you want to increase the strength of that message, to be more positive verbally and non-verbally in those relationships to try and change those five or six people that might be in our average circle. But also, you’re trying to increase the end. Oftentimes when we think about those negative people, we should actually not be going straight for the negative person. We should be increasing the positivity of the people in the middle that we could tip towards positive that help make that person actually see a social script that’s more positive. But what’s interesting, the other part about your question, is these strong ties versus weak ties, which I actually do a lot of research on.

Weak ties are actually much more predictive of your long-term success than the strong ties are. Happiness levels, though, are related to both, the breadth and depth of your relationships. So part of what we find is people, depending on your introversion or your extroversion, you can have lots of friends or small friends, deep or broad, and what we found is that it really is how you see it, how you see those interactions. Do you see them as only weak ties, in which case they don’t actually provide as much meaning to you, in which case you don’t actually feel sustained by that social support network? It’s what we see with social media a lot of times. When people follow people on Twitter or on any social media platform, if they follow people they don’t know they get no return on their investment of time in terms of social connection.

But if they follow people that they’re friends from high school and they see that they just had a kid or they just got a job and they actually do see them at some point or they do interact with them, they have a depth of their social knowledge that deepens that relationship and causes more meaning. So what I’ve been doing in my life– this sounds very similar to what you’re experiencing– is I try to reconnect with some of those people in very short bursts but in meaningful ways. And one of the habits that I have people do at these companies is every day when you get into work write a two-minute email praising or thanking or reconnecting with one person. That’s it. Two minutes maximum, so it’s super short.

It’s two or three sentences. Try it today. Just connect with one of those people you feel like is outside of that career sphere. And if you do it for three days, you’ll literally become addicted to it, because you’re going to spend all day long thinking about how amazing you were for writing that email. But what happens is 21 days later as you’ve reconnected to those people, your brain realizes, wow, I have incredibly robust social support.

I saw some of you this morning that I hadn’t seen from my time at Harvard, and it’s so exciting I haven’t seen you in so long, and it’s so exciting to have those opportunities. What we found is social support is the greatest predictor of long-term happiness we have. So instead of fleeing from negative or only investing in our sphere, if we can find just small ways to increase and deepen that social connection, we’ve found it’s the greatest predictor of happiness. At Columbia, they found that if I know the collective IQ on a team and the years of experience, neither of those are as predictive as how tight the team feels, so we know it’s important.

But then the last part, my favorite statistic right now, which is actually by a guy named Dr House, which I think is hilarious, he found that the social connection is as predictive of how long you will live as obesity, high blood pressure, or smoking. We fight so hard against the negative, and we forget about how powerful two minutes of a positive interaction could be. So yeah, I feel the exact same thing, and I think it’s how we perceive those relationships that, while they might be temporary, that doesn’t take away the meaning involved with them, just as everything that is temporary in life is not destroyed of meaning. This is from Buddhism, right? While things are temporary, that doesn’t mean that there’s not meaningful.

In fact, that can actually increase the meaning of those short times that we have with those people.

CHADE-MENG TAN: We’re out of time, so I just have one short last question for you, Shawn. What can we, Google, do for you?

SHAWN ACHOR: Oh! You already did it for coming. Thank you so much for coming.

I think the biggest thing is help us get this positive research out there more. Tal Ben-Shahar told me that he had an adviser who said that the average scientific journal article is only read by seven people total– which is incredibly depressing for a researcher to hear, because I know that also includes my mom. So if there’s any way you can share this research. I think the best way is to tell people about it. Tell people they’re not just their genes or their environment.

But really the best way is to show them. Pick up a positive habit. Get involved with one of these programs to create one of these positive changes. Because what we find is that it ripples out so much to effect other people. Real quick story.

I was working with a CEO of a fast food company. He sold his company for hundreds of millions of dollars and had a breakdown. He made millions of dollars. But that night he went on track with his wife and start walking off some of the weight that he had gained and talking about things that he was grateful for, doing that positive habit. It was so helpful that they start doing it and telling their kids that they were doing it.

And they got a call from one of their friend’s parents who said, did you hear what happened at the summer party for your daughter? And they were like, oh, no. Was there drinking or boys? And they said, no, she got everyone in her friend group to sit around and talk about the things that they were grateful for that were going on at school. We can actually create a different social script for the world where people don’t wait for happiness off in the future but actually are creating it now and actually are tipping this world away from negativity and stress to a world that believes this behavior matters and can see ways of changing this reality into a better reality for all of us, which is why I get excited.

CHADE-MENG TAN: Thank you.

SHAWN ACHOR: So thank you. Thank you so much.

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