If I asked a question like, “How fast can a child learn how to read in a classroom?” scientists change the answer to “How fast does the average child learn how to read in that classroom?” and we tailor the class towards the average. If you fall below the average on this curve, then psychologists get thrilled, because that means you’re either depressed or have a disorder, or hopefully both. We’re hoping for both because our business model is, if you come into a therapy session with one problem, we want to make sure you leave knowing you have 10, so you keep coming back over and over again. We’ll go back into your childhood if necessary, but eventually what we want to do is make you normal again.
But normal is merely average. And what positive psychology posits is that if we study what is merely average, we will remain merely average. Then instead of deleting those positive outliers, what I intentionally do is come into a population like this one and say, why? Why is that some of you are so high above the curve in terms of your intellectual ability, athletic ability, musical ability, creativity, energy levels, your resiliency in the face of challenge, your sense of humor? Whatever it is, instead of deleting you, what I want to do is study you. Because maybe we can glean information, not just how to move people up to the average, but how we can move the entire average up in our companies and schools worldwide.
The reason this graph is important to me is, when I turn on the news, it seems like the majority of the information is not positive. In fact it’s negative. Most of it’s about murder, corruption, diseases, natural disasters. And very quickly, my brain starts to think that’s the accurate ratio of negative to positive in the world. What that’s doing is creating something called the medical school syndrome, which if you know people who have been to medical school, during the first year of medical training, as you read through a list of all the symptoms and diseases that could happen, suddenly you realize you have all of them.
I have a brother-in-law named Bobo, which is a whole another story. Bobo married Amy the unicorn. Bobo called me on the phone from Yale Medical School, and Bobo said, “Shawn, I have leprosy.” Which, even at Yale, is extraordinarily rare. But I had no idea how to console poor Bobo because he had just gotten over an entire week of menopause. See what we’re finding is it’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality. And if we can change the lens, not only can we change your happiness, we can change every single educational and business outcome at the same time.
When I applied to Harvard, I applied on a dare. I didn’t expect to get in, and my family had no money for college. When I got a military scholarship two weeks later, they allowed me to go. Suddenly something that wasn’t even a possibility became a reality. When I went there I assumed everyone else would see it as a privilege as well, that they’d be excited to be there. Even if you are in a classroom full of people smarter than you, you’d be happy just to be in that classroom, which is what I felt.
But what I found there is, while some people experienced that, when I graduated after my four years and then spent the next eight years living in the dorms with the students — Harvard asked me to; I wasn’t that guy. But what happened — I was an officer of Harvard to counsel students through the difficult four years. And what I found in my research and my teaching is that these students, no matter how happy they were with their original success of getting into the school, two weeks later their brains were focused, not on the privilege of being there, nor on their philosophy or their physics, their brain was focused on the competition, the workload, the hassles, stresses, complaints.
When I first went in there, I walked into the freshmen dining hall, which is where my friends from Waco, Texas, which is where I grew up — I know some of you heard of it. When they come to visit me, they look around, they say, “This freshmen dining hall looks like something out of Hogwart’s of the movie Harry Potter.” Which it does, because that was Hogwart’s in movie Harry Potter and that’s Harvard. And when they see this, they say, “Shawn, why do you waste your time studying happiness at Harvard? Seriously, what does a Harvard student possibly have to be unhappy about?”
Embedded within that question is the key to understanding the science of happiness. Because what that question assumes is that our external world is predictive of our happiness levels, when in reality, if I know everything about your external world, I can only predict 10% of your long-term happiness. 90% of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world. And if we change it, if we change our formula for happiness and success, what we can do is change the way that we can then affect reality.
What we found is that only 25% of job successes are predicted by I.Q., 75% of job successes are predicted by your optimism levels, your social support and your ability to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat. I talked to a boarding school up in New England, probably the most prestigious boarding school, and they said, “We already know that. So every year, instead of just teaching our students, we also have a wellness week. And we’re so excited. Monday night we have the world’s leading expert coming into speak about adolescent depression. Tuesday night it’s school violence and bullying. Wednesday night is eating disorders. Thursday night is illicit drug use. And Friday night we’re trying to decide between risky sex or happiness.”