The Happiness Advantage
Shawn Achor is a happiness researcher, author and speaker known for his advocacy of positive psychology.
So I'd like to welcome Shawn Anchor to the BB&T Leadership Series and to Winston-Salem.
Author of the world famous book, Happiness Advantage, as well as many other books that you've written. And we want to mention to our audience, I had the pleasure of just a couple of days ago of hearing Shawn deliver a speech to over 1,000 people here in Winston-Salem. It was a spectacular event. It was an event to raise money for a hospice, which was an incredibly important cause. And it was an incredibly exciting and enjoyable happy experience.
And at the end, he got a standing ovation, which is hard to get in today's world. So congratulations, that was, that was fantastic.
So we want to talk about your concept in the context of leadership. And I've often told folks that, you know, people start out thinking about how to lead others. And what I've thought is you really have to start out learning how to lead yourself before you can, you know, really be effective in leading others.
So this concept about the relationship between success and happiness is intriguing. Honestly, most people, and in my own early career, I naturally felt if I was more successful, I would be happy.
And had some early success, and it didn't make me happy.
And so can you talk to us about the fundamental concept of the relationship between success and happiness.
Sure, so it's a fascinating one because I felt the same thing. So just as a slight background, I spent 12 years at Harvard trying to understand what caused happiness. And what I was shocked to find amongst these students who got to go to this incredible university, that it didn't automatically cause happiness, right?
Like, I work with so many high school students who say, oh, you know, if I could just get into the school I want, then I'll be happy the rest of my life. But once they got to a good school, their brains immediately think about, what's going to happen to me four years from now, or they think about the competition and the workload and the stresses. And 80% of Harvard students go through depression.
So part of what we started to realize was success wasn't leading to the happiness we expected it to. And then when you look at celebrities or professional athletes or you look at people who are extraordinarily wealthy, that it wasn't 100% correlation with happiness. And then when you travel—and I know you've done a lot of travel—you go to these places where there's so much poverty and yet, you find people that have nothing but are still able to choose happiness.
So it made us start to study and to try and figure out what actually causes happiness. And what we found was that the formula that people were using was getting in the way. And that was work harder, be more successful, be happier.
The problem is, every time your brain is successful, it changes the goal post of what success looks like. So you get good grades, now you need to get better grades. You get a good job, you hit your sales target, now you need to raise your sales target. Double growth earnings, we need to double them again.
And what we started to realize was that that formula wasn't working. You put happiness on the opposite side of success, our kids and ourself, we never get there. Flip it around though, find some way of being able to cultivate happiness in the present. Find ways of being able to be more grateful, socially connected, find meaning in your work, then what we found in the research is every single business outcome we knew how to test for rises dramatically.
Every single educational outcome rises dramatically. Many of our health outcomes improve. So the key to success was actually happiness. Happiness was a precursor to success, not the result of it.
Yeah, so you talk about in your book—speaking of poverty—that you had an aha moment at a small school in South Africa and you were, I think, comparing that to the Harvard experience.
Yeah, right? So, I mean, Harvard has I don't even know how many billions in an endowment, right? And then I worked with a school that was in a shantytown in South Africa. And I went to the school. And they had dirt floors they would share the few books that they actually had.
And the kids were extraordinarily happy, you know? And I met a woman in the shantytown who said her kid is going to go to Harvard some day. And like, I saw this and I was like, I saw that somebody could choose happiness without having all the external world, whereas I watched all these students who seemed to have everything that lost that sense that there was actually a privilege involved with their life.
And it helped me to start to realize—and we've been doing research ever since—on how mindset is actually a choice and that you can do it despite your external world. What we found in the research, one of the top researchers in positive psychology found that only 10% of our long term happiness, only 10% of our long term happiness is predicted by our external world. That's how much money we make, where in the world we live, what the weather is like, what our position is at a company.
Only 10% of that is predicted by the external world. 90% of it is about how the brain processes the world you find yourself in. How do you process your position in an organization? How do you process the pay you receive? How do you process the food you put on the table or the family you have? And when people saw the things that they're grateful for and they were able to see the meaning in their life, they were able to choose happiness regardless of their external world.
Yeah, you know, I had a similar experience several years ago. I went on my first mission trip to the Dominican Republic.
And we were working in a very, very impoverished area. And my mindset was that they were going to be miserable. They would be really unhappy people.
And but when I started walking around in the village and meeting people, they were really happy. They were living in these little huts with dirt floors, you know? And they were as happy as they could be. And here I came thinking, we've got to build them a big house. We've got to get them a car. We've got to—
I said, well, they could teach me how to be happy.
And so this is actually your point, which is amazing. I feel like I've learned so much more about happiness outside of the laboratory and outside of Harvard than I did even there. Because you start to see that people are able to choose it despite having lost a loved one or they choose it despite trauma after, you know, combat service or people who that are going through cancer, they're able to choose happiness. So I feel like they've been teaching me about what I need to be doing in terms of happiness. And it starts to, it starts to really grow from there in terms of the learning that happens.
Because that's something we can import, right, to people's lives. That's why we do so much work with the schools, is that it's not just building a school that creates happiness, it's at that school, you're teaching not just math and science, you're also teaching how to be grateful, how to create social connection, how to give to other people. And to me, I think that that type of knowledge is what makes a child happy.
And that's why I'm so excited so many organizations like your own are able to focus on the whole being person. It's not just how do we make somebody profitable or productive? It's, how do we actually find ways of improving your levels of happiness so that whatever time you work here, you're becoming a better person because of it.
Exactly. Help me, Shawn, put into perspective something that I've experienced over the years. So I first got interested in positive thinking. And it wasn't focused much on happiness per se then, but it was positive thinking and enthusiasm 40 years ago.
And at that time, with people like Dr. Peale and Earl Nightingale who were writing—
—most people kind of pooh poohed that, said it was kind of mystical, it wasn't really real. Academia didn't really embrace it.
But you and others have done enormous research and have proven factually that this works. Talk about some of the studies, some of the facts that would let people know that this is not just a rah rah speech, this is really factually academically true.
So it is fascinating because what I'm finding, we're discovering in this, you know, cutting edge science and technology and neuroimaging and neuroscience is just validating all the things we learn from Norman Vincent Peale and things we've heard from every major religious tradition and ancient philosopher up to the point but sometimes people need another language to talk about it. Some people have a mental barrier that they have to know that this works, not just for one person. Like if Norman Vincent Peale says being optimistic works for me, that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to work for everyone or for every child.
And so the reason we started doing this research was we were looking for, could this work if you had thousands or millions of people all doing these things? Does this actually work out? And so that's why we started this field called positive psychology. And positive psychology, the goal of it was, a lot of traditional psychology has been let's study depression and disorder.
And positive psychology said, let's study things like optimism and hope just as rigorously to see if we could actually raise those in other people. So since that period of time, places like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, these have been some of the seats of academics changing the way that they think about how we study humans, not just what's broken but what works. And because of that, we actually now have two decades worth of research proving that change is possible, that you don't have to just be your genes and your environment, you could actually choose a mindset and then be able to correlate it.
So one of the things we do at companies is we go out and we create interventions. Like, I created a parable off of The Happiness Advantage. Like, it was a book about a frog that's green, but has this orange spot. And then the more positive things it does, the more orange it gets, which it later realizes makes it, and it's not only an advantage being orange, but it's contagious. And it spreads to the other frogs in this pond.
We took that, these ideas out to companies. We have them read this book. We have them practice a few of these positive habits. And then we watch their business outcomes.
So it's not just testing, are you becoming happier? We're now then correlating it to measures like productivity or sales or number of calls that come in or customer service. Or in the health care place, like likelihood of remission or in schools, we look at the SAT scores or ACT scores that occur.
And now, when we talk to a school administrator or we talk to, you know, a CEO or a CFO or COO of a company, we actually have all this research proving that if you do these small interventions that, you know, it increases revenues by 50% or increase the sales by 37% when you're in a positive category. We found that people who are in the top quartile of positivity are 39% more likely to live to age 94.
Or in the midst of stress, we did a study out at Stanford, we found that if an optimist experiences the stress versus the pessimist, the optimist has a 23% lower negative effects of the stress. So the stress even affects you differently. So now that we have these, we're armed with this research, it validates the very things you were talking about 40 years ago.
But it allows us to get them into places. And now I've worked now with nearly half of the Fortune 100 companies. And we're getting this out into schools. And we're seeing ACT scores and SAT scores dramatically change. And so it's a persuasion tool. It allows us to speak another language to get people to take a step forward.
Yeah, yeah, so one of the things that I was intrigued by in your book was the study of the 280 nuns.
Yes, I love this one.
It was incredible. I tell people, [INAUDIBLE] number of the studies and I said, this one has got to get your attention. Can you remember to tell that one?
So this is a phenomenal study. Because a lot of studies are short, right, because people want to get published. But what they did was they did a longitudinal study, a long study where in the 30s, 1930s the researchers had nuns participate in a study. Nuns are great because they all wear the same clothes. They eat the same food. They're in the same place.
And so what they allowed them to do is control a lot of variables. And they took equally healthy nuns and had them write in a journal. And then they took those journals and gave it to people who don't even know the nuns, who've never met them. And they were supposed to put it into four piles of either the happiest quartile, the happiest 25%, the less, slightly less happy, the third less happy, and the very least happy. And then they tracked them over time.
And what they found was that—and this comes back to the statistic I mentioned earlier—is that for the people at the top quartile positivity, turns out at the end of their life, it turns out that they had a 39% higher likelihood of living to age 94 than the nuns who are in the least happy quartile. Now, they're equally healthy at the beginning. So something about their thought process over time starts to create this aggregate effect upon our health.
So if you're constantly seeing the world as a threat and as negative, our body receives that. If you see that your behavior matters, you create entire constellations in positive habits like connecting to other people or doing gratitude exercises or taking walks or having a dog or whatever it is to cause that person to become happier that has this huge cumulative effect upon our health.
And so I'm working a lot in the health care industry right now because we're starting to realize that we've been so symptom-based, right? Just tell me what's wrong with you and I'll try and fix it. Instead of looking at how do we actually use the resources you have and your mindset to actually get people to become healthier as well. If you think about it, even our drugs—I find this fascinating—drugs, when we test new drugs, we compare them to placebos, which are just basically comparing it to mindset. Because you give somebody a sugar pill and then their mindset, because they believe that it's the pill, actually has such a high effect that you can only get a drug passed if it gets above the placebo mark, which means mindset is already so crucial, so valuable that's the scientific metric above which a pill has to be useful. So it shows we're underutilizing mindset.
And this whole positivity, positive thinking concept to me is so powerful. I was reading—I think this was in your book as well—but I also read a book by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson—
—who's written a book called Positivity. But it's intriguing because they were talking about when you're doing something that is positive—
—it's kind of incredible, but there's a little apparatus in your brain called the hypothalamus that causes all these parts of the body to release the endorphins, which I tell people is just like free drugs, right, and it's legal.
Right, and it's legal, exactly.
And it just literally, physically makes you feel good, right?
It does. And they found not only that, but it increases your pain tolerance. It causes you to, your body to rebuild itself faster than anything we've seen. What's amazing about this, and this is from Barbara Fredrickson's work as well, is this whole broaden-and-build theory, which is, we've always been told, you know, if you drink too much, you get too angry, you burn your brain cells and that was the end of the story. But what we're starting to realize is the brain is changing constantly.
And that when people are positive, you get a broaden-and-build effect. It broadens the amount of possibilities that your brain is able to perceive and to process. Which we found when people become more positive, it triples their creativity rate, you know?
And I know so many people when they think of creativity, they think of, you know, the dark brooding artist or the nearly suicidal, you know, like musicians and the Van Goghs. But Van Gogh didn't produce in his depressed period. He produced in the manic period. In the depressive period, we don't see any of that creativity. We don't feel like that the work we do on a canvas is going to mean anything or the work we do in our lives will mean anything.
It's when we feel like there is meaning to our work that our behavior does matter, that it not only causes us to be more creative, but that we build new neural networks. So the brain actually starts to learn new ways to interact with the world. So you don't have to be that same person you used to be.
We found doing gratitude exercises, for example, just getting 84-year-old men to practice on a daily basis think of the three new things that they're grateful for, instead of just scanning the world for all the things they want to complain about or how the world's changed, their brain is actually starting to create a new pattern of scanning their world for the things that are working out.
Yeah, and so for our viewers that might want to study this, I think that process is called neuroplasticity—
That's it, that's it.
—when the brain is literally rewiring the neurons. And it's just incredible. But the exciting thing to me at my age, and for everybody, is, you know, this myth about as you get older, you necessarily have less brain power or less—it's just not true, right?
Yeah, well there's so much we're learning because we originally thought neuroplasticity was a myth, right? We thought your brain stopped in adolescence, that's the end of the story. Then they found there was some researchers doing research on the brains of cadavers of taxi cab drivers in London, as one does, right?
And they looked at them and they found that the hippocampus, the part of the brain that's associated with spatial memory, was physically, significantly larger than the hippocampus of everyone else. So the reason for that is in London, you know, the streets are like a rabbit warren. Like, they go in all different directions. They're not like DC where it's like a grid-like system, right?
So even to become a taxicab driver, you have to pass a test called the knowledge, right, which, because you have to know this interconnected streets. So if you live in a maze, turns out that people were actually, their brains were processing it that way. So why that was fascinating—this is so cool—is either from birth your genes had to know that after 18, after adolescence you were going to become a taxi cab driver in London and not in DC and so your hippocampus got bigger or the brain structure is literally changed based upon the world that you have put yourself in and the way that you interacted.
What we now know is that your brain becomes whatever you practice. So if people are practicing scanning the world for the negative all the time, they get very good at it. When they practice scanning the world for the things they're grateful for, their brain actually improves that ability, just like we get better at playing tennis when, you know, the more we practice it.
So we can actually change at any point in our life, which is exciting. But then the other part that I love that's connected to this is I got started in Ellen Langer's lab at Harvard. And she studies the aging process and mindset. And she found, she did this study in 1979 where she took 75-year-old men and made them go on a week-long retreat. And during that week-long retreat, they were supposed to act like they were 55 years old, so 20 years before.
They gave them pictures of them in their mid-50s for their ID badges. They played music and had Saturday Evening Posts and Life magazines from that period of time, everything to simulate 20 years before. They test them on all the things that we think about for age.
And it turns out that one week later, their strength had improved, posture improved. In aggregate, their eyesight improved by 10%, which is my favorite part of it. And they took pictures of them before and after the retreat. And they look—by naive raters—they look three years younger than they were one year before.
So what—she wrote an entire book called Counterclockwise, which is looking at our mindset could actually start to change some things we thought we couldn't fix, right? We only go in deterioration towards age, but what we're finding is that we can broaden and build the way that we interact with the world and be able to create more happiness in our life regardless of how much life we have left.
So Dr. Peale, Barbara Fredrickson, Shawn Anchor, all talk about positivity, but some people say that's not realistic, not being real world. You talked about rational optimism.
People would like to hear about that.
I think that's so important. And your reputation precedes you, you know? And I know that you're a scholar of all this positivity and positive psychology and that you've tried to live it as well. And one thing is, you know, from our conversations, you know, just the other day and even today you can hear it is this, it's not an irrational optimistic approach.
I actually think that would be a terrible for you to have in your position, impacting thousands of people's lives. There's a whole movement that says if you just change your mindset, the world will interact around you, right, that it will change to whatever you want. And that's not true. Reality still inches upon you.
We all know people that are really good optimistic people that bad things have happened to them and to their families, or that they've lost jobs, or they didn't get a promotion they want, or that they become sick. And so in the midst of the reality we have, what we want to do is be able to create the best possible situation out of it, to create a more valuable reality. So I hear a lot of people at companies say, you know, we want an optimistic CEO and then a pessimistic CFO, right? You know?
And that's because you want somebody who is optimistic, but you've got to have somebody who sees the problems. What I think is wrong about that approach is that optimists can see the problems, right? Seeing a problem doesn't make you an optimist or a pessimist. What happens after you've perceived a problem is what makes you an optimist or a pessimist.
The pessimist, once it sees a problem, assumes that this is permanent and is pervasive, it affects everything. The optimist sees the problem and says, this is one part of our reality. There's a lot of good things still going on.
But if we apply our behavior and connect to one another, this too will pass. So what I study is rational optimism. So instead of sugarcoating the present, instead of rose colored glasses, what we do is we start with realism, but you maintain the belief that our behavior matters if linked to the people around us.
When somebody had that type of approach, it allows them to see problems, but not get stuck by them. And it avoids the problem of not seeing the problems trying to sugarcoat it, never fixing them. That middle path allows people to actually start to create positive change and to link with one another.
And that's why, you know, some people say, you know, maybe we shouldn't be happy with all the problems we see going on in the world, right? And things aren't perfect for everyone in our organizations or in our society. But to me, if we've got problems, we need to bring the best possible mind to it.
Because happiness is such a significant competitive advantage, raising our creativity and our energy levels and our ability to come up with solutions. We need to be positive in the midst of the challenges we have so that we can actually come up with rational approaches to being able to solve them.
And, you know, what I find interesting is that—maybe it's just the world we live in. But most people I find do not really believe that they have the right and their ability to choose to be happy.
And I tell people that, you know, we—we tend to think that our happiness is a function of what our environment is.
It's not true, is it?
I think that this is the most important question. Because that's where people get stuck. I mean, we teach in our high school classrooms you are your genes and your environment. And that's it.
Whatever you're born with that predisposes you to obesity, intelligence, and depression. I've heard people say, you know, I can't do, you say this happiness stuff because I have a family history of depression. They've got stopped at the genetic level. Or that your environment, whatever happens to you at a school with bullying or whatever happens to you in a market or at a workplace.
But genes and environment, we're victims of both of those, right? We didn't pick our genes. We can't necessarily control the whole environment. But what we saw in the research was a completely different picture of humanity. And it was one that Norman Vincent Peale and all these people had been talking about, which is that if you make small, positive changes to your habits or to your mindset, we can trump not only your genes, but eight decades of experience and divorce your happiness from just the reality that you see presently to make a better world for all of us.
So what we were starting to realize was that we no longer had to live under the tyranny of our past, that we could actually start to co-create that future as well by creating positive habits, and that we could help change other people, right? That's the other part is not only can you not change, but I hear people over and over again saying, well, you can't change other people. And usually those people are a few minutes later complaining about the negative at people work impacting them, right?
And instead, what you're seeing there is an interconnection of happiness, that when we start to choose to be happier, we make it easier for other people to be grateful and find meaning in their life as well. So I think the heart of all this research comes with the belief that change is possible at any point in your life. And when we do so, we no longer have to be defined by our history or defined just by our genes and environment, we can pick something else, which to me is so important because I don't want people to get stuck saying, I've been depressed in the past, I can never be happy in the future or
I have a family history of this or I'm just not smart or I'm not creative. Those things we can fix. Those things we can change if we try.
Exactly. But then on the other hand, some people hear that and they say, this is great news. Give me the five minute miracle potion to help me do that.
And yet, Dr. Fredrickson showed, you know, in her three to one ratio that you do have to be committed, you do have to work on training up your mindset, your brain, to be more positive, to be happier, right?
I think that's so important. I'm told Zig Ziglar said that you can't just take a shower once and hope to be clean in the rest of your life. And then inspiration is the exact same way, right? That if you hear this information, you're like, this is great, just I'm going to do one thing and be happy the rest of my life.
You know, that doesn't work. Same thing with showering, same thing with brushing your teeth, right? That what we've done with brushing our teeth is we've created a habit that, if we do it every day, will help our oral hygiene. So the same things happens with happiness hygiene, right? That if we want to sustain happiness, not just have it happen to us, but be able to cultivate happiness, we need to actually put some effort in, right?
We put effort into our bodies to go work out or do exercise, right? We learn about how to use spreadsheets. And we go to school for years to learn about math and science and different languages. But we forget to teach students about gratitude and optimism and things we have to practice on a daily basis.
When I don't play tennis for a couple of weeks in a row, I get worse. I get rusty at it. Same thing is true with optimism and positivity, which is why we suggest people do these habits on a daily basis and for an extended period of time where we have them practice thinking of three things that they're grateful for that are new each day or we have them practice writing down about one positive experience in a journal each day so they can remember that meaningful moment or exercising or doing meditation or writing a two-minute positive email. All of these things when done consistently actually train our brain to be able to not always see the positive, but when we go back to the rest of our world, our brain is scanning for the positive at the same time.
The more you train, the better you get. Same thing with sports, the same thing is true with optimism, which is why some people who have come optimism experts. And we want more people to be optimistic like that. And we all can.
Yeah, and I've challenged people kind of similar to what you were talking about the other day. So I challenge that, you know, at night before you go to sleep, don't watch the news.
You know, take out a pad. Write down three great things about your life.
And do that for, I say, 30 days in a row. You say 21. But do that for a period of time. And somewhere along the way, three, four weeks, you'll wake up in the morning, the first thoughts will be those positive things. And it gets you off to a good start, right?
It does. You know, not only—we know going to sleep works well because that's where your brain is consolidating memories from the day. 30 days is when we start to see changes on neuroimaging, which is why 30 days is so valuable. But around the dinner table, we can do this with our families, right?
Around the dinner table, we can think of three new things we're grateful for each day, model it. You know, even if we have an adolescent child that's pushing against some of these positive changes that even just modeling it or getting our spouse or our kids to be able to think of things that they're grateful for, we found that if you do this for just a period of six weeks in a row, six months later when kids go to school and they come home, they're testing not as low level pessimists, they're testing on average as low level optimists, which is life changing, right? That you could actually as a family become an optimistic family. And then you start to redefine the family narrative, right?
Instead of the problems you have or the frustrations you have or the challenges, instead you're a family that's linked together by gratitude. And I'm so grateful for this family. And we do positive activities together. And what happens is, that single activity at dinner, our kids' kids start doing it with their kids later on. And so we're not only changing our happiness, we're changing other people's happiness and then changing generations of happiness.
And that's what I really want to impress people in this stuff is some people are like, oh, I'm already pretty happy, I don't need to do any of this stuff. If you're good at something, get better at it, right? That's like somebody who's saying they're great at golf so they never practice or play. No, if you're good at it, become so good at that you can teach other people to be able to do it as well.
And so the interconnected nature of happiness, I think happiness isn't just a personal choice, it's an interconnected one. When we choose happiness at work, for example, it makes it easier for other people to be positive. Or when we're talking on the phone with a customer, easier for them to be positive or when we're doing a sale.
So that actually gives us almost a moral responsibility, that I—it's fine for me to be cynical. I know some people that are like, oh, I'm just happy being cynical. I'd first ask them how that's working out for them, right? Like, how is that working out for your relationships—
—or at work or are you exercising if you're so cynical. But the other part of it is that that cynicism also impacts your kids. It impacts the way they see the world. It impacts our customers. So when we choose to be happier, it's not just about us. It's about everyone. And that's where things get exciting.
Yeah, so at BB&T, Shawn, we've talked over the last several years a lot about enthusiastic positive thinking. We've been talking a lot about happiness, off your book. We've also been talking a lot about growth mindset, Dr. Dweck's work.
Can you wind all of that together—positive thinking, happiness, growth mindset?
Yes, so, first of all, I love that you're doing this. And I think that BB&T is at the vanguard of the companies that are leading this positive psychology reformation. Because what's happening is, so many companies are realizing, it's not just about pushing people to be successful, that if you really treated people well, raised their levels of happiness, care about the whole being of that person, that's who customers want to work with, that's where people want to work for years with, you know? So I love that you're doing this.
To me, the way I define happiness is not just pleasure and that work is not always going to be pleasurable. School is not always going to be pleasurable. We're not going to be whistling while we work all the time.
But the way I find happiness, I got back from the Divinity School, which is where I got started in studying Christian ethics, and the way they defined happiness, the ancient Greeks, is that they define happiness not as pleasure, but as the joy you feel moving towards your potential. And I love this definition, the joy you feel moving towards potential. Because joy can happen even when life is not pleasurable, right?
You're working long hours on a project eight to nine months, you might have overflowing inboxes and high levels of stress, late hours. But you can feel joy as you watch your strengths emerge or as you watch yourself be more interconnected with the community. Go on a long run, your legs might be burning, still could feel moments of joy.
The other side of it is I think people are afraid of happiness because they think it causes them to stop growing. That's what pleasure does. Joy does the opposite. Joy turns on the brain to its highest possible level.
It raises every business outcome, raises every educational outcome. So it allows us to see more of our potential. So why I love that BB&T is using this idea of happiness as an advantage and connecting it to Dr. Dweck's work with mindset is because her whole idea is, you can have a deficit mind set of the world looking for all the problems or you can look for the things that are going on right, the things that cause us to feel like growth is possible.
When you do that, the brain works in a completely different way. And to me, that growth is embedded in the definition of happiness, that joy helps us grow toward our potential. And that's potential not just as an employee or potential as a salesperson or potential, it's potential as a parent, it's potential as a lover, as a poet, as a human being, as an altruist. And so if you can connect happiness and growth together, you get something that doesn't stagnate you. You get a joy that you can sustain and that's connected to other people's happiness as well.
Yeah. And that's really, really exciting. It gives you an optimistic, long-term, hopeful view of the future.
So we at BB&T, we have a leadership model that we developed. And it's very simple. It's this concept that if you want to change results, you have to change behaviors. But if you're going to get sustained behavioral change, you have to change beliefs.
That is to say, people behave in a manner consistent with their beliefs.
So when we think about happiness, positive thinking, growth mindset, those are all beliefs, right? So it ties right into that concept.
It's absolutely true. And, you know, I wrote the happiness advantage first, but I wrote a book afterwards called Before Happiness. And the reason I did it was I've traveled to 50 countries doing this research. I've given more than 900 talks over the past couple of years. And some people run with this and do something with it. And they transform their companies. And they create these positive institutions and schools.
And then some people will hear it and then don't do anything. And I'm like why? This research proves that this works. This helps every single success outcome that we know that we want. It raises your level of happiness. Why would people who want happiness not even try these things out?
And what I realized was it's exactly what BB&T found and what you found, which is that if you don't have the belief that change is possible, you won't even start any of these things. So the whole book of Before Happiness was, how do you get somebody to believe that their behavior matters in the midst of it?
And so one of the things we talked about yesterday was that there are multiple realities at every moment. There is so much negativity going on in the world. There is suffering everywhere. There are political infighting.
You know, there are fears we could have at any moment our health. All those are reality. We could grab onto those right now. And we could very, you know, realistically have a very negative mindset of the world.
There's also incredible things going on. People are getting married right now. People are having babies right now, it's the happiest moment of life. There's people who have overcome addiction right now, people who got their very first job after being homeless.
There's incredible things that are occurring, cures and technology, that we can grab on just to those and we'd have an incredible positive vision. What I want people to do—and this is where I started Before Happiness is we want people to start with given that there are multiple possible realities, we can only choose one. So let's pick the most valuable reality that moves us forward. What could my beliefs be that would make me feel like that what I do matters, that I can create a positive effect, and that I continue to grow.
And so what I love is that you've started it at the very, at the right place. It's that if you can help people realize that change is possible, which why we do all this research, we already knew the conclusions, we just want to show people it's possible and that thousands of people are able to do this. And on average, this is what happens.
And so once people believe that, they're able to take it one step and another step. And the human brain learns. We learn pessimism because we feel like over time, our behavior didn't matter so we stopped trying. Optimism, opposite. You teach them your behavior matters, they take another step and another step. And I found people who felt like that their life was going nowhere and that they were a failure suddenly transform into these beacons of positivity and are extraordinarily successful.
Yeah, so in thinking of people trying to move towards this journey, you talked about in your book, it's important to surround yourself with supporters, people would reinforce the journey you're on.
Yeah. So so much of our happiness is inextricably linked with the people that are around us. There's some great research. I'm reading a book right now called Connected. And it's looking at how your neighbor's happiness actually has a correlation with your happiness. And your friend's friend, if they become obese, how it affects your obesity levels as well.
So our happiness, our health, they're all interconnected with one another as well. So I find that if we're living in a world where much of the news might be negative or if we live in a world where there is uncertainty about what's going on in the economic sphere, in the political sphere that if there's negativity out there, we need to surround ourselves with things that recharge our own battery, with people that could actually make us feel more positive as well. So there's a great quote that I think it's Jim [? Roan ?] that said that you are the aggregate, you're an average of the five people you spend the most time with, right?
I love that, right? Because some of those people might be at work, right? Some of those people might be at home. Some of those people might be a, you know, a friend that you see all the time. It might not be our best friend. It might not be our most optimistic friend. It might not be the friend that brings out the best self in us. It might be somebody who's next.
So if we consciously craft our time to spend more time with people that are positive, surround ourselves with them, help them be more positive, role model our own positive habits, what we get is this feedback loop where it's easier to become positive. And then when we start to become unhappy, we have the social support network, which is why the greatest predictor of long term happiness in this research, greatest predictor by far is your social connection score, it's the breadth and depth and meaning in your social relationships. If you have social connection, you can find happiness. If you lose it, it is the biggest hit to your happiness you can possibly have.
So if one of our viewers is watching now and if we could hear them and if they said, I get it, I'm ready.
I'm ready to commit.
Give them some advice on next best steps.
I would give them two steps. If they're that ready for it, I'm going to give them two.
If they're only slightly ready, I'll give them one. The two are, do something inside, do something outside, happiness inside and out. So I would start with, I would create a pattern of everyday when I gone to work the very first thing I did or when I first woke up in the morning when I brushed my teeth, is I'd write, I would think of three new things I was grateful for, regardless how optimistic you are, regardless of how grateful you are, practice to give three new things you're grateful for—and not just what you're grateful for, but why.
So if I say I'm grateful for my son, that doesn't work. But if I say I'm grateful for my son because he means I'm loved regardless today, regardless of what happens, that works. So think of three new things you're grateful for and do that every day. What happens is, as you go over the course of your day, your brain is going to devote resources, a few resources, to scanning your world all the time for the things that are going on right. And you'll find that it becomes easier and easier to choose happiness over the course of the day. We found low level pessimists 21 days later tested low level optimists.
We see brain patterns changing, just like the taxi cab drivers, not just the taxi cab drivers. We're finding when people become more optimistic, their brain changes in response to that. Our neural pathways change. So that's on the inside. And people might not see that. I hope you tell people you do that.
I worked with the COO of Nationwide. And one of the things, he was saying he did that when he got into his office. And I was like, do you share that with other people? And he said, no, he wasn't telling anyone. So we went on their internal network and told everyone that's what he was doing. You know, and when you see a senior leader like yourself talking about these things and modeling it, that's what gets people to do it.
Second thing I would tell them to do is do something outside for somebody else. So easiest one is to write everyday, when you first get to work, before you read any of those emails, write a two minute positive email praising or thanking one person in your world. That's it.
A different person each day as much as you can. You can repeat after a while. If you don't know that many people, that's fine. But you write a two-minute positive email to start your day, thanking them for something, saying you're grateful for them, telling them how proud you are of your son, or how grateful you are, or you're my best friend here at work, I just want to tell you that you're the reason I'm happy every time I come in, even when I'm down. When people do this, not only does it create a positive effect for that person who receives it, and it takes two minutes a day, but social connection is our greatest predictor of happiness.
So when people do this for just a period of three weeks in a row, they realize they have all these people they meaningfully activate in their life, their social connection score rises, and it's the greatest buffer against depression we have and the greatest predictor of long-term happiness. And when you put optimism and gratitude and social connection together, what you get is a positive brain that reaps the happiness advantage, which is every business and educational outcome improves.
Yeah, so as we're wrapping up, at BB&T, we have a vision which is to create the best financial institution possible. And we have a mission, like most companies do, but we start our mission with what we mean. And we say, we want to make the world a better place to be by helping our clients, providing a place for our associates to learn and grow and be fulfilled in their work, made the communities we serve better places to be because of our involvement—
—and, of course, optimize the long-term return to our shareholders. But the focus is on making the world a better place. You talked recently about how in the collective—
—how we can each cause the actual world to be a better place.
I believe that. I believe that happiness is an interconnected choice. And we're seeing it over and over again. We've worked with companies where they've started to do positive trainings and, you know, create well-being approaches that we use that orange frog training at a company we were just working with and they saw how grateful that they were for how impactful it was there. They were like, we can impact more than just our company, we can impact our community.
So one of the senior leaders bought the orange frog book for an entire—the poorest county in Iowa, right, for a school district. Because the earlier you learn this, the better . So now what was happening at a senior leader went to an entire company, then went to a school. That school was the poorest county in Iowa. They went from being a bottom 10% school to their ACT scores rising by—from 17 to 21.
The school became more positive. Their bus drivers were more positive. The lunch ladies were more positive. So it started to create a community effect. And then, the entire community just voted to do a $5 million bond to build this back up again.
So what you start to see is this interconnection of people's choices. And when an institution and when a senior leader and when an employee choose to believe that their behavior matters and choose to take that more, more valuable reality of seeing the things that they're grateful for, trying to make a better world, it turns out it doesn't stop at that company. It bleeds over into the schools and to our parenting and to our families and to every single aspect of our society.
And I think the way we're going to tip this world away from negativity and stress and away from the depression, which has doubled over the past decade, is to get them to believe that their behavior matters, to see the meaning involved with their life, that this is an incredible opportunity to even talk about happiness at an organization, right? And that when we make this choice, we can make this a better world for all the people that are currently struggling.
And that is what we call the butterfly effect.
That people don't realize that it's been scientifically proven that a single butterfly can flap his wings on one side of the Earth and create a hurricane on the other side of the Earth. And I like to tell people, you know for sure, if a single little butterfly can do that, your life matters. You can change the world.
I love that.
You're changing the world. This is a fantastic book, your other books, your other works. Thank you for what you're doing to try to make the world a better place. Thank you for helping BB&T. Thanks for being on the BB&T Leadership Series.
Thank you so much for having me.
I hope you have a blessed day.
The BB&T Leadership Series: Jon Gordon - Developing Positive People, Part 1
The well-known author, speaker and consultant discusses how to combat negativity and find opportunity in failure.
The BB&T Leadership Series: Jon Gordon - Developing Positive People, Part 2
The well-known author, speaker and consultant talks about personal and professional purpose, and living on mission.
The BB&T Leadership Series: Stephen Williams - Leading Through Change
The former BB&T board member talks about dealing with change and the importance of a growth mindset.
The BB&T Leadership Series: Jimmy Faulkner - Leading by Example
The former BB&T board member shares the influences and principles that guided his path to leadership.
The BB&T Leadership Series: John O'Leary - Living a Life on Fire
CEO Kelly King discusses overcoming obstacles with The New York Times best-selling author.
The BB&T Leadership Series: Carol Dweck - Growth Mindset
The New York Times best-selling author hits on how we can change and learn throughout life.
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