What if the key to unlocking happiness is already within us? Nestled in your brain’s perception of the world, happiness isn’t solely dependent on your genes or environment. Welcome to an enlightening conversation with happiness researcher and author Shawn Achor. Known for his books “The Happiness Advantage“ and “Big Potential,“ Shawn shares his insights on how a positive mindset and unexpected joy can shape our lives.
Our social connections and daily habits play a significant role in our happiness. We talk about how technology and virtual work affect our social interactions. Shawn and I also address fears and resistance around forming connections, emphasizing the power of collaboration and shared experiences. Plus, we focus on the power of optimism, small daily habits that impact our well-being, and the importance of our brain’s perception of the world in influencing long-term happiness.
We take a closer look at the often-overlooked aspect of mental health. Even those who seem to have it all sometimes struggle. Shawn offers practical advice for those feeling disconnected, emphasizing the importance of small changes in mindset and daily routines.
The conversation concludes with a discussion on the transformative potential of small, positive habits and the importance of recognizing and valuing our social connections. Join us and prepare to challenge the premise that our happiness is out of our control. Instead, learn how to harness your big potential for happiness.
With love, 💕
WHAT YOU WILL DISCOVER
- The Power of Happiness Research
- Social Connection and Happiness
- Power of Connection for Success and Happiness
- The Power of Optimism and Happiness
- Overcoming Depression and Finding Happiness Together
The Power of Small Positive Habits
The Power of Social Connection
FEATURED ON THE Episode
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Welcome to Let It Be Easy with Susie Moore.
My, oh my. I have been reading Shawn Achor's work for over a decade. His book, the Happiness Advantage, changed my life, especially as I was getting started as a life coach. He's also the author of another incredible book called A Big Potential, and Shawn's background is so interesting. His background is at Harvard where he's been working as a happiness researcher for many years where he actually started out studying Christian and Buddhist ethics. He's traveled to over 50 countries understanding how we create this interconnected approach to potential and to happiness. And he's spoken to over a third of the Fortune 100 companies, places like nasa, the NFL, even the Pentagon. And he is this wealth of knowledge when it comes to learned optimism, when it comes to mindset, when it comes to behavioral change. One of my favorite Oprah interviews ever was with Shawn. He's so real. He caress deeply about people. You may know his TED Talk that's had well over 20 million views. Shawn Achor on the podcast, what a dream come true. Please, my friends, enjoy and let us know on social media your favorite takeaway. Shawn Achor, a Dream come True. Welcome to the Let it be Easy podcast.
Thank you so much. I've been looking forward to this.
I have been looking forward to this for over 10 years. Would you believe I read The Happiness Advantage? I mean, when I actually had my corporate job, I'd read it on the subway, I would absorb your words. You can even just see my iPad here. I'm highlighting, highlighting, and then of course Big Potential. Oh, Shawn, I mean Shawn Achor here you are happiness researcher. How do you tend to introduce yourself? I'm sure when people say, what do you do? And you say, happiness researcher, I know your wife is one too. Everyone's ears perk up. I'm guessing?
They do. So it depends if I want to talk to the person next to me on the plane or not, right?
If I want to talk to 'em, I say that I'm a happiness researcher and that we've been doing this in companies and schools to figure out if we can make someone's brain more positive, and if we do so what happens to their life? What happens to their outcomes at school, at work, in the hospital situations. If I don't want to talk to 'em, I tell 'em a psychology researcher and a research shame
What we want to avoid, right? Yes, exactly. Oh my gosh, Shawn, I'm guessing that when you share what it is that you do, my guess would be that people are just like, well, what are we doing wrong? I mean, if you look at the average person, right, and I know no one's average, but it's not like we're bouncing around with joy or this feeling of euphoria or even a steady calm a lot of the time. Is that what you hear often right off the bat?
Yeah. So it's so fascinating. I think your question's great at two different levels. One is I think that the majority of us, the average person, which is just the imaginary line we draw on the data, is not feeling the levels of happiness that we would've expected based upon how advanced to society we are in terms of our technology and all the resources that we have. The fact that we can even do things like this, we should just assume people would be much happier than they were at any point in human history. And I think for the average person, we're not feeling that what we study in positive psychology is not just the average. We also look at why is it that there's some people that are feeling these incredible amounts of joy or meaning or purpose or self connection or social connection, even in the midst of a pandemic or even in the midst of a cancer diagnosis or even in the midst of their job not going well or losing their job.
So I get to study all these people that they are able to find happiness in places that I didn't expect. And what that allows us to do is to figure out how we can import that into our lives for the average person. But the other part of it that I find fascinating is you were mentioning reading the book 10 years ago. Over the past 10 years since the Happiness Advantage book came out, depression rates in the United States alone have doubled for every age group, including eight year olds. So I don't think it was my book that caused that. What we're finding is we're getting this message out more than ever, and yet what we're finding is greater levels of depression. And this was happening before the pandemic. This happened way before the pandemic where we're finding that levels of anxiety and depression are at historic high. So I think it makes this research even more important about what can we do to fix this problem?
And then your most recent book, Big Potential, I thought it was so fascinating because as a happiness researcher, you're teaching people these individual practices like gratitude practices, performing random acts of kindness, and then you realize that a big missing piece was in fact how we go through this altogether as a community. And I was like, huh. And I love the Firefly story. I was like, oh, could you tell it to our listeners? So good.
It is good. It's not even my study. I just love it so much. I put it in the beginning of the book. These researchers at MIT were looking at fireflies that lit up across the globe and we've seen them. They light up individually and randomly, and when they studied them, they found that their success rate at reproduction was 3% per night, which I'm told is pretty good. But it turns out that there's these two species on opposite sides of the globe, one in Southeast Indonesia and one in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee completely separate from one another there, but they figured out how to do it differently. Instead of timing their pulses randomly and isolated, they have these neurotransmitters that allow them to time their pulses to the millisecond so they all light up and they all go dark at the same time. It's absolutely beautiful.
The researchers were like, that's beautiful, but not that smart. We live in a survival of the fittest world. You're supposed to be the fastest, smartest, brightest, light shining, otherwise you'll never be successful. What they found was we just didn't understand how systems and ecosystems work. They found that when they lit up alone, their success rate reproduction per nice 3%, but when they lit up together, their success rate went from 3% to 82% per bug. It wasn't like one bugs doing amazing with the system. The whole system's doing orders of magnitude better than we thought was possible. And the reason this was such an important study was we started seeing the same things happen with human beings. We actually found that when we treat happiness like an individual sport, I saw this with the happiness advantage, they would put it in the self-help section of Barnes and Noble, right? So you would see it in a place where you're like, oh, you're not happy. Go work on that by yourself. And what we're finding is the greatest predictor of long-term levels of happiness is actually other people. It's your social connection score. So an attempt to raise levels of happiness alone and isolation is not nearly as successful as when we see how much better we are together
Over the last 10 years with depression increasing. Is it because in your opinion, is it because we are just more disconnected than before, even though we're connected to our devices? Is it directly related to that? Because I mean, you report on good news and it's like here we are, there's more information and access to content like yours than ever before. What's happening? Shawn.
I'd love to hear your ideas on this too, because researchers don't know, and I think the reason they don't know is because I think there's a lot of things that go into it during that same period of time. We have increased use. I mean the depression rates have been increasing ever since we've had the iPhone basically. And I don't blame the iPhone, but what it allowed us to do is be connected all the time to work and have 24 hour news cycles available to us all the time, and then we can get pushes of negative news. I never get pushes of good news, people just got married or they fell in love and they never thought they were going to find something. No, it's bridges collapsing. It's never even the bridges getting rebuilt. So in our brain we have all these broken bridges and they don't get rebuilt, and that's pushed out to us through that technology.
And then we had the pandemic where everyone was isolated and alone, and then we feel like we're empowered now to be able to do things on our own. We can work virtually. So we're like, I don't even need it. I don't even need other people. I can do this alone. And then while you find this, you can do it, but your levels of happiness plummet. You're not doing your commute, which is why you prefer it. But it turns out that without the social connection, the social connection was actually the greatest predictor of our levels of happiness. So as social connection erodes, we find this is weird. All of a sudden my life hasn't changed that much, but I'm finding less and less levels of happiness. And I also think that we're joining fewer things groups. We do things alone in individually, church membership has dropped dramatically.
The military is struggling to get people involved. And so both of those are huge groups, religious groups and the military was a great way of getting people on the same page, doing something together. It might always been the best thing together, but they were doing something together. And suddenly when people feel like they can do religion on their own or they're not joining groups like a military or they're not joining a society at a college, we find that we go through life alone. And when that occurs, we find exactly what we see in the research. So we've seen this for three decades. When we take that approach, our levels of happiness drop.
Do you think sure, that there's almost like a pride that we take in just going it alone or there's almost like this, sometimes there's even maybe a fear of other people or we do feel competitive or maybe not even worthy of connections. I think there are a few things in play here, and when I heard you share about the hill perception about if you've got to climb a hill, it can actually seem larger in your mind. It can seem like 20% more steep than if you're doing it alongside somebody else. And I thought, well, why wouldn't we give ourselves that gift? Because it feels like so obvious that we would, but we're not leaning in. I mean, I actually come from, before I started doing the work that I have now, my business now, I worked in the tech sector for over a decade in sales, and that was survival of a fittest that was like me, my commission fighting for accounts. It's just, it's how it was. And I remember thinking we could collaborate, but that's not really the vibe here. I'm thinking like, oh yeah. So I'd just love to hear your thoughts on this.
Sure. So I have a lot because I think that there's different reasons why people don't want that connection. Let's take the salespeople because you just mentioned them. The salespeople, they feel like they're rewarded for the commissions that they get on their sales. They don't always get rewarded on the commissions of other people's sales. So then they start to think that there are these lone wolf salespeople going out doing things individually when actually that's not accurate. They need their support services. They need the people that are filling out the contracts on the backside. They need the people who create the products and the customers support. So all of those people were crucial to their success, not just the salesperson, but when they ignore that, they do so to their detriment and their family. So it wasn't just them, it was their family and the friends that make that job and that money meaningful in the first place. So what was your experience like doing that?
Well, I remember thinking, well, I love people. I love people. I get so much joy from relationships. And when you were speaking about your social connection score, I really believe that the quality of our life is dependent on our relationships. But I do feel as if it is not necessarily encouraged or if it is encouraged, people lean into their introversion or there's, we throw up reasons as to why we don't want to collaborate with others. Sometimes I think too, we just have a bit of a fear of people or we think around other people there is a sense of competing or maybe we feel like we are not quite enough. And so even reaching out for help and collaborating becomes a bit more of a struggle. And then everyone kind of loses that they, Sean, when we are holding back in this way.
So that's why I wrote Big Potential because the goal of it was I wanted to get people who felt like that they could be successful and happy alone to realize that that's not the best path forward. And at the same time for people who felt like that they were alone, not feeling happiness, that they would realize that when they connected to that ecosystem, their chances of finding happiness rose dramatically that they weren't in this alone. So I love that study. Another one that I didn't do, my second favorite study was those researchers from Virginia that found that hills literally look 20 to 30% steeper to your brain when you're alone looking at them compared to when you're standing next to someone who's going to climb it with you. And I always go over it so quickly in my talks, but it's such an important, it was a matrix moment for me because I thought if I saw the challenges in my life, that's what they look like.
That's an objective look and my problems and look how bad they are. And it turns out that's not how perception works at all. The hills in front of us, whether it's a work hill or a physical hill or depression or anxiety, the geometry of those challenges are changing based upon whether or not you think you're radically alone or radically with other people climbing them. So we see salespeople that feel like that they're alone and doing this and doing this successfully. Then they ignore the support group and then they get frustrated at them and then they don't feel connected to the company. So they jump ship to somewhere else, and then they find that their levels of happiness is declining even though their sales are increasing and how is that happening? They're having greater levels of success but not feeling the joy. That's because the joy was based upon the meaning you feel in connection to other people. So either people feel like they don't need it, which is what I feel sometimes. I'm an introvert. I'm way more introverted than people think, and I know every speaker says that they're an introvert, but I have to take a long nap after every talk.
I default to pandemic was great. I could just be with my family. I was like, let it keep going on.
And I imagine, Shawn, you have this really happy family, you and your wife, happiness researchers. Are you just bopping around with smiles on your faces all day? That's what I think.
And if we don't, we show each other in a book. Here's the research on why you should be smiling at me right now. Michelle's been great. My wife is. During the pandemic, we realized that we were alone and isolated for parts of it. So we created all these. We realized that there was a big gap between Thanksgiving and Christmas and then birthdays. And so we added in all these other holidays because we could still get Amazon. So we have a Zelle today that we celebrate each year. We now have an entire month of Harry Potter and now the pandemic's waned. We have four Harry Potter parties a year inviting friends and family over. So we've got larger and larger, but we even felt that in the midst of this. So we have our whole house decorated for Harry Potter. We create a cloud this year with LED lights.
It's like a thunderstorm in our kitchen. We're going to have to repaint the kitchen ceiling, but it worked. So that's one of the moments where Michelle, I could have been like, here's some happiness research. I messed up the ceiling, but there's a thunderstorm now. So anyway, we do all these celebrations because we needed something to do together because we had to make up for the loss of the social connection elsewhere with one another. Now that it's expanded out, we feel so much meaning and joy because we have these Harry Potter parties and it's so much fun giving people chocolate frogs for the first time or sharing butter beer with them. The meaning extended beyond the individual. But it's so easy for me to think, well, I can do my work. Here's the trap. There's two traps. One trap is I can do this much better on my own.
I am successful on my own. I kind of like being on my own. Anytime I'm put into groups, they slow me down. If you think about communities, it's a great idea to have communities, but then families always fight. So let's just do the smallest or just me on this project. That's what people do in school and they do in families. The reason I wrote big potential is I want to show them that small potential is what you achieve alone. Big potential is what happens when you actually enhance the ecosystem. You expand power out. And I think that that's the step that so many people, I spent 12 years at Harvard with a lot of introverts that are just like you when you were doing the sales, just very successful but very success oriented, and they're not even interested in happiness. They think happiness will come when they have their investment banking job.
So they're like, tell me when I'm me how to be successful. Tell me how to get better grades, then I'll be happier. So we actually had to go the back door, which is what we did with the Happiness Advantage, which is we showed them, if you want greater levels of success, you actually have to create a positive brain first. So here's how you do that. Here's how you raise your levels of happiness and meaning, and that's why I want to show people on this is that we want to be successful. We want greater levels of happiness. The first step is don't try to do it alone because those hills will loom larger. Your success will be smaller. So here's what happens and how you can enhance the people around you as well. I think the other trap is one you mentioned, and I feel this one as well too, where you're like, well, I'm just not.
Maybe people don't want to spend time with me. I didn't invite people to a ton of Harry Potter. You know what I want to do? I'll tell you what I want to do. You're the only one who knows this except for one other couple. I want to have a salon, which is not like a hair salon. I want to have one of those clubs where you have people get together four times a year and you talk about meaningful things and you create community. I have great groups of friends that are all isolated. I go out for a couple of dinners or with my sister and then they don't know each other. And what I really want to do is have a group where later on in life, when our kids are older, maybe we could go on a trip together or we'll go play tennis together, something together, go camping together and there'd be a couple of couples.
So I wanted to create this meaningful thing, and I've had it on my to-do list for the past two years for New Year's resolutions. We just set the date for it and then some people couldn't make it, so we changed it. So I've been putting it off because I was like, no one's going to take time to do this. What if I invite people and no one comes or they don't find this as meaningful? And what that gets us into is that fear actually eliminates something that would be incredibly meaningful in our lives that people are starving for. I think people starving for connection. That's why they're on social media. What's happening is it's just causing them to starve more. Oftentimes what they really need is that deep, meaningful connection, whether it be virtually or in person that allows them to experience the joy that they were going for in the first place.
And you are taking the initiative, right? It's like someone has to do it and you are organizing it. And yes, some people won't come, some people will come, but I think you are right. The appetite is there. We need almost more leaders just to make the plans, to put out the invitations, to bring it together. I've noticed even lately with business gatherings and so forth, the attendance is really high. People want to be together, but someone just has to put it out there. One thing, Shawn, I learned from you, and I've quoted you a million times, I think you get the Google alerts or someone on your team does because tweeted a lot of my articles that I've referenced you in your books, your work is that success orbits happiness. I just love the simplicity of that statement, not the other way around because I swear this is not common belief at all, right?
It's no matter what. It's like success orbits happiness, and it's almost as if, because I'm naturally, I know that I take a lot of action to manage my own mind too, but I would say my disposition is an optimistic one, and I'm sometimes, I don't want to use the word ridiculed, but there can be a naivety assumed with that. There can be a sense of, oh, well, I guess she's got no problems, or she's a bit airy fairy, and it's like, actually, no, it takes a lot of work to be this way and for me to be conscious and to be happy. And I'm like, well, Shawn Achor says success or if it's happiness, and I've got so many of your quotes here. You speak about the difference between optimism and pessimism and it's not an immunity to problems or blindness to problems, and I love how you share that. Happiness is the joy you feel when you move towards your potential. One of my favorite snippets from your book too is when you speak about the fear of adversity and how it's actually worse to the fear of failure is worse often than if the failure were to be. So why do you think there's such resistance to this? Because I see a lot of business owners, for example, who are really cranky and they're successful or are they secretly happy behind the scenes what's going on?
No. Well, let me answer that one and then get to the other things you mentioned, which I think are brilliant. We see lots of people that are unhappy and successful or negative and successful and we're like, well, clearly, if happiness was so good, then why are we seeing this type of result? What we find in the research is those people are, you can be very successful and negative, very successful and unhappy. You're just underperforming your abilities. That what we find is when we take those people, they're successful and they're negative and we do these steps with them, or they start to take some of these paths where they're taking these positive habits as their levels of happiness rise, their success rates rise as well, or their intelligence rises when we measure them. So what we're finding was there's a band of potential that that person had and that band of potential may be way above ours, just absolutely brilliant, but they're at the bottom end of their potential when their brain is negative.
What we're trying to do is tap into what they're really capable of as humans is to get their brain. We can't see that unless we see what's happening when their brain is positive, but the resistance that we feel, we get it from so many people. I have so many people that come up to me and say, your book just validated me. This book was about me. The first one, the Happiness Advantage, and part of the reason we wrote it is there's so much data breaking down some of those mental barriers we have. I mean, I thought actually before getting to happiness research, like many people, I thought happy people were the ones that didn't get it. Happy people are the ones that just didn't understand how the world was working. We think happy people are the ones that are not that smart,
And so we get this with so many people, so then they decide to be more serious or more whatever they decide to go in the other direction or dark or brooding. It is so easy for the brain to create negativity or be dark and brooding, the most primitive part of the brain, the amygdala. That's the part that can see a threat in the world, and then you respond to it or you run away from it. That's the most primitive part. The easiest thing for your brain to do is to see problems. The rest of the brain that evolved around it is much more complex, but requires much more effort. To your point, that's the prefrontal cortex, that's the emotion center. That's the part that has creativity or emotion, regulation or judgment. Those are the parts that try to figure out solutions. Like if I see a saber-tooth tiger, maybe we can capture it or maybe we can tame it, or maybe we can create weapons.
Whatever it is that that person's doing, instead of just running from it all the time, they're coming up with positive solutions to it. So it's easy for the brain to see negative just go on social media, but it's actually very complex for the brain to see a world that doesn't look like it should and still maintain the belief that eventually my behavior will matter if linked to the right people, which is what we're going for. And it's so much of your ethos too, is that not only does positivity work, but it has to be rooted in realism. We start with a realistic assessment, but maintain the belief that our behavior matters. Because what you get sometimes, I gave a talk, I sometimes tell this talk or the story in talks about how there was a group of CEOs that I was speaking to afterwards, the ceo, one of the CEOs drove me to the airport after the talk and I got into this guy's really nice sports car.
The doors went up instead of out and wasn't a Tesla and it was yellow, and I got in, put on my seatbelt. He immediately started telling me his company had been growing so quickly over the past three years, the stress levels have been skyrocketing. And as he was speeding towards the airport weaving all over the road, and I was holding on for dear life, wondering why I got in the car with this guy. That bell was going off his car, the seatbelt bell, and eventually it stopped going off. It got tired and we were joking around already. So I was like, oh yeah, and you don't wear seat belts. And he said, no, Sean, I listened to your talk. I love your research. I'm an optimist too, and kept driving. Well, you're not an optimist. You're an idiot. Optimism is great. Optimism is great for a lot of things, but it won't stop a car from hitting you. It doesn't stop reality from impinging upon you or negative things happening to your family or to the economy or to your job. What it allows us to do is in the midst of a world that doesn't look like it should, to continue to use the front part of the brain to see solutions, to reach out to the ecosystem and to maintain levels of meaning and joy, even when there are deficits in our life. Otherwise, it's very easy to just categorize all the deficits in our life
And it can feel if you are practicing or working on your own happiness and taking the steps that you suggest and really consciously driving your mind in a different direction, which I think is so amazing. As human beings, we get to do that. That's how powerful we are. We get to make different choices. I think that as we start to do that, it can almost feel a bit uncomfortable to the people around us because they're used to us a certain way. And sometimes I think if, like you said, it's considered less intelligent, if you are, oh, that's okay. There's a solution for that. I can do that. I can manage. I think there's sometimes a resistance to people who are even doing this work. Have you noticed that?
Yes, absolutely. And I think a lot of it starts to go away. As we've been doing more and more of this research, when I first got started working with companies 15 years ago, I had to convince them that happiness was good for their employees. They were like, why do we have to talk about engagement? We pay people to be engaged. That was the end of the story. And now they're like, we totally get it. We're going to lose people. People are underperforming, people are unhappy, healthcare costs are skyrocketing. What do we do now? So the story has shifted, and I think it's based upon this research for someone to really believe that happiness doesn't matter or that happy people don't get it or that they're being airy fairy or whatever it is we want to use to be derogatory towards it, they have to do so in the face of three decades worth of research proving them wrong.
There's literally, if you look at all the academic research that's out there, there's only two times in all the academic research that we found so far in thousands of studies that's shown this pessimism is valued, and that's in gambling because you stop earlier and amateur entrepreneurship, people don't get into it if they're not prepared for it, if they're pessimist, that's it. There's no other studies that show the pessimism value, and I think it's partly based upon our misunderstanding of what it is to be pessimist. I think some people are proud that they're cynical or skeptical or pessimist. That's part of their personality, but that's because they misunderstand what pessimism actually is or optimism. One of my talks, this person came up to me and was like, I'm glad you're here talking about this. I didn't really need it, but my wife needs it because, oh no, my wife will have loved this because she loves all this positive stuff, but it's good she has me because someone needs to see the problems and walked away. And I was like, I see one of the problems.
But what that assumes is that the optimists just don't see problems and that the pessimists, their role in the world is to show you that there are problems in this world. That's not what optimism or pessimism is at all. As optimism, a pessimist can equally see problems when we do this research. The problem is that once a pessimist sees a problem, they assume that it's permanent and pervasive, so they actually become paralyzed in the situation. There's nothing they can do that's pessimism. Optimism starts with realism, or at least rational optimism does. It sees the problem and it sees it and says, this is local. It's one part of my reality. There are still some good things going on even despite these negative things, and it's temporary. If we apply our behavior, we can actually fix this. So we're optimists and pessimists in different domains of our life. You could be an optimist in sales and a pessimist in relationships or vice versa. And what we're looking for is getting people to realize that their behavior matters have linked with other people.
I would love, actually, Shawn, to ask you about your period at Harvard for a couple of years where you had your own depression, you were teaching happiness, you were teaching all of these methods that work and you are struggling inside. Was that impossible to reconcile for you? And then I know that you reached out for help, which is also part of what you share in big potential. And then I know that when you had your talk with Oprah, she said that for two years as well at the pinnacle of her influence, earning, et cetera, she was also and I was like, huh. If anything can prove that it's not the externals drive how we feel. I heard you say if you're having success at that altitude and you're like feeling like shit,
I would love to hear your experience and how you interpret a situation like that and what it can mean for us, for anybody.
Yeah. I don't know if you're listening to this. I don't know all the challenges in front of you or problems you have with your family if you're taking care of elderly parents or you're struggling at work, but take all those problems you see and then all the problems you see in the world on X and on Facebook, and then if you don't already have it, just add in a billion dollars a private jet and celebrity friends, immediately. It's got to be easy to be happy, right? It's got to be easy to be happy. If you're Oprah, Oprah, it's you. Right? Exactly. Or the rock, right?
And what we saw with her is that at the height of her career, she was experiencing levels of depression where she didn't want to go on living, which I think immediately debunks the idea that most of society is built upon, which is once I get to X, then I'll be happy. But then the other side of it was the turning point for her and me were the same. I was at Harvard, this is after I graduated. So I was living in the dorms with the first year students and counseling them during that hyper competitive year of being there. So they're already successful. They did well in high school and they got into a college they wanted to go to, and then we saw 80% levels of depression once they got there, 10% of them the last time this was public contemplated taking their life. So it was not just like they were down, it was just stunningly high for groups that were already successful and were intelligent.
And so we were looking at how do we decrease depression? So we have people that live in the dorms with them that are professors and graduate students. And so I was there at the time, so I lived in, I did that for eight years. And while I was doing this, the first three years of doing it, I started going through depression myself, but I think I have a genetic predisposition towards optimism, but also have a family history of depression. So when they hit at the same time, how is this possible? My life is so good, and yet I'm not experiencing the levels of happiness that automatically should come from my life compared to other people's lives. And that made me feel worse. And then I was like, well, I'm here to be there for other people, so I'm going to keep this inside. I'm going to put it on a smiley face to other people and authentic so I could be there for them, which was authentic.
So I was feeling this mixed and this cognitive dissonance, I kept going deeper and deeper in depression. And the turning point for me was the habits I talk about and the happiness advantage. We've been researching those habits ever since I've done, there are these five habits. I do four out of the five of them, 95% plus days since my mid twenties. But I couldn't get myself to do any of those habits until I had to actually at the bottom open up to my eight closest friends and family, many of whom were peers and competitors there at Harvard actually. And I was like, I've been going through depression for three years. You can't fix it. It's genetic. But I just wanted to tell someone, not like the groundswell of support was amazing. People were calling me, meeting up with me, emailing me, bringing me cupcakes, and it's not what I told, but the cupcakes were amazing.
But as soon as I did that, to go back to the study you referenced earlier is that hill in front of me dropped by 20 to 30%. I'm not climbing that hill of depression alone. I'm climbing it with other people. And then they open up about things that they were dealing with. And it wasn't big things that we would normally think are big, but it was like homesickness or work isn't going well, right? Or they don't feel adequate compared to their peers. And suddenly we started opening up together and fixing those problems together, or at least listening to them together. So we were in community, even the midst of competition and conflict. And what we found was we created these meaningful narratives and social bonds that we've kept our whole lives. And it's what pulled me out of depression and got me started on these habits.
And it's why I do this research today because I believe that depression is not the end of the story, which is how depression tricks us. It tricks you into thinking that what you're feeling now is what you'll always feel. But we feel that regardless of depression, we feel like what's happening in the pandemic is always going to be happening to us. Or if we're alone when we first move to a new city, we're always going to be alone. If we can't find somebody we want to marry, I'll always be single, right? Whatever it is, we constantly feel the sense that the status quo is the end of the story. And what this research shows, it's the genes and the environment only set the initial baseline. If you create these positive habit changes that are like brushing your teeth and change your mindset, we actually find that people break the tyranny of gene's environment over what happens next in their future.
And Shawn, your advice, it's so practical. It's not, it's free. It's not like, here's your three hour routine for the morning. Could you share a couple of the most powerful? I think someone might be listening saying, I don't even know if I am depressed, but I feel like I'm in a low mood or I feel a bit disconnected, or I don't feel like that vitality. Maybe there's a sense of apathy. I've been hearing about this in my communities. Where would we begin if someone's thinking, oh, I even realize that when I'm even in my joy. It can be even confronting for people sometimes. Sometimes people even confide like, how do you feel that way? Or sometimes it's even too much or it feels like the light. It's a feeling of steadiness. It just feels, I guess, not available for everybody all the time. So where would we begin? If someone's thinking, how do I get some of that? How do I move towards it?
Well, what I would say is that this research isn't just for people who are feeling low or depressed, that what we were looking for were things that would work for everyone. And especially if somebody is actually genetically gifted with optimism, we actually need them to be able to strengthen their optimism so it pours back over into the ecosystem so that they're strengthened when they're around a lot of us that might be feeling anxious or depressed in those moments. So I think that this is for both people. They're struggling with happiness and the champions of it as well. I think that this is actually brushing your teeth, everyone listening to this, you have genes for teeth that should have rotted out by now, right? We have genes that rot out by age 15 in a high sugar environment, which is what we live in. So genes plus environment we've been told predicts who you are.
So what it is to be you as a human is to have rotted out teeth. That's the end of the story. Unless magically everyone brush their teeth every day creates one positive habit that takes 45 seconds a day, you buy a toothbrush and you get toothpaste, and you do it regularly. If you do that, what it is to be human changes dramatically from our genes and our environment, brushing my teeth while so inane gives me so much hope because it's one of those moments that we know we can break the tyranny of genes and environment. But we saw that. And when we look at other habits that everyone listening to this has and shares aside from showering, we don't have any. That was it. We got brushing our teeth in. We don't even get flossing in. For everyone listening, you should, flossing is better for you than brushing your teeth.
We got one in. Yeah, I found that when I spoke at a dental society, and yet they were like, yeah, we got one thing in and we're like, this is amazing. Let's teach our two year old sis. And then we just stopped. And then no one has these global health habits. So what I wanted was something that was akin to that that everyone could do to take less than two minutes and this cheaper than brushing your teeth. So what we did was we got people, there's lots of them. We got people at American Express, for example, for 21 days in a row to write down three things that they were grateful for in the middle of the banking crisis. We did it over and over again and nothing happened. And I realized by day three, this is why we have to research it. I thought, gratitude's good for you.
Why is it not working? So this is why the science is important. What we found was that by day three, everyone repeats. Everyone's grateful for my work, my family, my health, right? Yes. So then we had to write down, we changed it. These two research said, it doesn't matter what you're grateful for. What matters is the scanning you do. And if you don't scan for what you're grateful for, you don't get any benefits. It's a separate part of the brain. So we just tried to activate this one part of the brain. We can actually grow the structure in the brain post adolescence by doing this for 45 seconds a day, which is incredible. But what we did was for 21 days in a row, homeless shelters, wall Street, Nasa, all of these different populations from Marines out Camp Pendleton, we got them to write down three new things that they were grateful for that had occurred over the past 24 hours.
So they had to scan and they couldn't repeat. 21 days later, your brain builds this background neural app that scans the environment passively for the things you can mention the next morning. So without doing anything, it's passive. This is the reason works is your brain starts to process the positive at a higher clip than it was doing previously because you want something from the next morning that took a cognitive shortcut. So people that test as a pessimist in our previous research, you always test as a pessimist. That's how we knew our metrics work. Test as a pessimist, you're born a pessimist die, a pessimist. And then the story, we thought that for four decades, and what we realized was that was just your initial baseline. If you do this for 45 seconds a day, scanning for three new things you're grateful for, make a routine of it.
You even do it while you're brushing your teeth. Turns out that's what they do at nasa. Actually, it turns out if you do that for 21 days in a row, if you test it as a low level pessimist, 21 days later, you test as a low level optimist on average, then four year old children that are testing as pessimist. You do this, you have the parent or guardian say out loud at the dinner table, three new things they're grateful for, and then they try to get the four-year-old to do it four-year-olds are terrible at it. They try, but it's usually three of their stuffies every day or the five-year-olds get better six. But it doesn't matter if the four-year-olds where they're bad at. It turns out if they hear those patterns for six weeks in a row, six months later, before and after school, their testing is low level optimists on average, which is life-changing and breaks some of our narratives that we thought you were born a pessimist die of, pessimist in the story.
That wasn't the story at all. That was half the story. And just like we all have genes for teeth that wrought out. That's why we brush our teeth and we all have genes for threat detection. That's how we've lived this long. But if you don't consciously craft it, your amygdala, the threat centers your brain are going to rule your life. And so we got people to do is change what it means to be human by growing this part of their brain by getting better at gratitude. And there's a lot of things like this. So that one's free. We did the antidepressant companies, and I'm not going to repudiate antidepressants at all. They serve a valuable function, but their research shows when they compare a new drug, they compare it to a placebo, which is mindset, pure mindset, and lying to you because it's not even real mindset.
But the other is an activity category, and they get people to go for 15 minutes, four to five times a week on a brisk walk. That's it. So if I just randomly was like, Hey, you're not feeling great right now, why don't you go on a brisk walk four to five times a week? You'd be like, well, thanks for all your advice. I'm going to talk to another friend. But here's what their research shows. They found that six months later that the drop in depression for going on a brisk walk four to five times a week is equivalent the same as taking the strongest tier of antidepressants we have for the first six months, for the next two years, you have a 30% lower relapse rate back to depression in the activity category. So it wasn't a repudiation of antidepressants at all. It was showing us that something free was actually incredibly powerful.
Something as small as going for a walk, and especially if you do it with other people, it magnifies the effect that 15 minute brisk walk, we can actually show you how much it's an antidepressant within your life and how it has a protective effect later on down the road watching your breath go in and out at Google, they were breathing anyway. We made 'em watch it and we made 'em watch it for two minutes. The managers at the end of the study, they said they were two minutes behind where they would've been had they not done the study. But it turns out they're wrong. Their accuracy rates actually improved by 10%, but their levels of happiness rise, stress levels drop. We already knew all of that. There's tons of research on that. What we were looking at was cortisol levels. And what they found in a subsequent study is that they only had the managers do it, but the managers thought everyone was doing it.
So they tested the cortisol levels of the people on their team, and the neurochemicals related to stress, the stress hormone, the stress levels dropped and neurochemical formed for the people that they were leading, and they weren't meditating or doing the tension training. So that two minutes that was free, watching their breath going out where they thought they were doing nothing for the world, turns out it was changing the neural chemical pattern to the people that they led. So it just shows you, right? It shows you, I love this one. I love your reaction to it because I say a toxin, people just go on to the next one are like, oh, maybe I'll do that one or gratitude one's easier. But what's amazing about it's those things we think don't matter, that the world doesn't see, whether it's meditation or attention training, or you listen to positive music or positive podcast or you pray whatever it is, those things we thought, I don't see this effect.
We can measure the effect. You're changing the neurochemical patterns of the people around you. And the reason I wrote big potential was we actually found if we raise the levels of happiness for the teacher, some Flint, Michigan, the teacher, students, parents or guardians, wellbeing scores start improving if we were doing interventions for them, which is amazing that a few people in the ecosystem were changing not only their students' test scores, which were rising only in those classrooms where the levels of happiness rose, but the parents and guardians who that teacher never met. Which means that if someone's listening to this and they're going through a great period of life and they just want to relish it and learn how to sustain it, or they're going through a struggling period, or they know someone who's going through a period, what we find is this practice, this daily hygiene of creating these happiness habits actually not only affects us, but it changes the life of the people that we care about so much as well.
It feels like there is a divinity in this, Shawn. It feels like you do this work on yourself. It's so generous to other people. That's not even your initial intention. A teacher just wants maybe to feel better, but then it just so happens that the lives that she touches directly and indirectly are improved. That makes me want to cry.
So I got started back at the divinity school, so that's why I do a lot of this. And when I look at my faith, when I look at faith traditions, they never tried to do it alone. Even monks that were meditating in a cave, they're part of monastic community, so they have people to talk to about it. They have mentors that help them through things. They have more social connection than most of us, even though they're spending most of the time alone in a cave. And what's amazing about this is you see our society moving in the opposite direction, and not just with faith, but also with psychology, where we think, I can do this by myself. The gratitude one, for example, we found that we can raise your levels of optimism, but then there's a cap at some point if it doesn't start becoming about other people.
So we can raise your levels of happiness dramatically, but then this invisible ceiling starts to form until it's for other people or our reason for doing it. I had a friend who wanted to write a book, but he couldn't do it with his busy family life and his schedule. So we rented AVRB or an Airbnb or VRBO house and was going to go there for three months. I don't know how his wife let him do this. He has kids. Anyway, he decided to do this. He's going to write this book to change the world. And he said he wrote so well for the first week. It was just amazing, so much flu out of him. And then the second week, he just hit this writer's block so bad. He came home after the second week. He was like, I didn't write anything more. And I was like, yeah, well, he realizes himself, but he divorced himself from the very reason why he was writing the book, which was other people.
And if you divorced yourself from the meaning behind things, then you lose the joy about why we're doing it. So these self-help ideas like gratitude, exercise, meditation. If it's only about us, we actually lose some of the value of it when we start realizing that this impacts the people around us as well, and LinkedIn, we got people to write a two minute positive email praising or thanking other people. So you take the gratitude one and you extend it out. What we found was if you do it for three days in a row, you get addicted to it. You spend all day long thinking about how amazing you were for writing that email in the morning. You're like, I'm amazing. But it turns out 21 days later, your social connection score rises to the top 15% of people in the world. And the reason for that is you have all these weak ties.
Most people at day eight stop the experiment unless we pay them $15, they stop at day eight. They're like, I'm not a crazy extrovert. I don't, I wrote to everyone of my favorites list and my mom twice. That's everyone. That's literally everyone. And then you think about who is a mentor that was in my life, or who is my kid's first grade teacher that transformed his life? I don't talk to him anymore because my kid's in third grade. Or who's that person on my kid's soccer team? That mom who cheers not just for her daughter, but for everyone's daughter equally. And you start to realize you have all these weak ties that our brain can decide those are meaningful or not. And when we write a two minute positive email thanking them, your brain records that as meaningful, even if the person doesn't respond. And what happens is you create, just like those fireflies, you create a mental map of social connection that's lit up together, and that's why we see social connection rising.
What we found at LinkedIn is if someone received three touch points of praise, it turns out their retention rates went from 80% to 94%. So same pace, same building, same everything. 14 point swing that took six minutes because of three times the two minutes. But what we found that I loved that was worth millions to them because of all the hiring practices. Why I love it is if someone receives three touch points of praise, they double the amount of praise that they start giving back into the system. So that's how people start to change and see that they're making an impact in people's lives.
You can see that this abundance cycle with it. That's so gorgeous. My very first career was in recruitment. You call it headhunting more in the us, but we used to do a lot of research and give it to our clients who were the employers and the number one marker of retention, we always thought it was revenue, we're like increases bonuses. It was appreciation. Believe it. It's amazing. And they're like, so you don't have to pay people as much as you think,
I was like, well, pay them too. But remember to say thank you both. Exactly. And I think that probably that's why there's such an appetite for, I mean, I know that you speak at length all over the world to so many different audiences, but I think so often, Shawn, the content that I read from you, it's when people start seeing the really tangible benefits that they really get. You say, Sean, in the happiness advantage, if you can raise somebody's level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage, which is your brain at positive performs significantly better than it does at negative, neutral, or stressed. And then you say, on shaping reality, the external world can predict 10% of our long-term happiness. 90% of our long-term happiness is not predicted by the external world, but by the way, our brain processes the world. I think when you give this power recognition, it feels like a remembering of our power somehow. It feels like, to me, an ancient feeling of knowing this, but not always being tapped in. You speak about how outcomes change educational outcomes, business outcomes, this is what people are obsessed with. It's like, how, how's this going to be good for me? It's going to be good for your bottom line, but more importantly, it's you regret proofing your life. That's how I.
Appreciation, showing up, looking for the things that are going well, I feel like we miss our lives if we don't do this. Shawn, and I know that's why you are so passionate about bringing this to young people, to schools, to younger communities. What are you working on now? What's going on over with you, your wife? What is it you are creating at the moment?
So we've spent the past three years or four years really looking at hospitals and schools. So when places were feeling so much uncertainty and a lack of appreciation, how do you get people to see the meaning that they had seen once in their job that they're struggling to see? Because so many nurses are just so burned out that they know they're doing something meaningful, but they can't feel it, right? They're just ready to stop. And the same thing with teachers. My mom was a high school English teacher for 30 years and it was already challenging and then add a pandemic into it and political challenges and then suddenly becomes so much more difficult. So we're looking at could we decrease burnout in the midst of that? And so we actually found we absolutely could. We went into hospital systems and you hear one narrative, which is burnout rates are skyrocketing.
And were, we went into large hospital systems and department by department. We showed them that they were not alone feeling those things. We provided the positive psychology information. We got them to look at a work habit together and intact teams like a department to see if they could change one habit together to make things more positive. And then they committed to doing these positive habits. So it's positive psychology, but collectively what we were finding was that it was moving so much faster when it was collective from information to transformation and that those hills in front of people were collapsing. We were able to drop the burnout rate at these hospitals on these teams in half in a six week period of time, and they continued on, but it wasn't just for the people that were working there. While that was occurring, burnout rates in other parts of the hospital were skyrocketing.
So it wasn't just like things were getting better, no things were getting worse. And yet burnout was evaporating for some people, but in the same pandemic or the same school system. So it shows us that there is possible change within the system. But the other part, and this is the part I think is important too, is that when you quantify the impacts for other people, we could show them their patient safety ratings Were rising only on those teams. That's how we got to the whole hospital system. And those hospitals we work with, one of 'em is now on the top 1% of patient safety in the nation and profitable for the first time. And you see the same thing at schools. They're like, give me better test scores. But what they find is if you raise the level of the social emotional support that the people are trying to do the social emotional learning with, and then when we actually provided that connection to the teachers and to the superintendents and to the administration where they felt like that they were not alone, and then they were doing these things together, then what we found was it was creating these ripple effects that would extend to the entire community that didn't even know we were doing projects there.
We did this in the poorest county in Iowa, in the United States, bottom 10% schools judged by President Obama's administration. And what we found is we were able to raise their standardized test scores by 20%. They had to hire 20 new teachers a year. They passed a $2 million bond in the poorest county in Iowa to keep it going. They were just so excited. The highest literacy score change in state. What we saw was change was possible where we thought it wasn't possible, and it was actually so much easier to do than we thought. So we're trying to change the narrative by showing that there's a quantifiable ripple effect.
I'm so happy you exist, Shawn. I'm so happy you're on planet Earth at the same time as me and I get to learn from you and that you're doing the work that you're doing. Where do our listeners go to follow you, to connect with you, to support the work that you're doing? Tell us the things.
What I actually normally send people to because it's free, is I have a TED talk at this. It's awesome. 12 minutes long that if you heard this and was like, I come want to share this with somebody else and they only have 12 minutes or whatever it is, we find that that's a good funny way to get people to hear about what positive psychology is. So if you want to do a short deep dive into it, maybe check out the TED Talk if you want to go in a deeper dive or have something that's more can walk you through these changes. My first book, the Happiness Advantage, I think is the best place to start. My favorite book I've written is Big Potential, but it's the least read. But that's about changing other people. So depending on where you're coming at it, I would actually start with the Ted Talk and Happiness Advantage to really see if this research works for you.
Oh my God, Shawn, it changed me. And your Ted Talk is hilarious. My friends, Shawns sister is a unicorn. It'll make sense when you watch the video, when you read the book. I mean, how powerful our minds are. I just think it's like the biggest tragedy that most people don't know. They just simply don't know. And that's what you are on the leading edge of Sean, and I'm so grateful to spend time with you and for the work that you do, and I'm going to continue to follow you. Pay attention to anything that you're building, creating, and I want to help any way I can. But Sean, thank you so much for being here on the podcast.
Thank you for having me. We can do all this research, but if people don't hear about it, they can't do it. So I'm so grateful to you and for the listeners, I hope you take this research and make it come alive in ways that we're going to have to study you and see what you're doing. So thank you to all of you.
Until next time, my friends, so much love and ease.