Thrive Global: What does research tell us about the importance of your outlook and perspective on things, especially during difficult times?
Shawn Achor: While creating a positive mindset is harder in times of challenge, research paints a very clear picture of its value. We now call it the “happiness advantage,” where every business and educational outcome we know how to test improves dramatically when the brain is positive — creative problem-solving improves, social bonds deepen, accuracy rises, energy depletes more slowly, productivity rises, likelihood of promotion rises, and stress has less of a negative effect on the body.
For example, in a study I did with Peter Salovey, the President of Yale, and Alia Crum from Stanford, we taught leaders at UBS how to think of stress as enhancing instead of debilitating in the middle of the banking crisis. We gave them one hour of instruction on reconnecting to the meaning of stress, and three weeks later, the participants showed a dramatic drop in the negative effects of stress—headaches, backaches, fatigue and burnout dropped by 23 percent. Stress is inevitable but its effects are dependent on mindset. A positive mindset is an advantage because it allows us to have more mental resources to deal with the situation, rather than scattering the resources into anxiety and stress.
TG: On the other hand though, there’s emerging research suggesting that the pressure to be happy is unhealthy, and that embracing all of your emotions, even the less pleasant ones, is better for your well-being. What does this mean for people going through a challenging time at work?
SA: It’s a straw-man argument. I don’t know a single happiness researcher that suggests we should ignore or repress negative feelings. I don’t think people should be happy all the time; that’s a disorder, being disconnected from reality. Pressure to be happy all the time is bad; efforts to improve your mindset are good. The goal is to experience reality in an adaptive and real way. Most often when we’re negative, we’re ignoring the positives within the system. Being sad that you didn’t get a job or that you lost a friend is normal and shows that you understand reality. But to forget that your behavior matters, or that there are good things in your life like your kids or your resilience, or to think that life has no meaning now, is maladaptive and also separated from reality. The opposite of happiness is not unhappiness. Unhappiness tells us when a system is inequitable, or we have lost something of value, or that we are acting immorally. The opposite of happiness is apathy where you believe that your behavior has no meaning or value. We defend against apathy, not unhappiness.
TG: If you’re trying to reframe or get a new perspective on a challenging situation at work or at home, what’s the first thing you should do?
SA: When challenges start to feel like threats to your well-being, the first step is to see reality clearly. Even if this situation goes poorly, do you have a bedrock of good things in your life, like your health, your kids, your expertise, or your strengths? Break your brain’s negative cycles by spending a few mental resources to write down five things that are amazing about your life regardless of the current situation. Second, threats are scary because we fear we might not have the resources to deal with the situation. So take a moment to think about, or say out loud to someone, the personal strengths you have to deal with this, like your creativity or your optimism, the resources you have to overcome this, and two past times when you’ve faced similar challenges and overcome them. You’ll notice that your anxiety will drop and your resources will now be aimed in the creative and judgement centers of the brain instead of being stuck at negative. Finally, in my new book Big Potential, I describe new research showing that if you look at a hill alone versus looking at a hill with a friend standing three feet from you, the hill looks 20 percent steeper. If you want life to feel less challenging, connect with someone instead of thinking you’re pursuing a solution in isolation.