The Ecosystem of Potential

Joy is all around us, you just have to know where to look.

 Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury/Getty Images 

When the gray wolf was reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park, there was only one beaver colony left in the entire park, due in part to overgrazing by the large population of elk. But the reintroduction of wolves into the environment kept the elk moving so they didn’t stay nibbling the willows, which allowed the trees to grow, providing the lumber the beavers needed for their dams. The beavers returned, the vegetation flourished; balance was restored. Incredibly, that one improvement led to a cascade of ripple effects that transformed the entire ecosystem.

We can see similar ripple effects across what I call the Ecosystem of Potential: the network of connections that determines our success and our outcomes. For many years, companies, schools, and communities all over the world have been measuring success and potential in a limited way. They all assumed that traits that contribute to our potential, from intelligence to engagement to creativity and even to health, were individual and fixed, end of the story. Then they would make huge assumptions— about everything from which candidate to hire or promote (and what to pay them) to what company to invest in and which student to admit— based on a single data point, like your individual sales target, or where you went to graduate school, or your IQ score. They simply had no way to measure anything beyond how well one person did on a test, or meeting a sales goal, alone.

But now we know that the traits that contribute to our potential are neither individual nor fixed; rather, they are linked across our ecosystem. And with the help of Big Data and positive systems research, we now have the requisite tools and rich data sets that allow us to see patterns that were previously hidden. Specifically, for the first time in history, we have begun to quantify the impact that each of us has on those around us, and in turn the influence others have on us, as well.

At the heart of the initial research on the Ecosystem of Potential is . . . well, a heart. Actually, five thousand hearts. The famous Framingham Heart Study, which began in 1948, is now one of the most important studies validating the ideas underlying Big Potential. Nearly seventy years later, in 2017, I was invited to speak at the National Institutes of Health, the group responsible for funding this deep- dive look into the risk factors of heart disease. The decades-long study in Framingham, Massachusetts, has revealed powerful findings about the relationship between social connections and our cardiovascular health. While the results of their research are far too wide-reaching and complex to fully address here, the main takeaway I had from that meeting was that they found having healthy individuals in our community or network actually increases the chances that we ourselves will be healthier. These findings, and others like them, have kicked the door wide open for an entire field of study that combines positive psychology with Big Data to show how powerfully our social ecosystem impacts so much more than just our physical health.

Meanwhile, across the Charles River, researcher Nicholas Christakis from Harvard Medical School linked up with James Fowler from UC San Diego to take this line of research one step further. If our physical health is interconnected, they wondered, might our emotional health and happiness be interconnected as well? Incredibly, Fowler and Christakis found that it was more interconnected than we ever imagined. According to their analysis, if you became happier, any friend within a one- mile radius would be 63 percent more likely to also become happier. Wow! And by the same token, they found that if you are currently not happy but surround yourself with happy people, your likelihood of finding happiness increases dramatically. In short, being surrounded by happy people doesn’t guarantee you happiness, but it significantly improves your chances.

Reprinted (or Adapted) from BIG POTENTIAL: HOW TRANSFORMING THE PURSUIT OF SUCCESS RAISES OUR ACHIEVEMENT, HAPPINESS, AND WELL-BEING Copyright © 2018 by Shawn Achor. Published by Currency, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

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