Monday, March 7, 2011

The Power of the Happiness Factor

Last week, a group of folks from Finger Lakes Community College were fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Shawn Achor, author of the book The Happiness Advantage. I had read the book, but Shawn's genuine passion for his research in the field of positive psychology was fascinating. His basic premise is that most of us think about how a person achieves happiness in a backwards way. We think that if we work hard, move ahead in our careers and achieve success, then we will be happy. Shawn's research shows a very different picture. His message is that people who are positive thinkers are significantly more likely to experience career success. In other words, the optimistic outlook is a driver of happiness leads to success, rather than success being the factor that makes us happy.

The other very interesting component of Shawn's message is that people who do not seem naturally inclined to be positive thinkers can actually - through a change in their habits - cultivate an optimistic point of view. He had a number of specific suggestions of small things a person can do every day that, over time, will lead to a change in outlook. While I had certainly heard about some of these things before, the new twist is that Shawn actually has the research findings to back up the power of incorporating these changes into a daily routine. He suggested several strategies, all of which are effective. Of course, it isn't necessary to do all of them - adding one or two will make a big difference over time. Here are some of the strategies Shawn suggested:

1. Take just a few minutes to write down every day three things that are positive in your life - three things for which you are grateful. It should be more than "I'm grateful for my cat" - more like "I'm grateful that my cat likes to sit on my lap every night and purr because it makes me feel calm and relaxed."

2. When you pull out your computer for the day, go right to your email and send a brief positive message to a friend or co-worker, or pick up the phone and call. Your social network is very important, so take the time to reach out to those who support you.

3. Exercise every day. It is a great stress reliever and, over time, will help build a positive outlook.

4. Start a journal. Every day take just a few minutes to think about one thing that happened over the last 24 hours that was a positive experience. Then write in your journal about just that one event - but do it in great detail. Include a description of the setting, what you were wearing, what was said, what you saw, how you felt, etc.

I tend to have a pretty positive outlook, and I always thought it was just my natural inclination. One of the most interesting things about what I heard in last week's lecture was that I already do three of these things every day, and have for most of my life.

It's odd how in life sometimes you get the feeling that someone is trying to send you a message and you better pay attention. I had an experience like that this weekend. While I still was percolating about the happiness advantage lecture, over the weekend I visited my mother in Syracuse. We were going through some of my dad's papers that she hadn't been able to sort through since he passed away more than a year ago. I came upon a random piece of paper, clearly ripped out of a spiral notebook. On one side, my dad had made a "to do" list for a day in 1988. But the message was on the other side of the paper. He must have ripped a paper out of a notebook where he had written down things he wanted to remember from when he took the Dale Carnegie course - The Power of Positive Thinking. Here's what he had written down:

The habit of postive thinking... A replacement of negative thoughts with thoughts of confidence, courage and inner peace, achieved by mental discipline and constant training. Seek new friendships, think positive thoughts, avoid emotional stress, yearn for spiritual understanding, open your mind to new ideas, utilize your natural talents, take frequent walks, find a new interest, understand your limitations, lubricate your life with enthusiasm.

My dad took that course in the 1950s, and I was struck by how similar the message was to the now research-based work of Shawn Achor. A positive approach to life is a powerful thing, and this week that message came to me loud and clear.

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