We humans

Why are some people stuck in their ways?

Sep 18, 2013 /

“We think we have to be successful, then we’ll be happier. But the real problem is our brains work in the opposite order,” said Shawn Achor in his charming, immensely popular TED Talk from TEDxBloomington, “The happy secret to better work.” Achor is the CEO of consulting firm Good Think, which conducts research on positive psychology and helps people apply it to be happier and more effective at work.

His 2011 talk drew on the research from his bestselling book on positive psychology, The Happiness Advantage, and since then he’s had a new question on his mind: Why are some people able to make positive changes in their lives, while others remain stuck in their ways? His latest book, Before Happiness, published last week by Random House, addresses just this question. In it, Achor describes the five essential elements that are needed to develop a positive mindset for change. We caught up with Achor recently to find out more.

What inspired you to write Before Happiness?
Before somebody can make a change to their health and their happiness, their brain has already constructed a picture of reality in which change is possible or not. Basically, this predicts whether or not they’ll be able to make that change. Some people see a world in which they’re only their genes and their environment; so they can watch a ton of TED Talks, they can read a ton of books, but they won’t actually incorporate any of those new changes into their lives. So the book started out with: “How do we get people to change the way that they view their world?”

Optimism, while it’s good for a lot of things, doesn’t stop cars from hitting us. It won’t stop reality from hitting us.

You argue that if you think positively you can be more productive. Is there a danger of trying to speed too quickly toward an end goal of perceived success?

Yes. A lot of frustration comes from us being irrationally optimistic about either the goal that we’re creating or the speed and the time it will take to get there. I have a great little cartoon that someone sent me on Twitter: A rhinoceros is on a treadmill, and it’s sweating and running as fast as it possibly can, and it’s looking up at this poster of this beautiful unicorn. So it’s trying to run as fast as it can to be a unicorn, and inherently it’s creating greater levels of frustration, because it’s not a unicorn, it’s a rhinoceros, and it should be the best rhinoceros that it can be.

In Before Happiness I tell the story of how I talked to the CEO of a software company in California, and I got into the car with him, and he drove me to the airport to talk about how we could change his company. He didn’t put on a seatbelt, and I asked him why. He said he was an optimist. Which is crazy! Optimism, while it’s good for a lot of things, doesn’t stop cars from hitting us. It won’t stop reality from hitting us. We don’t want to turn a blind eye to the negative. If we sugarcoat the present, we make bad decisions in the future.

So is there a wrong way to set goals for yourself?

Part of the frustration that can oftentimes come from trying to speed towards certain goals is that sometimes those goals are irrational. Let’s start with a realistic assessment of where we are, but maintain the belief that our behavior matters in the present: Can I work out today? Can I keep practicing math? Can I keep practicing this musical instrument?

The other side of it is the time required to get there. People often get frustrated because they pick huge goals which are way off in the future. But the human brain needs to record victories. Otherwise it gets exhausted. One of the chapters in the book is on the research on the “X-spot.” What we found was that rats run much faster at the end of a maze. We found that marathon runners run faster at 26.1 miles. They actually speed up.

Can anyone make a change for the better? Does positive psychology apply to everyone?

Universally we found that people, cross culture, cross industry, cross country, have actually been able to make these changes at any point in their life, from four years old up to 84 years of age.

If you can provide humor and connect at an emotional level, people will remember information much longer.

Your talk and your books rely on a lot of anecdotes and analogy alongside your research. Why do you prefer this style of writing?

Research is useless unless it’s lived, so not only do I do the research but then I see if it actually works within the messiness of life. In the midst of the economy collapsing, I tried to take the research we were doing in laboratories at places like Harvard and UPenn and see if it also applied for farmers in Zimbabwe or bankers in Zurich. The goal of that was twofold: First of all, we want to impress upon people that there is a science to this, and I think as soon as you have the science there, as long as it’s good science, it gets past the defenses of people who have intellectual barriers to making changes. But then you want to move quickly to the practical solutions so that people know how to implement it in their lives. I’ve read books about incredible research about how the human brain works and had no idea how to apply it in my life.

And we found that if you can provide humor and connect at an emotional level, people will remember information much longer. One of my favorite professors at Harvard was a man named Brian Little who was in the psychology department. He would tell these stories, and the stories would take forever, and I remember taking notes and I would be like, I don’t know what he could possibly ask on the exam, because it’s just long, humorous stories. But I can tell you those stories today, and I can tell you the psychological importance of them and the lesson that we were learning. So I think if it’s practical, if it’s emotional or humorous, and if it’s science-based, I think you’ve got the best chance of creating an educational revolution.