Happiness has become more than a concept or a goal: It's an industry. That means there are tons of sources telling us different things about how to be happy, all the time. But having a culture saturated with the pursuit of happiness has a bright side, too: For the first time, there's interest and money to facilitate the testing of popular theories and conventional wisdom with science.
Believing that kindness or gratitude or laughter makes you happier no longer requires blind faith or total confidence in your instincts (although those things can come in handy). Now, disciplines like positive psychology are devoted to asking and answering these questions. One of the people leading that charge is Oprah-endorsed NYT best-seller, Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness.
When you have a chance to pick the brain of the guy who gives Oprah advice on happiness, you say "YES" in every language you can think of, and maybe a couple that don't exist. So, I spent 15 minutes talking to Shawn about the impact of faith on happiness, whether or not happiness is actually a choice, and what makes Oprah Winfrey so utterly captivating. Here are a few of the most meaningful takeaways from our conversation.
1. Struggling really does breed revelation.
“I went through two years of depression at Harvard, and [during that time] I realized that the opposite of happiness isn’t unhappiness. It’s the loss of joy in moving toward that potential. It’s apathy. That realization made me want to explore whether or not a [desire] for happiness can be cultivated.”
2. At the deepest level, happiness is a matter of choice.
“At Harvard, I saw all these intelligent students with great things happening for them who were still struggling to create happiness. So, when I left, I went to fifty different countries to find out what actually makes people happy. It turns out it’s your mindset and your habits. By creating small, positive habit changes in our lives (exercise, meditation, practicing gratitude), we can trump our genes and our environment and raise our levels of happiness.”
3. Happiness is an advantage in every area of life.
"When we stop waiting for happiness to happen, and cultivate it in the present, every outcome improves. We're 31 percent more productive and 39 percent more likely to live to 94. [There are] just massive positive benefits to being happier."
4. Faith matters.
"There’s a very high correlation between spiritual/religious beliefs and happiness. Some of the reasons for that are that you have greater social connections, you’re practicing gratitude via prayer, meditation, you’re doing random acts of kindness, and you have a narrative of meaning running through your life. It’s not [a series of] random occurrences; there’s meaning embedded in every experience."
"I came from the divinity school at Harvard, studying Christian and Buddhist ethics. So, I know that the relationship between your beliefs and your happiness depends on what those beliefs are. If your beliefs make you feel guilty or tell you that your behavior doesn’t matter, it decreases your level of happiness. But if you believe you’re part of creating a positive change within this world, that your behavior matters, and that you love other people because you feel loved or because you feel like you’re part of this tapestry of meaning, it will dramatically increase your happiness.”
5. You can actually “catch” happiness.
“Negative people are usually more expressive, both verbally and non-verbally, [than their positive counterparts]. If you get an optimistic person to become more expressive, that attitude becomes more contagious than the negative. We’re told you can’t change other people, but that’s absolutely not true. If you become expressive of optimism, gratitude, and joy in your own life, [you will inevitably] turn other people toward the belief that happiness is possible.”
6. Cultivating true, lasting happiness is easier than we think. (Here are three ways Shawn did it.)
"One thing that pulled me out of depression was spending two minutes a day writing down every detail I could remember about a positive experience that had occurred within the past 24 hours. Your brain can’t tell the difference between visualization and experience. It connects the dots for you, and you start to feel so much more meaning in your life. It’s [meaning that was] already there, your brain just wasn’t aware of it.”
"Another [great practice] is to write down three new things you’re grateful for every day. It trains your brain to be more optimistic. And, it’s true: 15 minutes of cardio a day is the equivalent of taking an antidepressant.”
7. Oprah is everything you dreamed she’d be — and more.
"Oprah, despite all of her wealth and success, is a lifelong scholar. She’s hungry to find ways to help herself and help other people. And she’s honest. We were only going to have a one hour conversation, they were shutting down the cameras, and I told her, 'It’s so easy for people to think that a happiness researcher is happy. It’s probably really easy for people to [assume] that you are happy.' Then she told me she went through a period of depression when Beloved didn’t do as well as she wanted it to. And that was one of the heights of her career. She turned back on the cameras — I thought for 30 seconds — and it turned out to be for an entire hour. We ended up having a much deeper conversation about how to restart happiness when you feel like it isn’t possible.”
8. Oprah's been (shocker!) right all along.
“The research we’ve been doing validates what she’s been doing for decades. Showing people that their behavior really does matter and encouraging them to make positive changes is one of the most powerful things we can do to create a better society.
"She’s encouraged people to read, she’s encouraged people to have spiritual conversations. She created this network [OWN] so she could DO Super Soul Sundays — so she could have in-depth conversations instead of just quick sound bytes. She’s just amazing. I left an even bigger fan than I was before, because of her depth of understanding, and her hunger for knowledge."
Shawn Achor and Buick have created a special motivational podcast for Buick's '24-Hours of Happiness Test Drive" content series.
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