Rethinking the formula for happiness and success

“It’s not the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality. And if we can change the lens, not only can we change your happiness, we can change every single educational and business outcome at the same time.”

I listened to a TED talk by Shawn Achor on my walk to Riverdale this morning, and his ideas have stuck with me throughout the day. In his talk, entitled The Happy Secret to Better Work, Shawn suggests that we should reverse the paradigm for happiness from “we work hard to become happy” to “we become happy in order to do work”. Shawn Achor is a positive psychologist, and I have to admit I’ve always found positive psychology to be a little new-agey, having come from a pretty science-oriented cognitive psych background. However, what he was saying made sense and really resonated with me on both my research-oriented and real-life levels of experience.

Shawn Achor is the CEO of Good Think Inc., and considered an expert on human potential. He began his talk by criticizing the way that social science disregards outliers in data – the “weirdos” – by removing them from analyses, in order to better represent the average. He finds this detrimental to bettering our society because if we only study what is average, we will remain average. By examining outliers, specifically those who are performing above average, we can find potential ways to bring the average up.

He then goes on to elaborate on the quote I began this post with- the need to change the lens with which we view the world in order to change our reality. This “rose-colored glasses” metaphor has been long-established, but Shawn explains that our society is currently set up backwards. Schools follow the formula that one should work harder to become more successful to become happier. This formula is broken because it eternally pushes happiness over the horizon, leaving people unsatisfied and discontent.

And, critically, it is important for people to be happy because happy people succeed in all definitions of the word. Only 25% of job success is predicted by intelligence. The other 75% is determined by factors such as optimism, social support, and seeing stress as a challenge.

Therefore, we want to focus on becoming positive in the present. Positive brains perform better on a multitude of outcomes. We need to reverse the formula by giving people the happiness advantage to succeed in schools. Shawn goes on to propose a few ways you can rewire your brain to be more positive, including many things I’ve heard before, such as three daily gratitudes, journaling, exercising, meditation, and performing random acts of kindness.

This TED talk relates to our work at rethinkED in a few ways. It fits perfectly into the paradigm of character education that Dominic Randolph has been championing at Riverdale; current research increasingly suggests that success is a lot more about aspects of one’s character and a lot less about academic test scores. This new conceptualization of what a “good” student is has important implications for the classroom and for teaching. From Shawn’s perspective, perhaps instilling positive thinking should be a priority for educators- giving our students the “happiness advantage” that he speaks of in his talk.

Additionally, we can apply this positive psychology logic not only to our students but to ourselves. I’m going to try to practice some of his suggested brain rewiring techniques this week, and to remind myself that successes won’t make me necessarily happier, but being happier will lead to greater successes.

Furthermore, Shawns talk presents an example of what it means to question the status quo, to reject an established formula and rethink how we relate happiness and success. Questioning what exists, seeking a better solution, and reconceptualizing a paradigm are fundamental pieces of design thinking for educators. If you have 12 minutes to spare, I’d suggest watching this inspirational (and rather hilarious) talk.

TEDxTalks on YouTube, published February 1, 2012

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