How To Be Happy

Here are my notes on a talk that I attended this weekend at Harvard Law.

The talk, entitled Positive Psychology: The Science of Positive Potential, was given by Shawn Achor, an expert on “Happiness”…sounds like a pretty sweet job to me.

The basic idea is that we can impact our own happiness with a few mental tricks. This newfound happiness should help our health, well being, how attractive people think we are, and pretty much every aspect of our lives.

Positive Psychology: The Science of Positive Potential.

He first got interested in happiness when he told his sister that she was a unicorn…and it worked to cheer her up.

Dogs and Learned Helplessness

  • Authors gave a shock to dogs thinking that rewards and punishments will predict behavior.
  • However, after the training, 2/3rds of dogs just sit there when shocked.
  • They accidentally taught the dogs helplessness…behavior has no effect on negative consequences.
  • People do the same thing: why put effort in if nothing will change?
  • However, we should notice 1/3rd of dogs kept jumping. They were animal optimists.
  • Optimism can be *learned* just like other stuff. We can shape our lens.

Importance of A Positive Lens

  • Happiness makes is more intelligent, better perception of success, career opportunities, attractiveness, etc.
  • Harvard Undergrads are sad: They have less than 1 romantic relationship and less than 0.5 sexual partners…24 percent don’t even know if they are in one.
  • Lawyers are more alcoholic, fat, and likely do drugs. 53 percent are clinically depressed.
  • At Harvard Law: Upon entering – no depression. Months later up to half.
    Symptoms: start none…pessimism seeps in within 2 months.
  • As students we should change the dialogue – don’t talk about stressful stuff all the time. Instead talk about making positive changes in our life.
  • We have a negativity bias. We look at the stressful view of the world.
  • Data shows that happy students are not determined by grades and performance. GPA does not correlate with happiness.
  • It is the lens through which we see these evaluations.

Why are you smiling?

  • People have a positive lens have greater endurance and more success.

Why so serious?

Negativity bias.

  • Brain causes a natural reaction, chemicals released.
  • We process fear at a high level. News highlights this – always a crisis. No one wants to hear good news.
  • Relationships. A famous observer could predict up to 90 percent accuracy whether the relationship would succeed after 5 minutes of watching – based on the positive or negative vibe
  • We need 5 positive things to weigh out every 1 negative things.
  • We start to bring in a number of negative things to reinforce negative thinking.
  • No matter what, we have a deluded view of the world – either too positive or too negative.

Happiness is relative.

  • Delayed planes, sometimes over-stare at bad stuff…but all other flights got cancelled.
  • You could have Paranoia – fear of everyone conspiring against you or Pronoia + world is conspiring in your favor. The key is comparison point.
  • We need an anchor point to determine our current state.
  • Counterfactual of dying makes shot in arm good.
  • Is positive psychology lying to yourself? You *pick* your counterfact.
  • But what is reality? We can choose what to see. Like in the beginning of the movie Love Actually…people in the airport could be seen as rushing around, or as smiling and making connections.

Affective forecasting.

  • We predict how happy we will be.
  • If I just get X done, *then* I will be happy.
  • We are terrible at predicting our future happiness.

Emotional immune system.

  • We should strengthen this as well.
  • What are you *doing* about it?
  • Our immune system moves us back to our baseline of happiness
  • Having some stress and failure is good. Like an innoculation.
  • Why will stress make me better? It will build me up for the future.
  • When you step on campus, you feel the stress. We pick up on non-verbals all the time
  • When you look at someone smiling. You can’t help smiling.

The Soprano Effect.

  • Mirror neurons…we react when dude gets hit hard in a football game on T.V.; same thing when u see needles on tv.
  • Our brains are dumb – put a pen into your mouth – it will make you happier.
  • Being happy and positive makes u more attractive and trustworthy.

2 parts of nervous system: Sympathetic and parasympathetic.

  • Sympathetic – adrenaline rush – super-human for a moment. We want it all the time.
  • But these rushes are catabolic – very hard on your body.
  • Parasympathetic – calms you down
  • Activated when you are happy
  • We are addicted to sympathetic.

Tony Soprano.

  • He is forced to break down. Having panic attacks. Chronically activating sympathetic nervous system.
  • We do this to ourselves: I have way too much to do, I’m way to stressed and busy, etc.
  • Our challenges become a threat.
  • Challenge: we think we have resources, our breath is deep, our bloodflow is better, etc.
  • Threat: we don’t, the opposite happens.

What Should WE Do to be Happy?

  • Smile and laugh
  • Exercise
  • Stop playing broken record of job stuff, etc
  • Self-control/self-discipline is a muscle.
  • If we keep saying: I’m so stressed, I’m so tired, etc – it impacts us.
  • Our self-discipline is a muscle. We only have so much effort to expend. You need to rest this muscle as well.
  • Have variation. Write in a journal 5 minutes a day. Write down 3 things you are grateful for.

Training your brain

  • Change the way you *talk* about it.
  • Talk about the positive things.
  • Tiger Woods: I think about the times when I got through it. Focused on the positive.
  • Consciously talk about the positive stuff all the time
  • Give up complaining for 7 days straight.
  • Introduce positive counterfact.
  • If someone taps their foot and looks at watch other people will.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  1. Re-craft our conversations to focus on positive
  2. Rest, do other stuff
  3. Pick positive counterfactuals (ie worse options)
  4. Behavior for 30 days: Write down in journal for 5 minutes a day; Do 5 random acts of kindness, Write down 3 things you have to be thankful for every night

Dealing With Really Bad News

  • The Stockdale Paradox: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
  • Admiral Stockdale, an American hero, discussed here: (James Stockdale)
  • The Key: Have a realistic assessment of reality with an optimistic outlook for the future.

Q&A:
Religion.

  • If you view it as completely external, could be bad. But if it is internal, it can create power/happiness.
  • People with a high internal locus (it was my fault). Have more likelihood for success.

Gratitude.

  • Our brains are scanning the environment all the time.
  • Gratitude brings your attention to the things you appreciate.

Is it lying to yourself?

  • Totally negative or totally positive are equally as pessimistic.
  • Positive people are better in almost every way. Its not what you do. It is your lens.

You can learn optimism.

3 thoughts on “How To Be Happy

  1. Angie

    I feel like I’ve been a little too pessimistic of late. You’ve inspired me to try those daily exercises. I agree that keeping the negative side at bay, and having a more positive outlook on things truly makes a huge difference and improves many aspects of one’s life. Sounds like it was a cool lecture.

    Reply
  2. stephdub

    have you read stumbling on happiness (daniel gilbert)? it’s been out a while, and is probably geared toward a less academic audience as the talk you attended, but gives a great perspective. i think you’d enjoy.
    i <3 your positive intent and writing

    Reply
  3. Dave Post author

    Funny you mention Gilbert. He is Achor’s mentor I think. I appreciate the recommendation…I vaguely remember seeing that book at a bookstore in Santa Monica this summer. I will add it to the top of the queue.

    Reply

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