Harvard Teacher of Positive Psychology Says Happiness Affects Productivity

Shawn Achor, Head Teaching Fellow for Harvard’s popular Positive Psychology course, presented recent findings about the psychology behind happiness during this week’s All-School Meeting. Achor introduced his presentation with a humorous anecdote about an incident with his sister when he was seven years old. His parents had opted for a “long winter’s nap” and he was charged with caring for his five-year-old sister. They were playing on the upper bunk when his sister fell off and landed on all fours. As she prepared to wail, he quickly told her she could not be mortal and that she must be a unicorn. In awe, she quieted. His sister had been fascinated with unicorns – a fascination that saved him from a “disaster” with his parents. Throughout his presentation, Achor stressed the importance of happiness in different aspects of life. According to Achor, approximately 80 percent of Harvard students experienced work-debilitating depression, a trend, he said, that most likely existed in many academic institutions, such as Phillips Academy. He went to say that, contrary to popular belief, students’ GPA does not correlate to their level of happiness. Achor added that the average number of romantic relationships in which Harvard students became involved was between zero and one, even after four years. This, according to Achor, indicated that the students were not creating necessary social networks and other intimate relationships. He said that such relationships were important sources of happiness and acted as buffers against debilitating conditions such as depression. According to Achor, happiness largely corresponds to a person’s productivity. In a study done on four-year-old children, Achor said, the group primed to be happy completed their block-building task 50 percent faster than the neutral control group. Achor said that such results also apply to doctors and the speed and creativity with which they can diagnose a certain condition – the happier the doctor, the faster and more creative the process. “[We] are not teaching ourselves to be happy,” Achor said. “[People who are not happy] are at a disadvantage going out into the world [to those who are happy].” Despite his humorous tone, Achor revealed a disheartening fact – since the Great Depression, depression rates have increased 10-fold. “We’re not recognizing how important happiness is…We think of happiness as a luxury,” he said. “[But] happiness is the precursor to success and productivity.” Achor said, “Happiness is actually a skill that is trained.” He went on to list the many ways people could train themselves to be happier. Listing three gratitudes –three things to be grateful for – can enhance a person’s happiness for the next 24 hours, he said. This activity not only trains the brain to find gratitudes and reasons to be happy, but it distracts the brain from focusing on negative aspects of a person’s life. Journaling positive experiences can also contribute to increased happiness levels. According to Achor, journaling can reduce stress and depression levels by 50 percent. Achor also found that meditation, sleep and exercise can all significantly increase a person’s happiness. Watching oneself breathe through meditation can reduce stress levels, he said. Less sleep results in less productivity and decreased happiness levels. He described the state of happiness as a choice between the path that leads to excess stress and one that leads to building a more positive identity. Achor encouraged everyone to smile, calling a smile the “most contagious expression” of all human expressions, and thus spread happiness and its numerous positive effects. Achor graduated from Harvard College after receiving his B.A. in English. He continued his study at Harvard Divinity School where he earned his Masters in Christian and Buddhist Ethics. Besides teaching Positive Psychology, Achor has also taught courses in Psychology of Leadership, Personality Psychology and Business, and Human Sexuality at Harvard. He won 14 Committee of Undergraduate Education (CUE) teaching awards at Harvard University for his contributions.