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Practicing happiness, working together

In his closing general session at the 2023 ASCD Annual Conference, author and researcher Shawn Achor talks about his work studying happiness and says we may be looking at things backward when we believe attaining certain levels of success will make us happy.

6 min read


Shawn Achor

Katharine Haber

What can unicorns, Tetris and tax auditors teach us about happiness? A lot, according to Shawn Achor, author of “The Happiness Advantage” and “Big Potential,” and the closing general session speaker at the 2023 ASCD Annual Conference in Denver. Achor shared many anecdotes – including one about the time he kept his younger sister from crying after a fall from a bunk bed by convincing her she might be a unicorn – in describing research from his work studying happiness, all to demonstrate that we may be looking at things backward when we believe attaining certain levels of success will make us happy.

Cognitive afterimage

Our brains are only capable of processing a small amount of the information that comes our way, and what we attend to first is what becomes our reality, Achor said. Because we can’t change our genes or our environment – which make up the lens through which we view the world – a kind of “learned helplessness”  can result, he adds. “But system change occurs because of individual change,” he said.

Achor described how playing a video game like Tetris can ingrain in us a “cognitive afterimage” or pattern in which our thinking becomes fixed. “The same thing is true with how you process the world,” he said, sharing the example of the tax auditors, who tried to improve their happiness by taking a strategy that had led to success in the workplace – finding mistakes – and applying it to their personal relationships, with much less success. “What happens in those moments is we get stuck in a cognitive afterimage that stops us from being more adaptive in the world that we’re actually living in.” 

Too much of a good thing?

Achor told a story about a harrowing ride in a sports car with an executive who sped across lanes of traffic without a seat belt as an example of what the executive saw as a form of optimism. “That’s irrational optimism,” Achor said. “Irrational optimists sugarcoat the present and make terrible decisions for the future,” he noted. 

The ripple effect: Smiling is contagious – and so are stress and anxiety

Achor had attendees turn to each other and smile, challenging the person sitting next to them to resist smiling back, to illustrate how smiles can spread. However, research shows that negativity, stress, anxiety and pessimism can be contagious as well, Achor shared. And turning away from individuals expressing these views decreases their social connections. “If someone is currently negative, they’re currently suffering,” he said. “And you take someone who’s suffering and you isolate them, you exacerbate the problem.” This in turn has a ripple effect that can extend out into the environment around them, he noted. 

Mindset shifts

Typically, we expect that when we reach a certain goal, we will be happy, but instead we often just move the goal post, Achor said. “We keep thinking,  ‘I will feel happy when I have this success,’ but then it doesn’t happen, so it’s the next success, and happiness keeps getting put off to the future,” he said.

Instead, Achor pointed to research that shows that having a positive mindset can correlate with success. “What we’re finding is that if we flip the formula around, in the midst of a world that does not look like it should, . . . if you’re able to raise levels of gratitude, optimism, social connection or perceived meaning in the work you’re doing, your success rates within that environment rise dramatically. That’s the happiness advantage, which means that happiness is not the end …  happiness is the means.”

What this looks like in schools

Achor described bringing positive psychology interventions to an under-resourced school district in Iowa, where the work was done with just administrators and teachers, but the results extended through to student test scores, literacy rates and enrollment gains. In another more affluent school district, positive psychology was taught to students who in turn taught it to parents. There, academic achievement rose, and student depression rates and disciplinary action declined, Achor said. “What we were finding was that it was actually possible when we feel like it might not be sometimes to change entire systems,” he said. 

Better together

The results are even more dramatic when people work together, Achor said. “When people pursued happiness and success with one another instead of alone it changed everything.” 

Achor shared research in his book, “Big Potential,” to illustrate this. In one study, a person looking at a hill to climb will visualize a steeper version of the hill when looking at it alone, compared to what is visualized when looking at it alongside others who will be climbing it with them. “So happiness is an incredible advantage, but you can’t do it alone. You have to do it with one another,” he explained.

Gratitude as a habit

Achor described an experiment where people were asked to write down three new things they were grateful for each day, without repeating any. This taught them over 21 days the habit of scanning for the positive things in their lives. 

“The value is, somewhere in the 21 days, your brain takes a shortcut and it builds a background out that passively scans your environment for the positive. So in the midst of the same challenging reality that has all these same problems, your brain processes the pinpricks of positivity that you might not have been aware of.” 

Achor shared that the research shows this exercise can change individuals’ outlook – transforming someone who scores as a baseline genetic pessimist into one who measures as a low- to moderate-level optimist. Similar results are also seen among children who experience this gratitude-scanning behavior modeled in others, Achor said. 

Practicing new behaviors

Adopting habits and behaviors that improve our mindset – like meditation, deep breathing or taking a brisk walk four or five times a week – and doing those things with others, can help protect us against stress and negativity, Achor says.

Achor also described an exercise in which people send a two-minute text or email message praising or thanking one person in their life. The senders then often receive positive responses and praise themselves, and social connections are made and reinforced. “Twenty-one days later, you have 21 people that light up on your mental map of social connection.”

Achor offered three conclusions drawn from this research that educators can apply to their lives, the first being that changing mindset and behavior can alter what has been put into place by genes and environment. Next, Achor reiterated that happiness is a competitive advantage that can help us adapt amid negativity and challenges. And finally, Achor said that the pursuit of happiness is most powerful when accomplished together. 

To illustrate the third takeaway, Achor shared his own struggles with depression, and described how confiding in those close to him proved to be a turning point. “That hill – overcoming depression – in front of me dropped by 20 to 30% … because now I’m not climbing that hill alone, I’m climbing it with other people.”

Katharine Haber is an editor for SmartBrief Education, covering trends and issues in K-20.