Psychologist Shawn Achor is an expert on positive psychology, which he defines as "a movement in social psychology aimed at examining what works in a person's life, not what's broken." Achor, the bestselling author of The Happiness Advantage, was trained at Harvard and is the founder of GoodThink Inc., which helps him share his research. Positive psychology, he says, "doesn't look at depression, but rather, what causes people to feel happier and what helps them find meaning in their life." One of the more intriguing concepts he talks about is the "Fun Fifteen" - how specific activities for just a few minutes a day could make us feel better. I asked him to explain more about this concept and positive psychology at midlife.
What is the research behind the Fun Fifteen? Can you tell me something about the studies that support this concept?
For the Fun Fifteen we took 30 people that were depressed and had half of them take antidepressants to better manage their emotions, and then had the other half of the group work on retraining their brains to be optimistic for 15 minutes each day by engaging in a fun, mindful activity. The Fun Fifteen teaches your brain to believe that your behavior matters, which is the core of optimism. After six months, we found that there was an equal drop in depression amongst both groups of people, which means that practicing the Fun Fifteen had the same effect as taking antidepressants. We also found that the group that practiced the Fun Fifteen had a 30 percent less relapse over the next two years.
You say that the core of optimism is the belief that your behavior matters. Can you really retrain your brain to be optimistic in 15 minutes a day? Does this work for everyone? What about people who may be suffering from a mood disorder like depression?
Yes, you can actually train your brain to be optimistic in less than two minutes a day. By writing down three things you are grateful for each day, you can rewire your brain to think optimistically. This is an exciting discovery because it proves that you can change; humans are not controlled solely by our genes, nor by the external world. Scientifically, happiness is a choice. These habits even apply to people who may be suffering from a mood disorder like depression. In fact, I got into the field of positive psychology after going through two years of depression myself; the reason I love studying this is because I know it works. All of the habits mentioned in the Happiness Advantage were tested on people with depression.
What specific activities work best? Can you give a couple of examples?
We found that practicing meditation for just two minutes a day, watching your breath go in and out, can retrain your brain to be more present and to feel lower levels of stress. My personal favorite study we conducted though was the exercise in which we had participants write a positive email praising or thanking one person in their social support network, a family member or friend for example, for two minutes each day. Twenty-one days later, we found that they had significantly increased their social support, which based upon research, is the greatest predictor of long term happiness. Everyone can rewire their brains in midst of their busy lives in order to limit stress. Studies from Harvard actually show that there is a correlation between happiness and social connection, found to be 0.7. This is significantly higher than the correlation between smoking and cancer. Social connection is as predictive of your longevity as high blood pressure, obesity and smoking.
What else can you do to become a more optimistic person? I am interested in activities whose effectiveness is supported by research.
Something as simple as smiling can transform your reality. Through a study involving a group of hospitals, a place where you typically think about sickness rather than happiness and health, 11,000 employees were trained to smile and make eye contact when they walked within ten feet of people in the hospital. When within five feet, they were trained to say hello. Within six months it was found amongst the hospitals that patient satisfaction significantly increased, the likelihood to for patients to refer the hospital to others increased, and that doctors' job satisfaction increased as well.
What are you working on now?
I am most excited about a joint program I am working on developed by the National MS Society and Genzyme called Everyday Matters. Through this program we're going on a journey with five people as they learn to put positive psychology into practice in their everyday lives, learning simple techniques for reducing stress, achieving personal goals and reaching their fullest potential. I'm excited because Everyday Matters can show everyone, not just those affected by MS, that happiness is a choice, and that there are simple, practical things we can do to improve our lives each day, just as I mention in my book, The Happiness Advantage.