Lessons learned, Success stories, Understanding Depression

Lesson #4: Shawn Achor on how to train your brain to be happy

If I’ve learned anything over the past few years it’s that there is  no one way to fix depression. For Shawn Achor, positive psychology worked for him.

I first learned of Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage and founder of GoodThink Inc. at The Globe and Mail’s Executive Performance Summit in 2016. Achor was the keynote.

He was easy to spot in the crowd. In a room full of type A personalities, all  suited and taut, he was dressed business casual. He had a friendly air  and a hypnotic smile that he would cast on anyone within five feet of him. My immediate thought was that he was either on something or on to something.

Shawn Achor
Photo courtesy of GoodThink Inc.

Right off the top of his presentation, he asked the audience to turn to the person next to them and smile at them for sixty seconds. Everyone shifted in their seats reluctantly, clearly somewhat horrified at having to do this, but equally determined to succeed.

About twenty seconds in, the silent room started to get noticeably uncomfortable. Staring into someone’s eyes, a stranger’s or worse, a colleague’s, smiling, for twenty seconds is a really weird thing to do. At thirty seconds, hearing they were only halfway there, a few people started snickering. When we hit the one-minute mark, the room erupted with relief. People were laughing and chatty. They looked happy and satisfied,  proud of what they’d just accomplished.

And that was his point. That was all it took to reset the dynamics of an entire room. No money. No spreadsheets. Just sixty seconds of smiling to make two hundred people, individually and collectively, feel good, happy and optimistic. It wasn’t even 9am and already the day was looking up.

After witnessing this, I bought my daughter a copy of Achor’s new book that was available for sale at the event. The Orange Frog, is a  parable about positive leadership. Like Spark, the hero of the story, we had just learned that by breaking the small, unwritten social scripts we follow every day without thinking, we can produce positive change in ourselves and in others. It might make us stand out, like an orange frog, but the discomfort would be worth it.

I’d like to say this little book changed her life. That she made small shifts and the storm clouds lifted, but it didn’t. I don’t think she’s even read it, though I did find it on her bedside table one day about a year later.

Even still, it’s out there. As a parent of a teenager with depression, I have to  follow her lead in her treatment, as much as it hurts me to stand by and watch what’s not working. And until she’s ready to try something new, I keep things like the orange frog and positive psychology in my back pocket.

Shawn Achor’s 5 Steps to a Happier Brain

According to Shawn Achor, there are five simple steps anyone can do do to train their brain to be happier. Do these things every day for just twenty-one days, and you start to rewire your brain. The effects of your actions start to spiral outward into other parts of your life and into the people around you, creating a compounding effect.

Step 1: Keep a gratitude journal

My son and I did this while on holiday one summer. We drove across the eastern half of Canada, to Prince Edward Island, where my husband later joined us for a week at a beach house. Every night we wrote down our top three favourite parts of the day. The trick is that you can’t repeat things, which was hard at first with our routine of going to the beach and eating lobster rolls every day. The exercise forces you to take note of the little things. The morning run where we didn’t feel like we were dying, the lobster roll with just the right amount of mayonnaise, the colour of a red horse in a green field at sunset. Inside your head, however, you’re training your brain to look for good things. Special moments that make you marvel , even if just for a second. Over time, they become easier to spot. They start to stand out like a familiar face in a crowd of strangers.

Step 2: Journal one good thing every day

Maybe you steal from your day’s top three, or maybe it didn’t make the list because you had already used it, but find one good thing to write about. It could be large or small. The shower temperature when the water hit your skin first thing in the morning. The fact that you didn’t miss the bus. The presentation you rocked. Retell this good thing that happened with as much detail as possible. By writing it down, you force your brain to recognize the moment as meaningful. That this good thing, however small, is important.

Step 3: 15 minutes of cardio activity a day

According to Sean, while  15 minutes of cardio may not be enough to drastically improve our physical health (it won’t hurt), it’s enough to teach your brain to recognize that your behaviour matters. That by moving your body, you can make yourself feel better even for a short time. There is hope and while it may be just a sliver of optimism, if you do it consistently, you’ll start to do other positive things like exercise for longer.

Step 4: Breathe deeply for two minutes a day

Once a day, take a moment to do nothing else but watch your breath move in and out. The goal is to have your brain focus on one thing and one thing only. When you do that, you create a new pattern in your brain. A single-minded, stress-free pathway through your tangled, messy thoughts. Over time, you get to know this path. Where it is in your brain and how to find it and go to it when you need it.

Step 5: Practice random acts of kindness

Shawn recommends you send people notes or emails or texts that say something kind to them or about them. They should be short, no more than a few lines taking no longer than two minutes to write. Nothing onerous. But they should be daily until the habit is formed. The idea is that happiness can multiply. That by acknowledging the good in others, you remind yourself there is good in the world.  And then it grows. You’ve effected change in someone else. Made them feel good, recognized and appreciated.

Five steps. Twenty-one days. It’s worth a try.




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