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. Positive psychology did it for Shawn Achor.
In a room full of type A personalities, all suited and taut, he was easy to spot in the crowd. 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.
The power of smiling
Right off the top of his presentation, he asked the audience to turn to the person next to them, look into their eyes and smile at them for sixty seconds.
While everyone obediently shifted in their seats, they were clearly horrified at having to do this. Staring into a stranger’s eyes, or worse, a colleague’s, smiling for even 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 like old friends. 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.
Shawn Achor’s 5 Steps to a Happier Brain
For a long time, people thought success fueled happiness, but according to Shawn, it’s the other way around: happiness fuels success. What’s more, he believes anyone can train their brain to be happier in 21 days with these five simple steps.
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 and spent a week at a beach house.
Every night we wrote down our top three favourite moments of the day. The one rule was that we couldn’t repeat things from one day to the next, which was hard at first given our daily routine consisted of little more than the beach and lobster rolls.
The exercise, we discovered, not only gave us insight into what moved each other emotionally (though I’m 100% sure he didn’t think this) — it forced us 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.
Plus, according to Shawn, the exercise was training our brains to look for good things. Special moments that made us marvel, even if just for a second. Over time, they became easier to spot. They started 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. Re-tell 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 Shawn, 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 behind this 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 made someone else feel good, recognized and appreciated, and they too, from that place of positivity may do the same.
Five steps, 21 days to start rewiring your brain. It’s worth a try.
Further Reading for self-care