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C'mon Get Happy!

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C'mon Get Happy!

C'mon Get Happy!

When I spoke at The UP Experience in Houston in early February, several Houstonians asked the same question my friends from my hometown of Waco ask: “Why do you study happiness at Harvard? What do Harvard students possibly have to be unhappy about?”

I find this to be a funny question because I often feel the reverse; my heart soars every time I put my foot back on Texas soil.

However, I have lived, researched, and taught at Harvard for 11 years now, and still find it to be a magical place. But magic does not preclude suffering. A campus poll revealed that 80 percent of undergraduates experience work-debilitating depression at least once during their four years.

However, Harvard is merely a window into a larger societal problem—the national depression rate is 10 times higher today than it was during the Great Depression.  Researchers call it the Progress Paradox: despite steady increases in our income level and purchasing power, despite the advances in medicine and computers, despite even Tivo and the iPod, we are increasingly unhappy. Why?

Positive psychology is a new branch in academia attempting to answer this question. More than just the study of happiness, positive psychology is the study of positive human potential. Traditional psychology seeks to discover trends or averages. If you are below the average, counseling and medication can be applied to get you back to “normal.”

But what lies above normal? Who are the happiest people, the most energetic, the most compassionate, the most resilient? I believe that if we only study the average, we will remain average. If we want to see what we are truly capable of, we should study those who lie above the curve. In statistics, students are taught to delete data that does not fit the general pattern. What happens when one of these outliers is not a statistical error, but rather a Michael Jordan, a Mother Teresa, or a Martin Luther King, Jr.? Instead of ignoring the positive outliers, positive psychology seeks to learn from them.

New research from this emerging field reveals that our society has become less happy because we have been putting the cart before the horse. We are taught that once we succeed, happiness will follow. But in fact, it actually works the other way around—happiness fuels success. Children primed to be happy before completing block tasks perform significantly than their neutral peers. Doctors put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis show three times the intelligence and creativity of doctors in a neutral mood, and they make accurate diagnoses twice as fast.

It turns out that our brains are literally hard-wired to perform at their best when we’re happy. Happiness is thus the precursor to success, not merely the result. Think about how much that changes the way you work or ask others to do tasks at work and at home.

Thankfully, this revolutionary finding benefits more than just naturally positive people. Genes may give some an advantage, but scientists have discovered that our brains are capable of significant positive change. Because of the brain’s “neuroplasticity,” conscious actions we make today can actually change our brain and affect the way we act in the future. For instance, thinking of five things you are grateful for each morning will retrain your brain to notice the good parts of your day, stealing resources from the part of your brain scanning for stresses and hassles.

Better still, these individual changes ripple outward. When doctors are positive, patients report 160 percent higher satisfaction with care. When CEOs are positive, their employees are happier and their productivity increases by 38 percent. We all have “mirror neurons” in our brain that light up when we see the positive behavior of others—that’s why smiles are contagious, and that’s why positive changes we make in our own lives easily ripple from one person to another.  We are thus also hard-wired for empathy in our society.

Positive psychology has already unlocked enough insights to spark a minor revolution in our schools, workplaces, and homes, yet the more I learn, the more shocked I am at the gap between academia and the everyday world. It is as if scientists have landed on Mars and are so excited about exploring it that they forgot to tell everyone. This research means nothing if we don’t find ways to spread the information. If small changes can make us happier and more successful, and those changes ripple, the growth is exponential and can tip a society towards greater thriving. After the exciting UP Experience, I believe Houston will be one of the most important hotbeds of this revolution.

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