In his talk, Achor said, 90% of someone's long term happiness isn't based on what's going on in their external world, it's based on how your brain processes the world. So by changing how we process the world we can change how happy we really feel.
He goes on to explain that schooling, university, work, everything in terms of motivation and happiness really is based on the following assumption: 'If I work harder, I'll be more successful. And if I'm more successful, then I'll be happier.' (Achor, 2011)
The problem with this is every time you get success you just move the goalposts to strive further so you're never quite happy. I got mostly A* and A and a couple of Bs at my GCSE exams, many moons ago, and rather than focussing on the great grades all I could think about was the two Bs I got and how they were letting me down. If you are successful to get into a good school / university once you're there you want to get into a better one. You hit your sales target, well, we're going to change it to a better one. If happiness is the other side of the horizon for success, this thing we always strive for but can never meet. Just like when you run towards the horizon you never actually meet it. This means happiness is now an unattainable state for most people.
Same with my writing: in 2013 I wrote about 200,000 words, all in, which I don't think is that bad considering I have a day job and had caring responsibilities for Great Auntie. So what did I do? I set myself a higher target for 2014 to write more words to strive further. I met that target of about 500,000 words, and that made me happy, briefly. And then I thought, where do I go from here? So I wanted to set an even higher target for 2015. I realised although I'm no longer looking after Great Auntie, I still have a day job and I am now studying at college too, so trying for more than 500,000 words is not realistic. So I've set a lower target for myself for 2015. Remember, all this is just me setting myself these targets, no one's asking me to write these words, no one's sitting at the sidelines cracking a whip asking for my next story.
And here's the sad thing – because the 2015 target is less than 2014 I've felt sad as I'm not working as hard, I won't be as good, so therefore I'm not as happy. See the assumption in paragraph 2.
And here's another thing – no matter how much I write, I enjoy it. I love it. Even if I just write things for myself with no intention of publication, I still enjoy it. It. Makes. Me. Happy. But at the back of my mind there's been this gnawing feeling that because I'm not striving to beat my 2014 target I'm not as productive, and that makes me less happy, it takes away from the happiness I get from the joy of just writing/plotting/editing/whatever.
Sad isn't it?
All of this because as a society we think we must be successful, then we'll be happy.
But here's the thing – Shawn explains that our brains work in the opposite way. By making ourselves happier in the present moment (so we're not always running towards the horizon we never quite reach) then your brain gets 'a happiness advantage' which means: 'Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise... Your brain at positive is 31% more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed. You're 37% better at sales. Doctors are 19 percent faster, more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis when positive instead of negative, neutral or stressed.' (Achor 2011)
So by being more happy in the present it turns our brain's dopamine on which makes us work harder faster and more intelligently. Isn't that amazing?
So how can you make your brain experience the world through a more positive lens which will make you happier? Achor says there are 5 ways and I've added my thoughts next to each:
- Writing down 3 things you're grateful for each day for 21 days in a row. This trains your brain to scan the world for positive not negative things. I've started doing this in my daily diary/journal, it's a great way of finding the positive in what may have seemed a really negative day. It's like the #100happydays some people do on social media. I know one author who's doing #365happydays and her posts about this are wonderful.
- Journalling about one positive experience you've had for the last 24 hours means your brain relives that positive experience. Among the negative things I journal about I try to focus on one nice experience during that day – a nice walk in the sun, a fun conversation with a stranger, or a friend, enjoying a new song I've discovered, anything really. Usually when I write about it in my journal/diary I find myself smiling as I am reliving it.
- Doing exercise. This, for me, has been harder. I don't enjoy sport – I am terrible at them too, except skiing, and unfortunately that's not something I can fit into a daily routine. So I've really embraced walking. I have 4-5 45min to 1hour walks ever week, regardless of the weather. It has improved my mental health no end. Just taking a break from laptop time and getting out in the real world is wonderful.
- Meditation – helps move away from the multi-tasking we are encouraged to do nowadays and focus on one task. I'm not a great meditator. I've tried it and I find it very hard. What I do instead is have a weekly / daily task list and focus each day on completing some of the tasks, not trying to achieve 34 things in part, but trying to tick off 3-4 full tasks each day instead.
- Random acts of kindness – since losing Great Auntie, I have noticed a real hole in my life related to this. But I remember someone once told me you leave a trace of yourself after you've been somewhere, whether you want to or not. So when I'm talking to checkout staff, helping lost tourists in the street, letting someone go in front of me at the shop as they only have 2 items, or even driving I try to be kind and considerate and helpful. I'm not perfect, I sometimes want to scream and shout, but remembering I'm trying to be kind helps in those situations.
- 252,000 fiction words
- 66,000 other words (blogs, guest blogs etc which are posted online)
- 35,000 other words (RNA New Writers Scheme reports, beta reading, marketing consultancy work).
- Total of 355,000 words
Until then, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this happiness / productivity concept in the comments section.
Liam Livings xx