In 1935, U.S. biologist Hugh Smith found himself lost deep in the Southeast Asian jungle, floating down a river in pitch darkness. As he progressed farther in his canoe, he saw what appeared to be lightning strike one of the mangrove trees on the banks of the river. And then, to his astonishment, it struck the same tree again, and many more trees around it, one by one.
What Smith saw that day turned out to not be lightning strikes, but rather a biological phenomena called synchrony, wherein the lightning bugs that were sitting on those mangrove trees all lit up in perfect unison. And this discovery turned existing research on these insects upside down.
Back then, it was commonly understood among scientists that lightning bugs used their light to attract a mate — and that they did it alone to beat out the competition. Bugs who lit up individually were recorded as having reproductive success at a rate of 3%. Survival of the fittest.
However, when more research was done by Smith and others on synchrony, it was found that the species increased their individual reproductive success by up to 80% when they lit up together.
Breaking with a Darwinist mindset
Shawn believes that “survival of the fittest” is a broken and backwards system when applied to human success and happiness. He has found that when people work together better, every metric of potential rises for everyone involved.
Much of the need for Shawn’s research comes from the age-old notion that happiness comes from individual success. But this is just not true. In a study Shawn conducted with Harvard students, the only factor that contributed to their overall sense of happiness was their connection to other people. Regardless of how smart and successful they were, he found that the more isolated they became in the pursuit of success, the more unhappy they felt, too.
This human connection plays out with real results in business as well. Salespeople with a high degree of optimism sell up to 90% more than their counterparts. And, in a study Shawn conducted at a US hospital, he found that if the nursing and physician staff simply greeted patients on a regular basis, patient reviews of that hospital skyrocketed, and so did caregiver feelings of contentedness at work.
Emotions are contagious
Happiness in your place of work is important because your emotions are contagious. You know how whenever someone smiles at you, you naturally smile back? That is because our brains are wired to mirror that behavior when we see it in others.
On the other side, negativity is also highly contagious. According to a study done at a US airport, if someone stands near a group of others waiting to board a flight and starts nervously tapping a foot, or stressfully checking their watch, others in that same group will start to fuss and fidget as well, often without even realizing it.
This isn’t to say that we must avoid negative emotions at all costs — they will always be a part of the human experience. But what this research does show us is that human beings are affected by the emotional environment they live in. That is why teams that develop healthy and connected ways of working together are so much more productive.
The good news is that humans can also disrupt negative neural pathways in order to make way for good ones. Sure, an individual may have more negative tendencies, but Shawn’s research has found that when people are able to interrupt feelings of negativity with other inputs, they actually become happier and feel more successful. Shawn shared with us two easy ways to get started boosting happiness.
Research-backed happiness boosters
- Think of three different things to be grateful for each day. According to Shawn’s research, if people are able to express three different things they are grateful for every day for 21 days, they can completely change their outlook on life. In many cases, people moved from scoring as a pessimist to an optimist when tested before and after the exercise.
- Every day, write a note of praise or admiration for someone in your life. Similarly, his research has shown that, over the course of 21 days, if someone can take two minutes to write out a text or an email to someone in their life each day, they increase feelings of social connection, which is a predictor of increased health and increased lifespan. And who wouldn’t want that?
This article was written from a keynote talk that Shawn Achor gave at Atlassian Summit 2019 in Las Vegas. To follow along at Summit, tune into the livestream. To learn more about Shawn, visit his website to watch videos and get a copy of his book, Big Potential.