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  • When I was seven years old and my sister was just five years old,

  • we were playing on top of a bunk bed.

  • I was two years older than my sister at the time -

  • I mean, I'm two years older than her now -

  • but at the time it meant she had to do everything that I wanted to do,

  • and I wanted to play war.

  • So we were up on top of our bunk beds.

  • And on one side of the bunk bed,

  • I had put out all of my G.I. Joe soldiers and weaponry.

  • And on the other side were all my sister's My Little Ponies

  • ready for a cavalry charge.

  • There are differing accounts of what actually happened that afternoon,

  • but since my sister is not here with us today,

  • let me tell you the true story -

  • (Laughter)

  • which is my sister's a little on the clumsy side.

  • Somehow, without any help or push from her older brother at all,

  • Amy disappeared off of the top of the bunk bed

  • and landed with this crash on the floor.

  • I nervously peered over the side of the bed

  • to see what had befallen my fallen sister

  • and saw that she had landed painfully on her hands and knees

  • on all fours on the ground.

  • I was nervous because my parents had charged me

  • with making sure that my sister and I

  • played as safely and as quietly as possible.

  • And seeing as how I had accidentally broken Amy's arm

  • just one week before...

  • (Laughter)

  • (Laughter ends)

  • ...heroically pushing her out of the way of an oncoming imaginary sniper bullet,

  • (Laughter)

  • for which I have yet to be thanked, I was trying as hard as I could -

  • she didn't even see it coming -

  • I was trying hard to be on my best behavior.

  • And I saw my sister's face,

  • this wail of pain and suffering and surprise

  • threatening to erupt from her mouth and wake my parents

  • from the long winter's nap for which they had settled.

  • So I did the only thing

  • my frantic seven year-old brain could think to do to avert this tragedy.

  • And if you have children, you've seen this hundreds of times.

  • I said, "Amy, wait. Don't cry. Did you see how you landed?

  • No human lands on all fours like that.

  • Amy, I think this means you're a unicorn."

  • (Laughter)

  • Now, that was cheating,

  • because there was nothing she would want more

  • than not to be Amy the hurt five year-old little sister,

  • but Amy the special unicorn.

  • Of course, this option was open to her brain

  • at no point in the past.

  • And you could see how my poor, manipulated sister faced conflict,

  • as her little brain attempted to devote resources

  • to feeling the pain and suffering and surprise she just experienced,

  • or contemplating her new-found identity as a unicorn.

  • And the latter won.

  • Instead of crying or ceasing our play,

  • instead of waking my parents,

  • with all the negative consequences for me,

  • a smile spread across her face

  • and she scrambled back up onto the bunk bed

  • with all the grace of a baby unicorn...

  • (Laughter)

  • ...with one broken leg.

  • What we stumbled across

  • at this tender age of just five and seven -

  • we had no idea at the time -

  • was was going be at the vanguard of a scientific revolution

  • occurring two decades later in the way that we look at the human brain.

  • We had stumbled across something called positive psychology,

  • which is the reason I'm here today

  • and the reason that I wake up every morning.

  • When I started talking about this research

  • outside of academia, with companies and schools,

  • the first thing they said to never do is to start with a graph.

  • The first thing I want to do is start with a graph.

  • This graph looks boring,

  • but it is the reason I get excited and wake up every morning.

  • And this graph doesn't even mean anything; it's fake data.

  • What we found is -

  • (Laughter)

  • If I got this data studying you, I would be thrilled,

  • because there's a trend there,

  • and that means that I can get published,

  • which is all that really matters.

  • There is one weird red dot above the curve,

  • there's one weirdo in the room -

  • I know who you are, I saw you earlier -

  • that's no problem.

  • That's no problem, as most of you know, because I can just delete that dot.

  • I can delete that dot because that's clearly a measurement error.

  • And we know that's a measurement error because it's messing up my data.

  • (Laughter)

  • So one of the first things we teach people

  • in economics, statistics, business and psychology courses

  • is how, in a statistically valid way, do we eliminate the weirdos.

  • How do we eliminate the outliers so we can find the line of best fit?

  • Which is fantastic if I'm trying to find out

  • how many Advil the average person should be taking - two.

  • But if I'm interested in your potential,

  • or for happiness or productivity or energy or creativity,

  • we're creating the cult of the average with science.

  • If I asked a question like,

  • "How fast can a child learn how to read in a classroom?"

  • scientists change the answer to

  • "How fast does the average child learn how to read in that classroom?"

  • and we tailor the class towards the average.

  • If you fall below the average,

  • then psychologists get thrilled,

  • because that means you're depressed or have a disorder,

  • or hopefully both.

  • We're hoping for both because our business model is,

  • if you come into a therapy session with one problem,

  • we want to make sure you leave knowing you have ten,

  • so you keep coming back.

  • We'll go back into your childhood if necessary,

  • but eventually we want to make you normal again.

  • But normal is merely average.

  • And positive psychology posits that if we study what is merely average,

  • we will remain merely average.

  • Then instead of deleting those positive outliers,

  • what I intentionally do is come into a population like this one

  • and say, why?

  • Why are some of you high above the curve

  • in terms of intellectual, athletic, musical ability,

  • creativity, energy levels,

  • resiliency in the face of challenge, sense of humor?

  • Whatever it is, instead of deleting you, what I want to do is study you.

  • Because maybe we can glean information,

  • not just how to move people up to the average,

  • but move the entire average up in our companies and schools worldwide.

  • The reason this graph is important to me

  • is, on the news, the majority of the information is not positive.

  • in fact it's negative.

  • Most of it's about murder, corruption, diseases, natural disasters.

  • And very quickly, my brain starts to think

  • that's the accurate ratio of negative to positive in the world.

  • This creates "the medical school syndrome."

  • During the first year of medical training,

  • as you read through a list of all the symptoms and diseases,

  • suddenly you realize you have all of them.

  • (Laughter)

  • I have a brother in-law named Bobo, which is a whole other story.

  • Bobo married Amy the unicorn.

  • Bobo called me on the phone -

  • (Laughter)

  • from Yale Medical School,

  • and Bobo said, "Shawn, I have leprosy."

  • (Laughter)

  • Which, even at Yale, is extraordinarily rare.

  • But I had no idea how to console poor Bobo

  • because he had just gotten over an entire week of menopause.

  • (Laughter)

  • We're finding it's not necessarily the reality that shapes us,

  • but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality.

  • And if we can change the lens, not only can we change your happiness,

  • we can change every single educational and business outcome at the same time.

  • I applied to Harvard on a dare.

  • I didn't expect to get in, and my family had no money for college.

  • When I got a military scholarship two weeks later, they let me go.

  • Something that wasn't even a possibility became a reality.

  • I assumed everyone there would see it as a privilege as well,

  • that they'd be excited to be there.

  • Even in a classroom full of people smarter than you,

  • I felt you'd be happy just to be in that classroom.

  • But what I found is, while some people experience that,

  • when I graduated after my four years

  • and then spent the next eight years living in the dorms with the students -

  • Harvard asked me to; I wasn't that guy.

  • (Laughter)

  • I was an officer to counsel students through the difficult four years.

  • And in my research and my teaching,

  • I found that these students, no matter how happy they were

  • with their original success of getting into the school,

  • two weeks later their brains were focused, not on the privilege of being there,

  • nor on their philosophy or physics,

  • but on the competition, the workload,

  • the hassles, stresses, complaints.

  • When I first went in there, I walked into the freshmen dining hall,

  • which is where my friends from Waco, Texas, which is where I grew up -

  • I know some of you know this.

  • When they'd visit, they'd look around,

  • and say, "This dining hall looks like something out of Hogwart's."

  • It does, because that was Hogwart's and that's Harvard.

  • And when they see this,

  • they say, "Why do you waste your time studying happiness at Harvard?

  • What does a Harvard student possibly have to be unhappy about?"

  • Embedded within that question

  • is the key to understanding the science of happiness.

  • Because what that question assumes

  • is that our external world is predictive of our happiness levels,

  • when in reality, if I know everything about your external world,

  • I can only predict 10% of your long-term happiness.

  • 90 percent of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world,

  • but by the way your brain processes the world.

  • And if we change it,

  • if we change our formula for happiness and success,

  • we can change the way that we can then affect reality.

  • What we found is that only 25% of job successes are predicted by I.Q.,

  • 75 percent of job successes

  • are predicted by your optimism levels, your social support

  • and your ability to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat.

  • I talked to a New England boarding school, probably the most prestigious one,

  • and they said, "We already know that.

  • So every year, instead of just teaching our students, we have a wellness week.

  • And we're so excited. Monday night we have the world's leading expert

  • will speak about adolescent depression.

  • Tuesday night it's school violence and bullying.

  • Wednesday night is eating disorders.

  • Thursday night is illicit drug use.

  • And Friday night we're trying to decide between risky sex or happiness."

  • (Laughter)

  • I said, "That's most people's Friday nights."

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • Which I'm glad you liked, but they did not like that at all.

  • Silence on the phone.

  • And into the silence, I said, "I'd be happy to speak at your school,

  • but that's not a wellness week, that's a sickness week.

  • You've outlined all the negative things that can happen,

  • but not talked about the positive."

  • The absence of disease is not health.

  • Here's how we get to health:

  • We need to reverse the formula for happiness and success.

  • In the last three years, I've traveled to 45 countries,

  • working with schools and companies in the midst of an economic downturn.

  • And I found that most companies and schools

  • follow a formula for success, which is this:

  • If I work harder, I'll be more successful.

  • And if I'm more successful, then I'll be happier.

  • That undergirds most of our parenting and managing styles,

  • the way that we motivate our behavior.

  • And the problem is it's scientifically broken and backwards for two reasons.

  • Every time your brain has a success,

  • you just changed the goalpost of what success looked like.

  • You got good grades, now you have to get better grades,

  • you got into a good school and after you get into a better one,

  • you got a good job, now you have to get a better job,

  • you hit your sales target, we're going to change it.

  • And if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there.

  • We've pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon, as a society.

  • And that's because we think we have to be successful,

  • then we'll be happier.