Optimism is one of the greatest predictors of someone’s success, Harvard professor and positive psychology expert Shawn Achor said during a keynote address Monday at the CUNA CFO Council Conference in New Orleans.
Believing that your behavior matters can transform not only your productivity but the effectiveness of those around you, says Achor, whose research on the impact of rational optimism in the business world appears in his book, “The Happiness Advantage.”
Among the many examples Achor cites: Doctors with a positive outlook arrive at correct diagnoses 19% faster than those with negative or neutral emotions, and the 10% most optimistic insurance agents at MetLife outsell the other 90% combined.
“The greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain,” he said.
In fact, the underlying principle taught to many business leaders—that if you work harder you will be more successful and happier—is fundamentally flawed, according to Achor.
Rather, training your brain to be positive first yields greater success. In fact, 75% of your success on the job can be traced not to your intelligence but to your optimism, social support network, and ability to manage energy and stress in a positive way.
“Our fear of happiness slowing us down is flawed,” Achor said. “It actually speeds us up.”
Credit union leaders should understand that emotions are contagious, so you influence your employees subconsciously depending on your mood. That’s an interaction rooted in science, according to Achor: We don’t process the world so much as we co-process it.
“Positive individual changes ripple to culture change,” Achor said. Conversely, “we pick up stress, negativity, and anxiety like second-hand smoke.”
How does this apply to the business world?
Achor worked with a Louisiana-based health-care company, Ochsner, to adopt the renowned Ritz-Carlton Hotels’ service principle of positive engagement with customers. The goal was to reduce or eliminate the negative emotions associated with hospital visits.
The Ritz-Carlton philosophy is rooted in the “10-5 way.” Staff smile at guests when they approach within 10 feet, and acknowledge them with a greeting at five feet.
Six months after launching this initiative, Ochsner reported a significant rise in patient visits; patient referrals based on the quality of care they received skyrocketed; and doctors’ engagement soared to the highest levels in a decade.
“Happiness is a choice, happiness spreads, and happiness is an advantage,” Achor said.
Not everyone is wired to be an optimist, Achor acknowledges, but simple exercises can transform even people predisposed or conditioned to be pessimistic.
Five habits that take less than two minutes a day can yield permanent results:
1. Three gratitudes. Write down three events occurring in the last 24 hours for which you’re grateful.
2. The Doubler. A “doubling down” of the first habit, write down every detail about one of those positive experiences, to imprint it on your brain.
3. Fun 15. Exercise at least 15 minutes a day, even if it’s just a brisk walk with the dog. Your body records a victory and the effects cascade through the day, Achor says.
4. Meditation of the nonreligious variety. Every day, take a break while sitting at your desk. Close your eyes and focus only on your breathing. Relaxation and awareness greatly improve focus.
5. Conscious acts of kindness. Take no longer than two minutes to compose and send an email or text message praising or thanking someone you know. The sender and recipient both benefit, and these interactions exponentially increase the breadth and depth of your relationship circle.
“These sound like cute little tips,” Achor said, “but they’re the building blocks of how to change the pattern set by genes and environment.”