SAN DIEGO-Happiness is a choice, and once people rewire their brains for happiness and optimism they can be successful.

And that can have strong repercussions for credit unions, their employees and financial results, according to Shawn Achor, author of "The Happiness Advantage." In 2007 the Harvard grad founded Good Think, Inc., which uses principles of neuroscience to show a connection between happiness and success.

"The brain has a limited amount of resources with which to experience the world," he told attendees of CUNA's America's Credit Union Conference here. "What we need to do is escape the cult of the average. One odd result out of hundreds usually is looked at as a measurement error. If we study what is average we will remain average. I study positive outliers."

Achor conducted a brief experiment with the audience. He had people pair up, then had one person smile at the other for seven seconds while the other attempted to keep a straight face. When the roles were reversed, even though the poker face person knew what was coming, the group found it nearly impossible not to respond.

"It is hard to control yourself when someone looks you in the eye and smiles," assessed Achor. "There is a ripple of happiness that goes out."

It also is possible to spread nervousness, anxiety and negativity, Achor continued. He said numerous sociological experiments have shown a single person can cause folks waiting for a plane to become negative by bouncing on his feet while repeatedly looking at his watch with a frown.

"People are wirelessly connected through a neuron network," he said. "Negativity spreads like secondhand smoke."


Battling Depression

While at Harvard, Achor lived in the dorms for several years observing students transition from high school to college. While most people might assume Harvard students have nothing to be unhappy about, research found four out of five experienced debilitating depression.

The reason? According to Achor, only 10% of happiness can be predicted by the outside world, and in an academic setting only one-third of grades correlate to intelligence. Other critical factors include a belief that one's behavior matters, social support networks the student has in place and stress.

"People can get used to seeing negativity," he said. "What we need to do is flip it to optimism-have a belief your behavior matters. People who are happy and optimistic are three times more creative, 31% more productive, 40% more likely to receive a promotion, and 39% more likely to live to age 94."


Hard Work Vs. Happiness

Why are people not immediately happy? Achor said most follow the traditional formula: work harder, be more successful, be happy. This societal norm does not work, he asserted, because happiness does not continue over time.

"Achieving success raises the goals for the next year, so it becomes harder and harder to be happy through hard work," he said. "The truth is, happiness is a precursor to success. Happiness leads to success."

Many people in modern society approach the world like a game of Tetris-in which shapes fall from the ceiling and must be rotated to form straight lines, he suggested, saying that mentality involves scanning the world for mistakes and errors, not things to praise or recognize.

"Our brains can be imprinted with negative or positive patterns," he said. "We need to stack the odds in our brain's favor."


Five Suggestions For Getting Rewired

Achor offered five suggestions he said would rewire brains for happiness:

Gratitudes. "Every morning upon waking up, write down three things you are grateful for," he said. These "gratitudes" have to be new, and they have to have happened in last 24 hours. Instead of scanning for mistakes/errors, he said, people begin scanning for things to be grateful for.

The Doubler. Think of something meaningful, then for two minutes, write down everything you remember about the experience. Achor said if people follow this exercise for 21 straight days it changes them from a task-based outlook (and low life satisfaction) to a meaning-based outlook.

The Fun Fifteen. Take 15 minutes for fun and active things. According to Achor, this is the equivalent of taking an antidepressant.

Meditation. Attention training. Take two minutes to let the brain do one thing at a time rather than multi-tasking. Multi-tasking causes success levels of all tasks to decline.

Conscious Act of Kindness. Praise or thank one person in your support network for two minutes via e-mail each day for 21 days.

"Activation energy is what it takes to get a reaction started," he said. "If something takes 20 seconds to do something we will avoid it. Tilt the path to lessen resistance in your life. Remove barriers to do positive things, put up a barrier to keep yourself from doing negative things. Remember that happiness is a choice and happiness spreads to others. Happiness is something we have to work on, like exercising our bodies. Happiness is an advantage-it raises business output."

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