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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 bit on the clumsy side.

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

  • suddenly Amy disappeared off of the top of the bunk bed

  • and landed with this crash on the floor.

  • Now 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)

  • ... 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 as hard as I could 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 threatening to wake

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

  • So I did the only thing

  • my little 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 before.

  • I said, "Amy, Amy, wait. Don't cry. 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 in the world my sister would want more

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

  • but Amy the special unicorn.

  • Of course, this was an option that 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 out.

  • Instead of crying, instead of ceasing our play,

  • instead of waking my parents,

  • with all the negative consequences that would have ensued for me,

  • instead a smile spread across her face

  • and she scrambled right 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 something that was going be at the vanguard of a scientific revolution

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

  • What we had stumbled across is something called positive psychology,

  • which is the reason that I'm here today

  • and the reason that I wake up every morning.

  • When I first started talking about this research

  • outside of academia, out with companies and schools,

  • the very first thing they said to never do

  • is to start your talk with a graph.

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

  • This graph looks boring,

  • but this graph 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 back studying you here in the room, I would be thrilled,

  • because there's very clearly a trend that's going on there,

  • and that means that I can get published,

  • which is all that really matters.

  • The fact that there's one weird red dot that's up 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.

  • So one of the very first things we teach people

  • in economics and statistics and 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 potential, if I'm interested in your potential,

  • or for happiness or productivity

  • or energy or creativity,

  • what we're doing is 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 then we tailor the class right towards the average.

  • Now if you fall below the average on this curve,

  • then psychologists get thrilled,

  • because that means you're either depressed or you 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 10,

  • so you keep coming back over and over again.

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

  • but eventually what we want to do is make you normal again.

  • But normal is merely average.

  • And what I posit and what positive psychology posits

  • is 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 is it that some of you are so high above the curve

  • in terms of your intellectual ability, athletic ability, musical ability,

  • creativity, energy levels,

  • your resiliency in the face of challenge, your 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 how we can move the entire average up

  • in our companies and schools worldwide.

  • The reason this graph is important to me

  • is, when I turn on the news, it seems like 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.

  • What that's doing is creating something

  • called the medical school syndrome --

  • which, if you know people who've been to medical school,

  • during the first year of medical training,

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

  • suddenly you realize you have all of them.

  • 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

  • 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)

  • See what we're finding is 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.

  • When I applied to Harvard, I applied 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 allowed me to go.

  • Suddenly, something that wasn't even a possibility became a reality.

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

  • that they'd be excited to be there.

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

  • you'd be happy just to be in that classroom, which is what I felt.

  • But what I found there

  • 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 of Harvard to counsel students through the difficult four years.

  • And what I found in my research and my teaching

  • is 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 their physics.

  • Their brain was focused on the competition, the workload,

  • the hassles, the stresses, the 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 have heard of it.

  • When they'd come to visit me, they'd look around,

  • they'd say, "This freshman dining hall looks like something

  • out of Hogwart's from the movie "Harry Potter," which it does.

  • This is Hogwart's from the movie "Harry Potter" and that's Harvard.

  • And when they see this,

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

  • Seriously, 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 percent 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,

  • what we can do is change the way

  • that we can then affect reality.

  • What we found is that only 25 percent 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 boarding school up in New England, probably the most prestigious boarding school,

  • and they said, "We already know that.

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

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

  • coming in to speak about adolescent depression.

  • Tuesday night it's school violence and bullying.

  • Wednesday night is eating disorders.

  • Thursday night is elicit 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 just so you know, that's not a wellness week, that's a sickness week.

  • What you've done is 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 different countries,

  • working with schools and companies

  • in the midst of an economic downturn.

  • And what I found is that most companies and schools

  • follow a formula for success, which is this: