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I applied to Harvard on a dare.
I was raised in Waco, Texas, and never really expected to leave. Even as I was applying to Harvard, I was setting down roots and training to be a local volunteer firefighter. For me, Harvard was a place from the movies, the place mothers joke about their kids going to when they grow up. The chances of actually getting in were infinitesimally small. I told myself I’d be happy just to tell my kids someday, offhandedly at dinner, that I had even applied to Harvard. (I imagined my imaginary children being quite impressed.)
When I unexpectedly got accepted, I felt thrilled and humbled by the privilege. I wanted to do the opportunity justice. So I went to Harvard, and I stayed . . . for the next twelve years.
When I left Waco, I had been out of Texas four times and never out of the country (though Texans consider anything out of Texas foreign travel). But as soon as I stepped out of the T in Cambridge and into Harvard Yard, I fell in love. So after getting my BA, I found a way to stay. I went to grad school, taught sections in sixteen different courses, and then began delivering lectures. As I pursued my graduate studies, I also became a Proctor, an officer of Harvard hired to live in residence with undergraduates to help them navigate the difficult path to both academic success and happiness within the Ivory Tower. This effectively meant that I lived in a college dorm for a total of 12 years of my life (not a fact I brought up on first dates).
I tell you this for two reasons. First, because I saw Harvard as such a privilege, it fundamentally changed the way my brain processed my experience. I felt grateful for every moment, even in the midst of stress, exams, and blizzards (something else I had only seen in the movies). Second, my 12 years teaching in the classrooms and living in the dorms afforded me a comprehensive view of how thousands of other Harvard students advanced through the stresses and challenges of their college years. That’s when I began noticing the patterns.
Paradise Lost and Found
Around the time that Harvard was founded, John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “The Mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
Three hundred years later, I observed this principle come to life. Many of my students saw Harvard as a privilege, but others quickly lost sight of that reality and focused only on the workload, the competition, the stress. They fretted incessantly about their future, despite the fact that they were earning a degree that would open so many doors. They felt overwhelmed by every small setback instead of energized by the possibilities in front of them. And after watching enough of those students struggle to make their way through, something dawned on me. Not only were these students the ones who seemed most susceptible to stress and depression, they were the ones whose grades and academic performance were suffering the most.
Years later, in the fall of 2009, I was invited to go on a monthlong speaking tour throughout Africa. During the trip, a CEO from South Africa named Salim took me to Soweto, a township just outside of Johannesburg that many inspiring people, including Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have called their home.
We visited a school next to a shantytown where there was no electricity and scarce running water. Only when I was in front of the children did it dawn on me that none of the stories I normally use in my talks would work. Sharing the research and experiences of privileged American college students and wealthy, powerful business leaders seemed inappropriate. So I tried to open a dialogue. Struggling for points of common experience, I asked in a very clearly tongue-in-cheek tone, “Who here likes to do schoolwork?” I thought the seemingly universal distaste for schoolwork would bond us together. But to my shock, 95 percent of the children raised their hands and started smiling genuinely and enthusiastically.
Afterward, I jokingly asked Salim why the children of Soweto were so weird. “They see schoolwork as a privilege,” he replied, “one that many of their parents did not have.” When I returned to Harvard two weeks later, I saw students complaining about the very thing the Soweto students saw as a privilege. I started to realize just how much our interpretation of reality changes our experience of that reality. The students who were so focused on the stress and the pressure?—?the ones who saw learning as a chore?—?were missing out on all the opportunities right in front of them. But those who saw attending Harvard as a privilege seemed to shine even brighter. Almost unconsciously at first, and then with ever-increasing interest, I became fascinated with what caused those high potential individuals to develop a positive mindset to excel, especially in such a competitive environment. And likewise, what caused those who succumbed to the pressure to fail—or stay stuck in a negative or neutral position.
Researching Happiness at Hogwarts
For me, Harvard remains a magical place, even after twelve years. When I invite friends from Texas to visit, they claim that eating in the freshman dining hall is like being at Hogwarts, Harry Potter’s fantastical school of magic. Add in the other beautiful buildings, the university’s abundant resources, and the seemingly endless opportunities it offers, and my friends often end up asking, “Shawn, why would you waste your time studying happiness at Harvard? Seriously, what does a Harvard student possibly have to be unhappy about?”
In Milton’s time, Harvard had a motto that reflected the school’s religious roots: Veritas, Christo et Ecclesiae (Truth, for Christ and the Church). For many years now, that motto has been truncated to a single word: Veritas, or just truth. There are now many truths at Harvard, and one of them is that despite all its magnificent facilities, a wonderful faculty, and a student body made up of some of America’s (and the world’s) best and brightest, it is home to many chronically unhappy young men and women. In 2004, for instance, a Harvard Crimson poll found that as many as 4 in 5 Harvard students suffer from depression at least once during the school year, and nearly half of all students suffer from depression so debilitating they can’t function.1
This unhappiness epidemic is not unique to Harvard. A Conference Board survey released in January of 2010 found that only 45 percent of workers surveyed were happy at their jobs, the lowest in 22 years of polling.2 Depression rates today are ten times higher than they were in 1960.3 Every year the age threshold of unhappiness sinks lower, not just at universities but across the nation. Fifty years ago, the mean onset age of depression was 29.5 years old. Today, it is almost exactly half that: 14.5 years old. My friends wanted to know, Why study happiness at Harvard? The question I asked in response was: Why not start there?
So I set out to find the students, those 1 in 5 who were truly flourishing?—?the individuals who were above the curve in terms of their happiness, performance, achievement, productivity, humor, energy, or resilience?—?to see what exactly was giving them such an advantage over their peers. What was it that allowed these people to escape the gravitational pull of the norm? Could patterns be teased out of their lives and experience to help others in all walks of life to be more successful in an increasingly stressful and negative world? As it turns out, they could.
Scientific discovery is a lot about timing and luck. I serendipitously found three mentors?—?Harvard professors Phil Stone, Ellen Langer, and Tal Ben-Shahar?—?who happened to be at the vanguard of a brand new field called positive psychology. Breaking with traditional psychology’s focus on what makes people unhappy and how they can return to “normal,” these three were applying the same scientific rigor to what makes people thrive and excel?—?the very same questions I wanted to answer.
Escaping the Cult of the Average
The graph below may seem boring, but it is the very reason I wake up excited every morning. (Clearly, I live a very exciting life.) It is also the basis of the research underlying this book.
This is a scatter-plot diagram. Each dot represents an individual, and each axis represents some variable. This particular diagram could be plotting anything: weight in relation to height, sleep in relation to energy, happiness in relation to success, and so on. If we got this data back as researchers, we would be thrilled because very clearly there is a trend going on here, and that means that we can get published, which in the academic world is all that really matters. The fact that there is one weird red dot?—?what we call an outlier?—?up above the curve is no problem. It’s no problem because we can just delete it. We can delete it because it’s clearly a measurement error?—?and we know that it’s an error because it’s screwing up our data.
One of the very first things students in intro psychology, statistics, or economics courses learn is how to “clean up the data.” If you are interested in observing the general trend of what you are researching, then outliers mess up your findings. That’s why there exist countless formulas and statistics packages to help enterprising researchers eliminate these “problems.” And to be clear, this is not cheating; these are statistically valid procedures?—?if, that is, one is interested only in the general trend. I am not.
The typical approach to understanding human behavior has always been to look for the average behavior or outcome. But in my view this misguided approach has created what I call the “cult of the average” in the behavioral sciences. If someone asks a question such as “How fast can a child learn how to read in a classroom?” science changes that question to “How fast does the average child learn to read in the classroom?” We then ignore the children who read faster or slower, and tailor the classroom toward the “average” child. That’s the first mistake traditional psychology makes.
If we study merely what is average, we will remain merely average.
Conventional psychology consciously ignores outliers because they don’t fit the pattern. I’ve sought to do the opposite: Instead of deleting these outliers, I want to learn from them.