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Bringing Research to Life

I fell backward into happiness.

I was studying Christian and Buddhist ethics at Harvard Divinity School, looking at how people’s beliefs changed the way they lived their lives. Researchers in the psychology department told me that I could ask the same questions using scientific analysis. I thought that sounded crazy. How can you study compassion or hope or joy? But, after being exposed to a relatively new field called “positive psychology,” it clicked. If your beliefs changed your life path, then if we know your beliefs, we might be able to PREDICT your behavior. Think about it; that’s actually really exciting. By changing your brain’s beliefs about the world, we could change your life outcomes. I was hooked.

Watch Shawn’s TED talk on how a happy brain reaps a huge advantage.

Positive psychology is more often than not merely validating things we have heard from every major religious tradition, every leadership guru, every wise grandparent, for centuries. So why do the research? The gap between information and transformation occurs because your brain lacks the conviction that changing your behavior will cause you to be happier or more successful. Science provides another language, another authority source to get our brain to do what we deep down want it to. And that is the key: We need to believe that positive action will eventually lead to positive outcomes. That is at the heart of positive changes to health, happiness and work, and it is at the root of faith. In the end, good wins, but only if we believe and act.

In my new book Before Happiness, I spend an entire chapter focusing upon how we can cancel noise in our lives. Noise is any information that diverts us from greater happiness or success within our lives. For example, I consume much of my news online rather than on live TV so that I can actively select which stories to allow my brain to process. Random shootings and car crashes in other states do not help me to remember that my behavior matters. By decreasing the noise in our lives—even by 5%—by spending the first five minutes in the car with the radio off or by taking breaks from our smartphones can give your brain the leverage to figure out how to move forward. I hope you’ll try this 5% experiment, as it’s had a profound impact upon my life.

The quest to bring research to life has many challenges. Sometimes we don’t act because we don’t know how we should act (for example, is wheat bread good or bad for you?). Sometimes we know what we are supposed to do, but we don’t do it. Doctors know the role of obesity, but 34% of American male doctors are overweight. Psychology research has a similar problem: We have fallen in love with being able to control all the factors in our experiment. Studies that work well in the lab where we can control all the conditions fall apart in the messiness of life. If we want to find valuable research, we have to do our research not just in a lab with college freshmen in a psychology course, but with bankers in the midst of a financial collapse, doctors at children’s cancer hospitals, and underpaid teachers in inner city schools.

Periodically, Live Happy will host articles, research and book excerpts I have written about research we did in the middle of the chaos of life, and the exciting discoveries we made about how, by changing your mindset and your habits, you can dramatically improve not only your life but those of others around you. I hope you’ll read them and put them into practice, for in truth, the only bridge between information and transformation is you.

To start to build this bridge, watch my TED talk

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