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Shawn Achor: Flying the Surly Skies, Stay Positive

Shawn Achor: Flying the Surly Skies, Stay Positive

A celebrated researcher on happiness and human potential, Shawn Achor spent over a decade at Harvard University where he was Head Teaching Fellow for his course in Positive Psychology. Bridging the gap between academic positive psychology research and the public, Achor has spoken in dozens countries to a wide variety of audiences including bankers on Wall Street, students in Dubai, and CEOs in Zimbabwe. His TED talk has been seen by over three million people around the world. As Shawn heads into yet another busy season of travel on the speaking circuit, he took the time to speak to the New York Times on how he stays happy amid inevitable flight delays and bad weather while on the go:

I give about 100 lectures a year, which translates to about 300 flights. I try to stay positive about everything, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering I’m a researcher, author and educator in the field of positive psychology.

I do have some things that work that make travel less tedious. I bring a Kindle instead of a book, and that means I gain about 30 minutes each flight during takeoff and landing when I can’t use electronics. I realized I was gaining time to do other things. Now I meditate, go through some Spanish flash cards, write a quick thank-you note to someone I met during my previous business trip and then pick up the airline magazine and learn one new fact about the world. I have a blast.

When you’re traveling for business, it can be hard to remember things that happened on a trip, especially if you travel alone. Researchers found that taking just two minutes to jot down notes in a travel journal about things that you did and how you felt doing those things can make the experience more meaningful to you. I know business travel can be tough, but many of us get to see new things and new places. It’s worth making the effort to try to remember those experiences that we enjoyed.

One time I was delayed at O’Hare for a while. I wound up being thrilled that my flight wasn’t canceled when many others were. When I play badly at tennis, I get frustrated. When I play great, I assume that’s my normal. When my plane is on time, I assume that’s normal. But in the normal world, travel delays happen all the time. As the comedian Louis C.K. points out, we need to keep things in perspective. He says we forget how good we have it, even in our frustrating times.

I worked with a group of critical care nurses in Boston who had a great idea. They make an “In Case of Emergency” folder. They print out pictures of family and friends, as well as great e-mails or notes that made them smile. They put all of this stuff in a folder. Then, when they were having a particularly tough day at work, they would open their folders and be reminded of all of the good things in life. I think it would be a great idea to make a folder like this, or even scan stuff onto a laptop, and then when a flight gets canceled or you’re sitting next to someone who does nothing but complain, you could find a little solace.

Some of my colleagues do give me a hard time sometimes when flights are really late or canceled. I’ll get a comment from them like, “So how are you doing now, Mr. Happy?” All I can say is that I try to find the positive. That’s important because our brains pick up on negativity easily. One of the things we like to do when traveling is a little experiment with “mirror neurons.” These brain neurons show activation when you see someone yawning, for example, raising the likelihood of you doing the same behavior.

Sometimes my colleagues and I will mess with people at the gate and start tapping our feet or looking at our watches, as if we’re anxious to get on board. Within about two minutes, several other people will start to mimic the same behavior. I never do this experiment at my gate, though. I don’t want to be on the plane with a bunch of anxious people. On the other hand, if you smile and act relaxed, people are going to pick up on those behaviors and possibly even create a ripple effect of, well, happiness.

Quick Questions:

Q. How often do you fly for business?

A. Two to three times a week, both domestic and international.

Q. What is your least favorite airport?

A. This is tough because I try to think of positive things about each one. But I suppose I’m not a big fan of O’Hare, since it’s tough to navigate.

Q. Of all the places you have been, what is the best?

A. South Africa because of the incredible people, many of whom had nothing, but still managed to create deep relationships with each other.

Q. What is your secret airport vice?

A. Multiple protein bars. I eat these things like crazy at the airport. I don’t lift weights while traveling, but I justify the protein bars because I lift my carry-on.

By Shawn Achor/New York Times