Michelle Gielan spent much of her career as a national CBS News anchor, and now she studies positive psychology. She’s the founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research and is partnered with Arianna Huffington to study how transformative stories fuel success. She is an Executive Producer of “The Happiness Advantage” Special on PBS and a featured professor in Oprah’s Happiness course.
So naturally I was curious to hear her view about happiness and good habits.
Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded?
Michelle: People will often say “You can’t change other people.” My research shows this societal belief is not only dis-empowering, it is scientifically false. There is a compelling case showing us that we actually change people all the time. And when we fully realize this, we start to see how powerful we are to get others unstuck, see that their behavior matters, and start taking steps to create happiness and success in their lives.
My favorite study showing how quickly we influence others was done at the University of California Riverside. Imagine being asked to sit in a room in silence for two minutes with two strangers. Definitely a bit awkward! That’s what researchers did with multiple groups of threes, testing their moods before and after they went into the room.
Time after time, the most non-verbally expressive person significantly influenced the moods of the other two people in the room. If that person was anxious or had crossed arms, he or she made others feel more stressed. Meanwhile a positive disposition where someone was smiling and appeared relaxed had a positive effect on the others. That is in just two minutes. Imagine what you could do with more time!
We change people, but oftentimes we get so focused on the negative people and their influence on us, we forget how powerful we are as positive people to influence others.
Q: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
A: My big “double-aha” moment came while anchoring the national news at CBS News. It was at the height of the recession, and on top of the usual negative stories, my newscasts became full of especially heart wrenching stories of people losing their homes, jobs, and retirement savings. Starting the morning off like that could leave even the most optimistic person feeling helpless and hopeless. The lightning bolt came when we changed how we talked about the negative.
I realized there was a better way to broadcast the news that empowered people to believe they could overcome challenges. We created “Happy Week,” which I know you remember very well! You were one of the five experts we invited in to talk about ways to foster happiness in the midst of tough times.
We got the greatest viewer response of the year. Our viewers’ inspirational stories showed me: Change your story, change your power.
The second part of the “aha” was clearly seeing this power is not reserved for broadcasters and celebrities—we are ALL broadcasters. We are all constantly transmitting information to the people around us, and the messages we choose to communicate either create success or hold us all hold back.
I now understand what was happening at CBS from a research perspective. Starting our day off with a dose of negativity can have lasting effects. In this study I conducted with researcher Shawn Achor and Arianna Huffington, we found that just three minutes of negative news in the morning can lead to a 27% higher likelihood of you having a bad day—as reported 6 to 8 hours later. That negative mood and mindset can stick with us through our day, and we’re even feeling the effects as we cook dinner for our family that evening.
Meanwhile, as we did at CBS, focusing on solutions fuels progress. Our follow up study found that when someone comes to you to talk about a problem, if you move the conversation on to a discussion of potential solutions, you fuel their creative problem solving abilities on average by 20%–not to mention you make them feel better! You make them smarter and more empowered to tackle challenges.
Being in touch with the problems in the world or our lives is important, but even more important is to focus the brain on what we can do about them.
Q: Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?
A: Venting. I think there is little harm in venting here and there about things, as we are all human, and it is good to express emotions. But too quickly, venting can turn into dumping garbage on the people around us. I try to only vent when I really need to process something, and let the rest go.
My research colleagues and I recently launched a large-scale study looking at people’s response to stressful events to determine the key predictors of happiness and success. After more than 5000 people took the Stress Responder Scale, we found that the most telling predictor was a person’s ability to move quickly from complaining to action. Those that vented but swiftly started creating an action plan are often happier, more successful and have more friends than those that get stuck. If your readers are curious about their stress response, they are welcome to test themselves here.
Q: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?
A: Working on a baby book for my son Leo! Since Leo was born, I have been writing notes to him about his life, milestones, and the adorable things he has done. I also paste pictures of him in the book with captions. He is almost 3 years old, and the orange journal (our happy color) is chock full of memories. It makes me so joyful each time I work on it, and I hope it will make him happy when he reads it when he is older.
Q: What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
A: I’ve learned to stop being so serious! Instead of running from the negative, I’ve started running towards the positive. For example, I recently wanted to exercise more, and instead of trying to remind myself about all the health benefits and designing an effective (but boring) workout routine, I thought of the moments in my life when getting a workout has been the most fun.
For me, I love dancing! So I signed up for an aerobics style dance jam class, and I’ve never had more fun! And wouldn’t you know it—I am there twice-a-week (religiously!) anytime I’m not traveling for work. Fun can be a great motivator, and positive reasons like that help me stick to a new habit.
Q: How do we change the habits of others? For instance, what if someone is not helping out around the house or our child is not studying enough, how can we use the research to make a positive difference in their behaviors?
A: Know that positive change is possible. It might not happen right away, but if you change your broadcast to them, that can have an effect on how they view the world. Let’s take that first example, because I imagine it can feel like a very relatable one for many of us! If your partner is not helping out around the house as much as you would like, you can try an experiment I encouraged a friend to do. It worked for her with great success!
Instead of focusing on all the things that her husband was not doing, for one week she didn’t say a word about that and simply started praising him for all that he was doing right. We call this strategy “spotlighting the right.” Even though he plopped his dirty gym bag on the dinner table she had just cleaned, she closed her eyes to it and said “Thank you so much for ordering pizza tonight. It gave me a chance to spend extra time with the kids.”
She praised him even for the smallest positive things he was doing, and by Wednesday of that week he was fixing a leaky pipe, and on Saturday he cleared the dishes (which she could only remember him doing when his mom was in town!)
She was strengthening his identity as a helper, and helpers help. If you want a particular behavior from someone else, try spotlighting those times when he or she is already doing it. People are pulled towards the best in themselves, and spotlighting the right is a much stronger approach than nagging.
This is one of the strategies my husband and research partner Shawn Achor and I share in our new PBS program INSPIRE HAPPINESS. We created a (free) Wake Up & Inspire Happiness Video Workshop based upon the program, and we invite everyone to join us.
It focuses on small ways you can change your personal broadcast to inspire happiness and success in others—making the choice of happiness easier for you at the same time.