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Live from the CHIME Fall Forum: Can the Science of Happiness Help Cure What Ails Healthcare Execs?

October 15, 2015
by Mark Hagland
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Noted author and researcher in the science of happiness Shawn Achor tells CHIME15 attendees that their own attitudes can help shape their organizations’ ability to weather systemic change

In an opening keynote address that challenged the approximately 775 attendees at the CHIME Fall Forum, being held at the JW Marriott Grande Lakes Resort in Orlando, Florida, Shawn Achor, the bestselling author of the books The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness, challenged healthcare IT leaders to rethink how they pursue their strategic aims in a healthcare industry undergoing massive, disruptive change.

On Thursday morning, Oct. 15, Achor told his audience at the CHIME Fall Forum (sponsored by the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based College of Healthcare Information Management Executives) that what he has learned through his and his colleagues’ research on happiness is deeply applicable to the ability of healthcare professionals to manage the fundamental changes sweeping the healthcare industry today.

He began by telling a story going all the way back to his and his sister’s early childhood, in which he discovered how easy it was to divert his younger sister’s attention from the pain of a fall from her upper bunk bed, by getting her to imagine that she was a unicorn, and launched into a series of accounts of some of the findings of research into brain function related to happiness.

Author and research Shawn Achor addresses the CHIME 15 audience

“With new advances in science,” Achor noted, “we can peer behind the curtain to see what the human can do. It can process 40 bits of information per second; it receives 11 million pieces of information every second from your nerves. So if we scan the world and scan first for the negatives, because our brains are limited, whatever we scan for first becomes our reality.” He went on to connect some of those findings to the challenges facing healthcare leaders right now, as their industry goes through intensive change and faces transformation.

“What you’re doing to transform healthcare is making the world better for all of us,” Achor said. “I asked the board this morning over breakfast to tell me about the challenges facing this audience. They immediately talked about cyberattacks, huge to-do lists, everything, and we all became anxious. So I switched it around, and asked what positive things are happening. And the entire mood of the room changed. There have been incredible efforts and advances, the board members told me. The fact that we now have telemedicine, the ability to eliminate inefficiencies in the system, that you have so many touchpoints for monitoring the world—the fact that we have so many resource limitations and yet are making advances—the atmosphere in the room suddenly changed, and everyone felt positive. And what we were seeing there is what we’ve been seeing with the science of positive psychology. Instead of focusing on depression and disorder, we’re also focusing on what helps someone develop compassion or optimism.”

In fact, Achor said, healthcare leaders should be aware of something fundamental about the study of happiness as a psychological phenomenon. “Immediately, when we talk about happiness,” he said, “we think about pleasure. I was studying Christian and Buddhist ethics at Harvard Divinity School,” he recalled. “And I found that the Greeks did not define happiness as pleasure, but rather as the joy you feel as you’re learning things and moving towards goals.”

What’s more, he said, “We’re afraid of happiness as a society: if we’re too happy right now, maybe things will get worse? Joy is the opposite of pleasure: it fuels people to expand and try to reach our potential.” So the reality is that being positive, he said, is not at all the same as being naïve or foolish; it is the opposite. The goal, in fact, is to rewire our mental habits as humans so that we are able to face the challenges that face us on a day-to-day basis, rather than becoming defeated by them. Among a large number of stories he shared from research studies was that of a study that found that children as young as four who have a genetic predisposition to pessimism, through daily suggestion on the part of their parents, could actually be taught to be more optimistic, simply through their parents’ engaging them in hopeful conversations.

Achor also noted pointedly that the single biggest factor that presages early death is lack of social connection; researchers are finding that lack of social connection is a stronger predictor of premature death than are obesity and smoking.

Achor also cited a study that found that among third-year medical students, who are by and large more optimistic than are their first- and second-year counterparts, that those third-year med students who have become more optimistic are 19-percent more accurate in their diagnoses and judgments than those who are depressed or stressed.

The author and speaker urged healthcare leaders to understand how very much their own personal attitudes could shape the attitudes of their entire organizations. “It’s not necessarily reality that shapes us, but rather, the lens around reality that shapes us. That was true in our board conversation this morning,” he said, adding that “Our personal decisions are so impactful on the entire industry.”

And he urged his audience to understand that, “As you go through all these challenges, you have the opportunity to see the threat to what you’re doing, or the potential in how you’re handling those challenges.”




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