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As Shawn Achor wrapped up his talk at RetailSpaces, he set a special challenge for everyone in attendance.

He tasked the store development and design executives from some of retail’s biggest brands with spending two minutes of every morning praising or thanking someone they know via email. Not only that, he suggested they continue the habit for at least 21 days.

“It seems like such a small intervention that there’s no way it can have a big impact,” Achor said. “But with just a two-minute change in your day, you can raise your levels of optimism above your genetic set point and improve your health outcomes as well.”

This email exchange experiment was one of several exercises the author and happiness researcher set for the audience. Fast-talking and full of anecdotal evidence from his findings, Achor’s work centers around a single aim: to help everyone rewire their brains and combat an ingrained negativity bias, ultimately boosting happiness levels.

A Welcome Shift

Considering the retail industry has spent the past few years drowning in a never-ending stream of negative news coverage around store closures, Achor’s advice was particularly pertinent, to say the least.

“We open up our inboxes looking for the fires that we need to put out, we get alerts on our watches and phones about all that’s going wrong in the world… Our brains have become experts at scanning the world for negative hassles, complaints, frustrations, and threats.”

Exacerbated by hyper advancements in technology over the last decade, Achor stressed the flow-on effect of negative thinking is having a devastating effect on the way companies handle new challenges and constant disruption in the digital age.

The answer, he says, lies in seeing happiness as a highly desirable operational objective.

“Happiness is the greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy because it raises every single business and educational outcome,” Achor said. “Our research shows we’ve been following the wrong formula for happiness and success for far too long.”

Shawn Achor speaking at RetailSpaces

Connection > Competition

Getting to greater levels of happiness and optimism in the workplace will require a focus on social connectivity. Unsurprisingly, Achor was quick to point out this has nothing to do with social media. Instead, he stressed it’s something that can only be attained through genuine efforts to boost our relationships with others.

“If you have social connection that’s deep and meaningful, you have happiness,” he said, adding “social connection is as predictive of how long you will end up living as obesity, high blood pressure, or smoking.”

But reaping these benefits will require a massive shift in the way companies manage staff. Rather than approaching happiness as an individualistic pursuit, Achor suggested what’s required is a “push against all the competition we feel within our schools and in our companies.”

“All my research shows that hills in front of us seem 20 percent steeper if we climb them alone, as opposed to with somebody else. So recognizing that we’re with other people in this journey dramatically improves our success rates.”

Conferences and Collaboration

Considering the industry is staring down the barrel of unprecedented change and technological transformation, being at events like RetailSpaces, Achor said, is key to building “rational optimism.”

For would-be innovators and game changers, the willingness to collaborate and share solutions — even with competitors — is a prerequisite for a shot at positively influencing the industry’s future.

“If we make conscious choices about the way that we interact, we deepen our relationships and we seek gratitude and meaning in our lives. When we do that, we can move away from negativity, stress and uncertainty and we can find a way of making this a better world,” Achor said.

Jason Schwab

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Content + event producer with an innate, insatiable curiosity. Fixated on retail, restaurant, and hospitality design.

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