Heard at the CHIME Fall Forum: Might CIOs Really Be Able to Apply the Science of Happiness to their Current Challenges?

Oct. 18, 2015
Bestselling author and speaker Shawn Achor provided CHIME Fall Forum attendees with food for thought, when he challenged them to consider how they might apply findings from the science of happiness, to the massive transformational work facing them at this moment in U.S. healthcare

It was fascinating to hear the keynote address of Shawn Achor, the bestselling author of the books The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness, on Thursday morning at the JW Marriott Grande Lakes Resort in Orlando, as he challenged healthcare IT leaders attending the CHIME Fall Forum (sponsored by the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based College of Healthcare Information Management Executives), to rethink how they pursue their strategic aims in a healthcare industry undergoing massive, disruptive change.

As I noted in my report on Thursday, Achor 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 recounted having breakfast with the members of the CHIME board of directors just that morning. He told his audience, “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.”

Shawn Achor offers his perspectives at the CHIME Fall Forum on Oct. 15

In other words, Achor emphasized, the core of his argument is this: he fully recognizes that healthcare CIOs and other IT leaders are having to lead their colleagues through some incredibly difficult challenges right now, and that everyone is deeply stressed. The author told his audience Thursday morning that he is under absolutely no illusions about the scope and intensity of the challenges. At the same time, he said, in a number of different ways, it is also clear that CIOs and other healthcare IT leaders have the opportunity to lead positively and affirmatively, or to lead negatively and pessimistically. And, sharing a wide variety of examples of findings from the science of happiness, he told CHIME15 attendees that it is absolutely clear to him that the opportunity is there to inject needed, realistic positivity into our pursuit of difficult goals at this critical time in U.S. healthcare.

At one point in his speech, Achor said something that particularly clicked for me about all this. “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.” That statement was important, but it is not original; it is closely connected with some of the concepts introduced by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, in his seminal work on psychology, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In that book, Csíkszentmihályi—as described in the Wikipedia article on him—“outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he is doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill—and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored,” the Wikipedia article notes.

So in other words—to synthesize Achor’s statements last Thursday in Orlando and Csíkszentmihályi’s seminal work in this area—we’re not blithely talking here about the “pleasure” of wrestling with issues like cybersecurity, dovetailing clinical and claims data, upgrading PACS systems, or meeting the requirements of meaningful use. Instead, what these authors are pointing to is something different—the sense of positive purposefulness that CIOs and other healthcare IT leaders might be able to derive from truly helping to lead the healthcare industry—and therefore, our larger society—forward, on some really important transformational work.

There is real practicality to applying the science of happiness to complex processes like healthcare delivery and operations, Achor noted in his speech last Thursday. For example, he 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.

And he 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.”

So the next time healthcare CIOs gather together in small or even large groups, those who were present at Shawn Achor’s opening keynote address at CHIME15 in Orlando might want to begin by reframing the massive, daunting sets of challenges facing them, through the lens of the science of happiness, not in any simpering, Pollyanna-ish way, but instead, in a spirit of true leadership, understanding that choosing to position the challenges ahead of our industry in a positive construct rather than in a “woe is me” kind of mental framework, and believing that such a reframing really could result in a lot of practical benefits to everyone involved. Achor—and Csíkszentmihályi and all the other researchers and scientists studying human motivation in recent decades—would be proud.

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