The Science of Changing Other People

The Science of Changing Other People

My friends thought I was insane. I had worked incredibly hard to land the opportunity to anchor two national newscasts at CBS News. Every morning, more than 1 million people tuned in for their daily dose of current events from me, Michelle Gielan. But the content was so negative, I realized I didn’t want a little kid walking through the room while I was doing my job. That’s when I knew I needed a change.

I went to the University of Pennsylvania to study positive psychology to figure out how to create positive change in a negative world. Although the purpose of my research findings is to transform media in newsrooms, I also work with my husband and fellow positive psychology researcher, Shawn Achor, to empower people to apply the same strategies to their own personal broadcasts in order to fuel happiness and success.

Our research shows that choosing to communicate an optimistic, empowered mindset to the people around you—especially in the face of adversity—drives positive business outcomes. And most importantly, we’ve discovered that making others feel positive makes it much easier for you to sustain happiness in your life.

The roadblock we often encounter when thinking about making others more positive is that it goes against a long-held societal belief that we can’t change other people. Think about how many times over the course of your life someone has told you that you can’t change someone else. Although that might feel accurate in extreme cases, for the vast majority of people in our lives, buying into this fallacy works against us. The belief that you can’t change other people is not only disempowering but is also scientifically false.

We are changing people all the time. A 1981 study published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior exemplifies how quickly and easily we influence each other. Researchers put three strangers in a room together and had them wait in silence for two minutes, testing their moods before and after the experiment. The results were astounding. Repeatedly, the person who was most nonverbally expressive of their mood influenced the mood of the other two people in the room. For instance, if a person sat frowning with his or her arms crossed, the other two people felt more negative. Conversely, if that person smiled and appeared relaxed, this had a positive effect on the others. Even when we’re not talking, we can have an incredible impact on the mood and mindset of those around us.

At some point in our careers, we’ve all felt how quickly negativity or stress spreads in a meeting. Perhaps a colleague of yours was presenting an idea, and there was a person in the room who might not have spoken up, but everyone knew how they felt about it. That dissenter’s silent scowl changes how everyone perceives the presentation.

Although it is fascinating to explore the ripple effect toxic people can have, we have become significantly more interested in what happens when an optimistic, resilient, empowered person clearly communicates that mindset to others.


An optimistic mindset is infectious, and it lays the groundwork for individual and collective success. Our research shows that changing your broadcast to be more optimistic can increase sales by 37%.

The belief that you can’t change other people is not only disempowering, it is scientifically false.

At the heart of our work is uncovering best practices to communicate in a way that is rational, authentic and compelling. It’s a line of inquiry that was sparked by a transformative experience I had while covering the news at the height of the 2008 recession.

The uncertainty and fear people felt due to the economic downturn was palpable, which might be why my producer thought I was crazy to suggest we do a weeklong series called “Happy Week.” Instead of merely reporting on people losing their homes and livelihoods, we could share science-based strategies for dealing with these issues. Every time we highlighted a problem, such as an impending foreclosure or rising financial stress in a marriage, we paired it with advice for how to deal with that challenge. We got the greatest viewer response of the year.

I received a message from a viewer in Oklahoma who was facing a home foreclosure. He and his estranged brother lived just 20 miles away, yet they had not spoken for more than two decades. Both were about to lose their homes. After watching one of the “Happy Week” segments, this man decided to try something bold. He reached out to his brother. They patched things up, pooled their money, saved one of the homes and moved in together. If you change your broadcast, you harness your power to positively influence others.

We now understand what was going on in the brain to drive that success. In a study published in Harvard Business Review, we found that you can increase creative problem-solving abilities by simply getting someone’s brain to move from problem to solution.

In this study, which we conducted with Arianna Huffington, we found that pairing solutions with problems significantly boosts performance. Half of the participants were asked to watch three minutes of negative news stories, and the other half were asked to watch three minutes of negative news stories which also presented solutions for the issues being discussed. Those exposed to the negative news, without solutions, were 27% more likely than their counterparts to experience unhappiness throughout the day.

In order to get unstuck, we must focus less on the problem and more on the solution. That’s where the “Now Step” comes in.

The Science of Changing Other People

The next time you catch yourself stressing about a problem, ask yourself one thing you can do about it right now. The Now Step is the smallest meaningful action you can take this very second that might not solve the whole problem but will start you down the path to a solution. The Now Step gives you a framework to help someone else move from stress to positive action.

Imagine your friend asks you to meet at a coffee shop for advice on how to buy a new car even though she is broke. It would be insane to tell her she needs to go back to school to get a master’s degree so she can get a new job in order to get a raise. Instead, try brainstorming some small steps she could take to reach her goal, and encourage her to pick one and do it. Perhaps she could buy a small cup of coffee instead of a large mocha latte and save $4. Maybe her uncle has an extra car he could lend her for two months while she saves up. Those small steps give her brain a win and encourage her to keep making progress.

As an entrepreneur or even someone with a mile-long to-do list, this strategy helps break you out of the stressed-out zone. Do one or two small, easy things early in the day to give your brain the boost it needs. We’ve found that 91% of people could deal with stress better if they did so, and a major reason people don’t deal with stress well is because they get stuck ruminating.

In partnership with Ontario-based Plasticity Labs, we created a scientifically validated assessment to test people on their response to stress. (Visit to test yourself.) Your response predicts your work and life satisfaction, as well as your long-term success at work. We found that although what we stress about continually changes, how we stress remains consistent. Three dimensions matter most:

“Cool under pressure: Are you calm and collected, giving your brain a chance to see a path forward, or do you get anxious, worried and stressed in a way that wears you out?

“Open communicator: Do you share your struggles with people in your life in a way that creates connections, or do you keep them to yourself and silently suffer?

“Active problem-solver: Do you face challenges head-on and make a plan, or do you deny the reality of what’s happening in your life and distract yourself?”

Our study found the ideal response is to stay calm, confide in a few trusted confidants and create a plan of action, starting with a Now Step. Rational responders had the highest overall happiness in life, made the most money and experienced the lowest levels of stress.


I deliver keynote speeches at companies nationwide, and within the first minute of my talk, I often hear an audible gasp. It’s the following statistic that elicits it: Just three minutes of negative news in the morning increases your chances of having a bad day by 27%, as reported six to eight hours later.

This research comes from the study we did with Huffington on the effects of news on the brain. Not only can news ruin your day, but the effects can last up to eight hours, meaning the mood and mindset we adopt in the morning can have a lasting impact on our day.

The Science of Changing Other People

When our brains become full of negative information early in the morning, the lens through which we view our work and our life changes. At work, stressful rumors or a negative boss can decimate employee engagement. If our brain gets stuck focusing on the single piece of constructive criticism we received during our performance review, we most likely will not benefit from the praise we are given at the same time. The negative has a very real and lasting pull on us.

There are two inflection points when it comes to our personal broadcast that we can control: what goes in and what comes out. Prime your day for success by knowing what kind of information is positively fueling you.

Many things in this world are beyond your control. The problem occurs when you start to believe that all things are beyond your control, and that helpless mindset transfers to your work and relationships. Skip tragedies and other sensational news. Look for trusted sources that provide you with longer-format articles that dive into potential solutions.

Because so many people get their news from social media, cleaning up your feed is equally important. What we see on social media influences what we post. A 2014 study done by Cornell University in partnership with Facebook found that when researchers manipulated a person’s news feed to be more positive, the person posted more positive stories in his or her own feed.

Taking the lead on the conversation and guiding it into positive territory is the mark of a true leader.

With a sample size of more than 689,000 people, this was the first massive study to show the effects of emotional contagion. What you broadcast changes the broadcast choices made by others. Your ripple effect is positive or negative, depending on your words. If someone in your feed is being toxic, hide him or her. Let social media be a place that brings you happiness as you look at your friends’ pictures of cute animals or expands your mind as you read thought-provoking articles.

The fastest and easiest way to retool your own broadcast is by using what we call the “power lead.” Ask yourself, What is my lead story when talking to other people? Think of yourself as a broadcaster. A power lead is a positive, meaningful start to a conversation. If we start off negatively, there are only two ways the conversation can unfold from there: Either the person we’re talking to offers compassion or plays misery poker (“You think your commute was bad? Let me tell you about mine!”).

In response to “How are you?” skip, “I’m stressed/tired/annoyed… ,” and share something small and meaningful. “I’m great! My team made it to the finals this weekend.” Taking the lead on the conversation and guiding it into positive territory is the mark of a true leader.

I first saw the power in this strategy while developing a positive psychology program with a big-box store for its 1.5 million associates. At one of our site visits, a floor associate, Sharon, said we should study her because she is the happiest woman in the world. She was warm, infectiously positive and laughed with her whole body. I smiled back and asked her how we can be sure she is the world’s most positive person, and that’s when she told me a story I would not forget.

You can increase creative problem-solving abilities by simply getting someone’s brain to move from problem to solution.

Sharon met the man of her dreams later in life, got married and was blissfully happy. A few months after the wedding, her mother died unexpectedly. Her husband helped her through six months of grieving. Just as she was starting to feel like her normal self again, he was killed in a car accident. Sharon said the reason she has the right to call herself the happiest woman on the planet is because despite all of that, she has made a conscious choice every day to not only be positive, but share it with others.

Sharon greets customers with, “It’s a great day! How are you doing?” See how she started the conversation with a positive before she asked the question? That’s a power lead. By starting off each conversation with positivity, Sharon constantly lays the groundwork for cultivating relationships built upon her belief that her choices and mindset define her experiences with the world—and therefore her happiness.


Sometimes it’s hard to see the impact our positive choices have on others. Not everyone is as lucky as we are to get a phone call with clear proof as we did with one of our former clients.

A few years ago, this entrepreneur sold his company for $100 million. When he told us the news, we figured a celebration was in order, but his tone was morose. He explained that the night after the deal, he had a panic attack. With the sale of his “baby,” he felt like he had nothing left. His kids were distant. He thought his wife was going to divorce him and he was very overweight. At 2 a.m. that night, he broke down. His wife said to him, “Honey, I am not divorcing you, at least not tonight. What I want to do with you is take a walk.” He reluctantly agreed.

As they took laps together around the track at the high school down the street, she asked him what he was grateful for. He admitted it was hard, but he came up with a couple of things. By the end of the walk, he felt a little better. From then on, each night they would rinse and repeat, and each night he felt incrementally better.

After two weeks, he had an idea. “Let’s force our daughters to do this at dinner.” The 5-year-old thought it was cute. The 13-year-old rolled her eyes. Neither wanted to take part, so the parents decided to just do it in front of them.

A few weeks later, our client got a call from the father of his older daughter’s friend who had been at a sleepover at the man’s home. In a serious voice, he said they needed to talk about his daughter’s behavior at the slumber party. Our client grew nervous as  worries about boys and drinking flooded his mind.

The other father said the reason he called was to tell him that at the sleepover, our client’s daughter had felt like many of their classmates at school were being exceptionally mean recently, so she sat the girls down in a circle and had them go around saying nice things about one another.

The ripple effect here was clear. The wife changed the conversation from anxiety to gratitude,  the husband modeled it at the dinner table and the teenage daughter brought it to the sleepover.

There are countless moments in each day when we can choose to broadcast happiness. It doesn’t mean we ignore the negative. We just choose not to get stuck there. We take action and celebrate the good.

Share this post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.