ep. 12 - Amy Blankson: Co-founder GoodThink, Presidential Point of Light Recipient, & Author
Amy Blankson is the only person to be named a Point of Light by two Presidents (President Bush and President Clinton). She received a Presidential appointment to serve a five-year term on the Board of Directors of the Corporation for National Service, and was one of the youngest delegates to the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future. Amy received her BA from Harvard and MBA from Yale School of Management. She went on to co-found the Future of Philanthropy Conference at Yale University, and in 2007, joined GoodThink on the ground floor to develop and scale the company as it sought to bring the science of happiness to life.
Drawing on over 17 years of management and consulting experience with businesses, foundations, and nonprofits, Amy Blankson brings both passion and practicality to GoodThink. She is currently doing research in partnership with Google to determine how to make positive psychology strategies stick and create sustainable positive change. Amy is the author of the award-winning children’s book Ripple’s Effect, and has three beautiful daughters who teach her about the joy of positivity and the importance of gratitude on a daily basis.
Gail Davis: Amy Blankson is the only person to be named Point of Light by two presidents, Bush and Clinton. She received a Presidential appointment on the Board of Directors of the Corporation for National Service, and was one of the youngest delegates to the Presidents' Summit for America's Future. Amy received her BA from Harvard and MBA from the Yale School of Management. She's been very busy working in her field and she is the author of two books, the Ripple Effect and The Future of Happiness, which will be released April 11th. I'm excited for her to share information about her new book, so welcome to the GDA Podcast, Amy.
Amy Blankson: Thank you so much, Gail. It's a pleasure to be here.
Gail Davis: You have a lot going on. I don't know where to start. I think starting with the new book would be a great place. I know it has a subtitle, which I skipped over because I thought you might want to reflect a little bit about that and tell the listeners what the book will be about.
Amy Blankson: Absolutely. Thanks for that intro. I'm happy to share with listeners about my new book coming out. It's called The Future of Happiness. The subtitle is Five modern strategies to wire your world for greater productivity and well-being. The idea behind it is really how do we deal with the digital distraction as really started to overwhelm our lives both at work and at home and with our families. What is it about technology that affects our health? How does the research of positive psychology help us understand what we need to do now to shape the future so that happiness can prevail and keep pace with innovation? Not just keep pace with it, but actually drive happiness as well. That's the main thrust of the book. I'm so excited for readers to get it in their hands and start reading. It's chock-full of some great hands on strategies that I think will be really fun to share a little bit in a sneak preview with you today.
Gail Davis: That's awesome. I know you're a mother. I'm sure you think about this from a parenting perspective as well. It's just a whole new world. Everybody is connected everywhere they turn around even their refrigerators are talking to them now. How do we navigate that reliance or dependence or constant connection with technology?
Amy Blankson: Absolutely. I comment this, as you said, as a mother and like many people I talk to. When I hear this topic, I immediately think of it in terms of other people in my life like how do I help my children set better boundaries with technology. How do I help my husband set better boundaries with technology and how do I help myself? I think that second or third level of thought process about what technology does to influence our lives usually hits home a little bit later, but I think that it's just the salient for us to think about other people in our lives as well as our own lives. When I think about the inundation, the flood of information that's coming at us, it really is mind-boggling. I know this is the 10th anniversary of the iPhone. When you think back just 10 years ago how there wasn't email that was easily accessible in your phone or calendar syncing or contacts and address books, we are in a whole new world now and the speed of which this has happened is a little bit dizzying. I focus a lot in this book looking at what are some good practices, what are the most affective people doing who balanced technology, well-being and their lives and tried to tease out some of the strategies and things that I saw that were so important. One of the topics that really struck me off the top was there is a movement within the media right now to really focus on technology being a distractor and something that pulls away from the quality of life in our society. It came out of an initial fascination with technology where there were a lot of early adaptors and people who are very excited about the latest new gadget. I think we've seen this slowing down process as people are getting more and more overwhelmed. They have no more space on their nightstand to plug-in another device, right? They are slowing down a little bit and saying, "What am I doing with all this? Why am I using it?" Simultaneously, we see messages from the media like there was an article at the New York Post a few weeks ago that called "Screen time, digital heroin." It made this sort of doomsday projection about how the world was going to fall apart because of screens. I kind of chuckled at that as well because, clearly, technology is inanimate, right? Sometimes we forget this. That technology itself is just a tool. It's not something malicious. It's just object that we as humans have to figure out how to use. At this point, we've been testing the waters, we've been exploring, but I'm not really sure that we've hit upon the best strategies moving forward. Because technology keeps changing, it keeps making us have to continue to learn about what the latest and greatest is and how do we use it. As I think about that, I decided to bring together the research of positive psychology together with what I was learning about technology and social connection and human connection. What I think is really fascinating is that, at GoodThink, we talk all the time about how important it is to be an optimist. We define an optimist as the belief that our behavior matters. At the same time, those same individuals who I would say or would self-identify as being the most optimistic individuals that you would know, those are the same individuals who are suddenly becoming very vocal about pessimism around technology. It's almost like creating a bubble around technology like, "I'm an optimistic person, but technology is not in that space." That's because of frustration. We've all had a computer that has crashed on us. We lost all of our data and our photos and it depressed us a couple days or weeks.
Kyle Davis: Not me. Not me at all. No, I'm all cloud all day. Don't have to worry about it.
Amy Blankson: Absolutely. Triple back up. Kyle Davis: I got Dropbox, Box, and GCloud, so I'm good.
Amy Blankson: Exactly. I think what we see happening is that those same individuals who've been burned by technology here or there in the past are suddenly very wary of its role in their life in the future. Articles like Digital Screen Time as being Digital Heroin is not helpful to that picture. The picture I tried to cast through my book is to look at technology again as just a tool, how do you use it effectively and how do you regain control over it so that it can be something that fuels your potential and your success and your happiness.
Kyle Davis: I had a great conversation with a futurist a few weeks ago, who was talking about Slack or any of the other competition to Slack, so it's HipChat or whatever the Microsoft version of it is now. Basically, he was just saying that it can be very overwhelming for some people, especially if you don't have like the notification set up right and everything else. It can just seem like a great deluge of just notifications and information that's completely not relevant to you. If you rethink about it as kind of redefining of email from email being files and folders and correspondents through a one way channel and having with Slack or those other things like HipChat and whatnot, having it be more like a conversation on that topic and a place to have those conversations and stored knowledge, it becomes a different way of accepting it and it becomes more accepting to other people.
Amy Blankson: Absolutely. You know what I love about what you said Kyle was that it's another form of communication, but not a replacement for communication. I think some of the people who are worried that technology is decreasing the amount of connection we find with other people, face-to-face communication. I think those individuals are seeing it as a substitute for normal face-to-face communication. Whereas things like HipChat or Slack are actually bringing another layer to the levels of communication we already have and that's really important because some of the original research done about social connection and the internet was done way back in AOL days, Netscape Navigator, in fact, in the late '90s. The research was that individuals who spent time surfing online wound up feeling less happy and less connected after five hours. The same exact professor later went back and he did the same study once the internet was more developed and he studied whether or not people who have deeper levels of social connection found their time on the internet to be more meaningful. In fact, it was the case. Those individuals who had strong ties to each other found that online communication strengthen their relationship even more. Those who had really weak ties, people who are pretty much strangers or just randomly interacting on chats found that they were less happy unless connected. I think there's something really important to be said for not substituting, but adding on and creating another dimension and another way to relate to each other that we've never had before.
Kyle Davis: I have friends of mine who I went to school with them in New York City. I don't want to name their names. They are dating and one stayed in New York and the other one moved to Chicago and they use Skype for their dates. That's how they stay connected so they can see each other's face and then they watch a movie. They watch the same movie at the same time. They hit play, boom, and they are watching it on Netflix. They have Netflix helping them and then you Skype and can have a little side conversation. They do it every Friday night and that's their date night. I just don't see relationships 20 years ago having that same stickiness factor if we're going to use that.
Amy Blankson: Absolutely. They were just qualitatively different. You can write a letter and wait two months and get a letter in return. It was greatly anticipated and very well loved, but the amount of conversation and the depth of conversation just couldn't hit the same level as it can today. I think specifically about military families. My family used to be in the military and one of the things we saw was that one of our friends got deployed. The entire family was able to stay in touch significantly better when he was deployed in 2008 than when he was in 2004 just from the upgrade in technology. The WiFi speeds interact and the ability to have live streaming of video face chat, even the ability for the soldiers to read books to their children at night. It wasn't just one snippet of a voicemail they got on the phone, but like an entire extended relationship maintained over months that was previously just nonexistent. I think for those reasons that it really can add layers of conversation, but it really does also require some intentionality behind the way we use technology. One of the concepts that I talk about in the book is something called The Happiness Cliff. I love the idea because it harkens back to the old Looney Tunes era when Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner were constantly in a battle to see who could escape the other one. If you remember, the Road Runner was infinitely smarter. She always ran to the edge of the cliff and she would skitter to a stop just at the last moment. Whereas Wile E. Coyote would keep running and he probably have his legs moving as fast as he can and then look down and then realized that the ground has dropped out from beneath him and he splashed to the bottom of a canyon yet again. What we see happening is that a lot of us who spent time on technology wind up acting like Wile E. Coyote and that we have used it for longer than it was actually benefiting us. If you really enjoy Facebook, you are connecting with your friends, you're having a great time, maybe the first hour was awesome, but an hour and a half into looking into Facebook you realized you really didn't gain anything extra. You just spent scrolling through random people in your life and sort of numbing yourself to tuning out rather than tuning in to the world around you. Part of what I encourage readers to do is to think about where their happiness cliff is, where is the point at which the technology you are using is no longer adding to your productivity, it's no longer helping you focus more. It's actually detracting from it and that's the point at which we set up a new boundaries to say, "Hey, for me, for this project or for today, this is where I need to shut down because I know my limits and this is not who I want to be or where I'm going." It's really a focus on intentionality there.
Kyle Davis: I would say from my days of working in Silicon Valley and also Silicon Alley in New York that a lot of like I think the younger tech people if you will or start up people. We have a real intentional way with which we focus when we work with technology. You always hear about this work-life balance. So long as your phone has ability to receive email, you're always working if you're always holding it.
Amy Blankson: Absolutely.
Kyle Davis: I have a lot of friends who they are just sticklers. They just turn it off at seven, it's done. It's thinking about their relationship that they have with it and it's making it so life is a little bit easier. One of the questions that I do have with you to go back to digital distractions in having that intentionality is what do you see not all of it obviously, but what are like two or three digital distractions that people have? Is it as a result of not being intentional with how they actually use technology or is it maybe even not having an understanding of how it actually works?
Amy Blankson: It might depend on your age [inaudible 00:15:35] ages, but I think that maybe the latter would focus more on how much we are using technology. It shapes your ability to find those boundaries better. It's a great question. I think that some of the distractions that I've seen have just been impulse to open and close the phone. Whether or not you have any intention of doing something, it becomes almost a habit like an obsessive habit, especially with younger people. Just to open it and see if anything has happened or if you might have missed the message or something came through. What happens though and this just astounded me is I discovered that the average person opens and closes their phone 150 times a day. If you assume that each time they open and close their email, conservatively, maybe they get distracted for one minute. That might be Facebook surfing. It could be Twitter, snapshot, messaging, email, phone call, whatever it might be, looking at a picture. If you just assume that just took you one minute, that would be two and a half hours out of your day just opening and closing your phone, not necessarily doing anything. If you calculate that over the course of the year, it's two and a half months of your life just opening and closing your phone. It's shocking.
Gail Davis: That's conservative.
Amy Blankson: Right. That's conservative. Some of the stuffs I read up to 11 minutes to get back to the original task that you were doing. That would be even more staggering to think about the amount of time that these so-called productive devices in our life are leading us astray. What I recommend doing for that is simply removing the phone from your line of sight. Rather than putting your phone in your back pocket where it still vibrates or you can still hear it ping, I actually turn off the ringer and I hide it behind my laptop. The research says that if you just have your phone out of your line of sight that it will actually increase your productivity by 23%. Amazing! Just hiding your phone and that helps you because we know that we are weak on willpower. Helping yourself know when to create a boundary and that maybe on the hour you could pull your phone on and check it if there's something you're really waiting for. There's also some really awesome apps that can help you develop control of your technology. There's an app called ( OFFTIME ) or one called Unplugged. Those two apps are great because they help you build awareness about how many times you're unlocking your phone, which apps you are spending the most time in, and they can offer an ability for you to set periods of time or a little alarm systems where you cut off your access to your phone. You could say for the next 30 minutes I don't want to hear anything come through. I don't even want to be able to unlock my phone. Unless somebody calls twice, which signals an emergency, otherwise, don't bother me, don't light up, don't do anything, just let me not see it. It turns out to be a pretty effective strategy. It's like putting yourself in time out and mommy speak, but it's really helpful to develop a discipline again that I think we've lost over time because that impulse has become almost an addiction to the high of getting some sort of information that dopamine release of, "Oh, I got a message. Oh, I heard from a friend. Oh, I've got something really important about to go on." Focus is the premium these days. The more that we can recreate that and help ourselves to be more present, I think the better off we all are.
Kyle Davis: One of the things that I do that's really benefiting me is with my iPhone I put on do not disturb mode. I do keep it still in line of sight so I still see it, so maybe I should probably improve on that. That way in case someone in my favorites list calls me, I always pick up. Then, the next thing was actually getting the Apple Watch, which surprisingly enough because it has the haptic response on it so it shakes on my wrist. It really helps me if I get actually a legitimate notification to go look at it, but if it's on do not disturb, it doesn't shake either so then I automatically think nothing is happening.
Amy Blankson: Absolutely. It's such a good idea to just be able to create some sort of boundary there that prevents and blocks that distraction.
Kyle Davis: You are kind of like teasing out of it, but I'm just curious if you've even looked into it, but are you familiar with the Pomodoro method?
Amy Blankson: Yes. About setting timers for yourself or even the Pomodoro app to help you ... Yes, exactly. It's a strategy that I think is so helpful. I had a friend recently who was recovering from a concussion and she knew that she couldn't look at screens for very long periods of time, but she really, really wanted to. She used the Pomodoro method to help herself through the recovery process so that she could build up to more screen time and that was really important for her to be able to create that boundary for herself when she knew she couldn't do it on her own.
Kyle Davis: If people are listening and they are not really familiar with it, for my use of it just historically if I remember correctly, it's like 20 minutes on, five minutes of rest time, 20 minutes back on. I think there's custom apps so you can actually adjust the time, but you dedicate work on a specific project for the duration. You can actually plan out your whole day and say, "Okay, I'm going to do 30 minutes of email in the morning, then do 10 minutes of calls and blank, blank, blank." You can actually do the whole thing as soon as I get a notification telling me I just got an email.
Gail Davis: That's perfect timing.
Kyle Davis: I'll probably turn my notifications off. There you go.
Gail Davis: That's perfect orchestrated. Amy, you mentioned earlier GoodThink and I know that is the company with which you work with several family members, not the least of which is your wonderful brother, Shawn Achor, who I've had the privilege of working with a lot. Do you want to tell the listeners a little bit about what your company does, how you all collaborate as family members and just give us a little background on GoodThink?
Amy Blankson: Absolutely. GoodThink started back in 2007. It was a company that Shawn and I decided to found together in the midst of the economic recession to help bring the research of positive psychology, to life for people who really needed it at the time in their lives where uncertainty was at a maximum. At that time, we were going through the financial crisis. The mortgage industry was collapsing. We were seeing the auto industry collapse. We were doing the research of positive psychology and starting to venture out as academic speaking to larger communities about the research we are learning. We just discovered more and more individuals who had never heard the scientific reasons behind why positive psychology was so important. GoodThink began to bring that research to a greater audience and now, 10 years later, we've been to over 15 different countries working from every group from the MBA and the White House to school children in Soweto, South Africa and Women's College in Dubai, Wall Street bankers and executives in Singapore. I think what has been amazing through this work I could think is really been this realization that across the globe, there has been a brokenness in the way that we approach happiness. For so long, we really believe this idea that if we work hard enough then we'd be successful. If we are successful, then we are going to be happy. In fact, what we found in the research of positive psychology that exactly the opposite was true that individuals who are happier, more positive are more engaged and more effective at their jobs and see longer term success. As we began to share this information, this research, the company began to grow. We actually added on Shawn's now wife. Her name is Michelle Gielan and she was a national network news anchor from New York, who is at the top of her career and wound up leaving the news to go to University of Pennsylvania to get a master's in positive psychology because she was so discouraged by how negative the news was and she wanted to do something to make it better. She wound up launching an entire brand around transformative journalism and how you can create and tell your own story as a personal broadcaster in your life with a more effective lens on the way you are doing things. That began GoodThink with Shawn, my brother, myself and then his wife joined and more recently my husband joined the team as well, Doctor Bobo, who is an adolescent health doctor who focuses on positive medicine, how do you use both positive thinking as a form of medicine as well as how do you connect food in your life with the ability to understand how food impacts your overall health and your mood as well. He's been a great addition as well. We were told by colleagues never to work with family and friends and I'm pretty sure we have effectively violated every rule of that.
Gail Davis: It works for you all.
Amy Blankson: It works.
Gail Davis: I have to tell the listeners I had launched with the group that Amy just described right before the holidays. I remember walking in feeling just like a little scattered like, "How am I going to get to this list and that list and I still got to take care of this end of your thing." I mean, 15 minutes into the conversation, it was oozing with positivity. We even covered politics, so we all came that happy good friends.
Amy Blankson: It was so much fun. I don't remember laughing that much in a long time.
Gail Davis: It was a lot of fun. It's a great group of people and I love ... I've had the pleasure of working with everyone. I know your husband. We haven't booked him as a speaker yet, but we've certainly worked with Shawn a lot and Michelle and we are looking forward. I know we're going to have a lot of interest in you in this new book hits the stands and I'm so glad we are getting a chance to preview this in advance. One thing early on when I introduced you, we talked about you being ...
Kyle Davis: A Point of Light award recipient. My question to you at that time was I have no clue what that is. Please, now that I've been enlightened, enlighten the audience.
Amy Blankson: Awesome. I'm happy to bring that light to the audience as well. The Point of Light award is a really special award that President Bush Sr. started back in the 1990s and he started it to recognize an individual organization every single day of his presidency to help spread inspiration to the larger community about how people can bring light to their community. President Bush carried it on and to President Clinton and President Clinton passed it on to Bush Jr. It continued through Obama's presidency as well. It has really become one of the very few presidential bipartisan efforts to create a movement of positivity within the world by recognizing people doing good things. I was the 1,021st Point of Light and because my day fell right between the Bush and Clinton presidencies, I was able to be awarded a Point of Light from both presidents, which was really special. I got it for doing some community service and central taxes around organizing the first Youth Summit ever for 1,200 teens to learn about civic engagement in their community. The model had since been replicated and many times over to get young people to buy into the idea of youth empowerment, youth serving on boards, youth taking a voice in their community and being engaged in civic affairs. I was really proud and excited to be honored, very humbled to be included in that award. I since then see many other very, very deserving individuals be able to receive this award as well.
Kyle Davis: Very cool. Gail just had to step out of the room for a second. I kind of like the idea of being able to bring positivity into people's life and to do a number of different things. I think as we head towards the wrap up if you will, if you could enlighten me with that, what would be one thing that people can start doing today that would start to benefit them so that they can start to see more positivity or at least have a better understanding or more positive outlook on life?
Amy Blankson: Great question. I have two answers for that Kyle if you will.
Kyle Davis: I'll take two answers.
Amy Blankson: Perfect. The first and I think the most important first step is for people to realize that their happiness is a choice in their life. It's not something that's dictated by their environment or their genes, but something that they truly have a choice about. I often tell in my talks about the story when I was stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi. My husband was in the air force and that was one of the first place is they stationed us. It wasn't really my favorite place to be stationed. They gave us a list of like 25 options and I'm pretty sure that one was the bottom on my list. I went there with this attitude of, "Well, I don't really want to be here, but I'm going to make the best of it." We bought our first home and we settled in and got a dog and we met our neighbors. Three months later, hurricane Katrina hit. In a span of just three days, I lost my house. I lost my dog and I lost my community. My husband was sent to San Antonio and I was sent to Virginia and we were separated for a few weeks. I remember feeling my head spinning around like, "What just happened here?" At that time, I felt so powerless in the situation. I felt like the weather systems controlled whether I could be happy or the military controlled whether I was going to be able to be happy. What I since learned from that time is that the work of Sonja Lyubomirsky says that, "Only 10% of our happiness is determined by our external environment. The other 90% of your happiness is completely within your control. It's up to your perception of the world." That explains why some people in the same room might all perceive the situation just a little bit differently because it's their perception. The same way we have the ability to choose how we perceive the world and to be able to create a different story for yourself, to rise above your circumstances all starts with believing that happiness is a choice that you can make. I connect that back to The Future of Happiness and the work that I'm doing now with technology and seeing vain that I can make technology work for me. I can make it fuel my happiness, but it's under my control if I'm intentional about it, if I'm thinking about when and where and why and how I'm using technology in my life. My last chapter of the book, it's definitely my baby. It's my Point of Light chapter if you will. It is the chapter that talks about how people can take the torch of the idea of positive psychology and technology into their own spheres so you don't have to be a technology wizard or a digi geek or whatever you might call it. That you don't have to be an engineer. You don't have to be in business with no matter what space you're in. There's space for each of us to innovate very consciously and thoughtfully around how we create happiness in the future. That might be in terms of the way that we collaborate with different desperate partners in our lives to help bring solutions to things that haven't happened before. It could be a way of being a conscious consumer and acquiring more information about the products that we purchase and even the apps that we download or the things that we invest in. It could just be serving as a catalyst and I think very much about the Points of Light program when I think about how people can take an idea to inspire other people to feel happiness. One of my favorite examples is the Enabling The Future organization, which is a nonprofit that is now worldwide that helps people volunteer to print prosthetic hands for children. They get people all around the world to help put together 3D printers to assemble parts to make hands for children. They even had 10-year-old children who are missing a hand making their own hands using this technology. When I think about the stories and I see the pictures of the children being able to write for the first time with that hand, I'm just astounded with what kind of leap that is, not just that the technology exist, but the technology exist for kids to help themselves be able to overcome things like that and to feel empowered and proud of that moment. My goal with this book is to really develop a platform where I can highlight some of the other amazing individuals all over the world who are doing this and to bring that light to others as well.
Kyle Davis: I think that is a good place for us to wrap up. Thank you, Amy.
Gail Davis: Thank you, Amy. It's great.
Kyle Davis: In case everybody is wondering, happiness is a choice and be intentional. Moreover, get Amy's book when it comes out on April 11th. I don't know why I was about to say November 11th.
Gail Davis: April 11th.
Kyle Davis: April 11th. If you want to read the transcript from today's podcast, you can go to gdapodcast.com. If you want more information on how to book Amy or get her for your event, you can go to gdaspeakers.com or you can call 214-420-1999. Thanks, Amy.
Gail Davis: Thank you, Amy.
Amy Blankson: Thank you both so much.