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Psychology At Work

Psychology at Work

Happy Is as Happy Does

September 8, 2011
Related Topics: Strategy and Management

When the New York Times’ venerated Sunday edition published a piece titled “Happy People Work Harder,” co-authored by a Harvard professor no less, people sat up and took notice. Although researchers in psychology have known for some time that people with a positive outlook on life tend to outperform their gloomier brethren in the workplace (and our grandmothers told us that, remember?), it isn’t something much talked about in polite circles of the management consultocracy. So it isn’t a surprise that the Sept. 4 article has created quite a buzz in the blogosphere.

Why happiness at work is such a big deal, I am not sure. Maybe it sounds vaguely unfair to people not blessed with a sunny disposition, or maybe it is flat-out too simple. But the empirical evidence is robust; happier people miss fewer days, bring more energy to their tasks, work better with others, produce more work and generally create less drama in the office.

The authors, Teresa Amabile and Stephen Kramer, analyzed more than 12,000 diary entries from people in a variety of professions in a controlled study. They summarize their findings as such:

“Our research shows that inner work life has a profound impact on workers’ creativity, productivity, commitment and collegiality . . .  our real-time data shows that workers perform better when they are happily engaged in what they do.”

I am delighted this issue is being thrust into the mainstream conversation on workplace issues. Having spent 30 years looking at human behavior in the workplace from a number of vantage points, I can’t agree more with these findings. I am less than delighted, however, in the authors’ suggestions on how workers can find happiness. They play “small ball,” with a few desultory sentences about leaders helping workers make progress toward finishing projects or something of that sort. They conclude meekly: “Sometimes, all that’s required is that managers address daily hassles and help with technical problems.”

Sorry, I don’t think fixing the copier brings inner peace to your employees.

More importantly, you aren’t going to have happy employees if you don’t have a sense of well-being yourself. Studies show that leaders who have a strong sense of self, personal strengths and optimism -- key components of happiness -- are more capable of instilling these qualities in others. Leaders are also more likely to be effective and have engaged employees if they - the leaders - find work that expresses their values. Mike Prokopeak calls this “selfishness” in an excellent article in the September version of this magazine, arguing that the best leaders “move from managing results to creating meaning and living their own deepest values.”

Perhaps I have been too hard on the authors of the Times piece for not unveiling the key to happiness in a 1,000-word op-ed. It shares this shortcoming with most of the scientific literature. There are dozens of studies on the benefits of happiness and positive emotions at work, but few offer satisfactory and actionable ways to find it.

The good news is that paths to happiness at work do exist. Turning to the research being led by Martin Seligman, Chris Peterson, Barbara Fredrickson, Shane Lopez and others in the field of positive psychology, we are finding that optimism is not just something with which you are born, it can be learned. You can teach yourself cognitive skills that focus on positive outcomes in stressful situations. You can measure and learn to apply your strengths of character and heighten your ability to experience positive emotions. You can find that the ability to instill hope in yourself and others is a skill to be mastered, not just an aspiration.

In conclusion, yes, you CAN be happy at work. You can measure your own happiness, you can learn skills to promote it, you can help instill it in your employees, and you can experience it to some degree every day in your job. Bold statements, I agree, and none of this is easy, but it can be done. The science, while still developing, is there.

OK, so what are my bright ideas, you’re probably thinking? Next week, at the risk of committing the semi-academic’s mortal sin of glibness, I will share with you the top 10 ways you can be happy at work. Stay tuned.

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