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The good life: At work?

Someday we might find gross national happiness as a measure of a country’s success instead of gross domestic product if trends continue. (See Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s World Happiness Report 2015). While this is an inconceivably long way off if it ever happens, we are seeing corporations increasingly interested in the happiness of their employees. With an established link between customer and employee satisfaction, it’s no surprise that corporations are turning to positive psychology, the study of optimal human functioning.

The study of happiness is not new. After all, Socrates advocated self-knowledge as the path to happiness and in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote extensively on the connection between friendship and happiness. Twenty years ago Daniel Goleman educated us on the value of emotional intelligence. In 1998 psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman gave birth to the field of positive psychology.

Thousands of scientific research studies later, researchers prove what our intuition tells us: happy employees are more creative, engaged and successful; they are more productive and absenteeism is lower. No real surprise there but the question is, how do employers inspire more satisfied workers? This might be the holy grail of the organization in an era when people are the greatest corporate asset.

You might (or might not) have heard of the motivation intensity theory, which hypothesizes that two critical elements determine the energy an individual invests: 1) the difficulty of the task and 2) the importance attached to its successful completion. Maximum motivation occurs when someone is engaged in activities that are challenging but not insurmountable. Motivation might explain why someone completes tasks or procrastinates but it doesn’t really address the difference between an extraordinary achiever and someone who can just get things done. An extraordinary contributor is a flexible thinker, a problem-solver and someone who can come up with novel approaches.

Does work have to be the inherently stress-producing, soul-robbing place that popular culture says it is? With a little TLC from the top and opportunities for personal growth, it doesn’t. And there’s more to it. In 2016, I had the pleasure of seeing renowned happiness researcher, Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, speak in Silicon Valley about current research on the topic. She convincingly argues that happy employees are better leaders, better negotiators and are more productive. Even when happy moods were induced for short periods of time, increased problem-solving creativity is measurable and she argues that even transient positive emotions can have enduring consequences.

Some people seem naturally happier than others and the research bears this out. Genetically, an individual’s set point is responsible for about 50% or so of happiness, according to Lyubomirsky. Some people are inherently more resilient than others, are able to take proactive measures to improve situations, to recover faster from negative emotional experiences and even to laugh while enduring grief. Another 10% of happiness is attributable to life circumstances (health, for example). This leaves 40% under our control.

Each individual can move the happiness needle up by practicing gratitude, forgiveness, focusing on relationships, exercising, practicing random acts of kindness, thinking optimistically and comparing oneself less often to others. Research also shows that making someone else happy, counting blessings and writing letters of thanks increase happiness. What you choose is a matter of personal fit. One of the most successful interventions in Lyubomirsky’s research is to imagine oneself in ten years as having the most possible success in all different domains in life. Envisioning oneself as the best possible self breeds optimism and happiness. At the end of the day, it’s not enough for bosses to provide personal growth opportunities and back off on micro-management (although these strategies help a lot). “Happiness depends on ourselves.” - Aristotle

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