Research indicates that happiness is a stronger predictor of business success than job satisfaction. Happy people consistently outperform their dour coworkers and attain better, more fulfilling positions. If you’re a cricket player, being happy even increases your batting average!
But if happiness is so critical to business productivity and success, it raises the question: How do you measure happiness? What makes a happy employee? What makes anyone happy at all? How can businesses facilitate a positive environment at work without resorting to lunch hour sing-a-longs?
Psychologists have begun exploring these research questions, and developing a new domain of inquiry in the process—positive psychology. Rather than focusing on disorders and mental illnesses, positive psychology investigates what makes life meaningful and joyful, and identifies ways to foster those traits in ourselves and others. Prominent researchers in the field include Dr. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at Claremont Graduate University.
Here are a few “best practices” from positive psychology that you can incorporate into your own personal life and professional career:
Humans are social creatures, and our social relationships have a profound impact on our own sense of happiness. Indeed, both positive and negative emotions can behave like mood viruses, quickly spreading through a network of acquaintances and influencing the emotional state of people three degrees removed. Rather than cutting people off to prevent a case of the Mondays from going viral, it’s better to enhance the bonds between you and your coworkers.
Tending to these social connections is one of the keys to leading a meaningful, productive, happy life. Given the amount of time that we spend working, colleagues inevitably become an important social group within our personal network. Rather than viewing coworkers as simply that, try to view colleagues as an important part of your social existence.
The lesson: Be proactive in strengthening group cohesion and general well-being. This effort can be as simple as taking ownership of a small project or part of a larger problem. In doing so, you provide a concrete improvement to the group in a way that’s tangible and visible, both to yourself and others.
Positive psychologists throw around the word “happiness” a lot. But the word “flow” is used nearly as frequently. Flow describes a state of mind that we’re all familiar with—work happens effortlessly and for its own sake, tasks ebb and flow without conscious management, and time passes without being noticed. Flow describes our mindset when we say we’re “in the zone” or that “time is flying by.” This sense of flow is an important component of happiness.
One of the keys to identifying your personal flow zone is finding the right balance between challenging tasks and work ability. Trying to take on a task that is too challenging leads to frustration and a sense of helplessness, while not having a large enough task results in boredom.
The lesson: Break projects up into individual “chunks” with clear goals and expectations. By minimizing distractions and confusion, you should be able to move seamlessly and confidently between tasks while staying actively engaged. If the project is appropriately challenging, the flow will come naturally as you immerse yourself in the work.
Positive psychology has confirmed the old adage that you can’t buy happiness. Several studies have demonstrated that once your basic needs are met and you have enough income to live comfortably, earning more money won’t increase your happiness. Yet the same studies indicate that people radically overestimate the impact that having more money will make on their long-term sense of happiness. Money is then pursued for its own sake, with diminishing happiness returns.
Positive psychology, however, has provided ample evidence that those who are happy earn higher incomes in the long run than those who are unhappy. For example, one study measured the happiness of first-year college students. When these students were re-interviewed in their 30s, those who were rated as happier when entering college had higher incomes than the unhappiest students, even after controlling for other factors such as parental income.
The lesson: Happiness begets money, not the other way around. If you want to be wealthy and happy, start with happiness — pursue projects that you enjoy, that allow you to connect with others while doing meaningful work, and that help you enter into the mental space of flow. Everything else follows from there.
The secret to working happier isn’t just following a series of steps, it’s making a conscious decision to adopt a positive approach to work and life. The best practices outlined above can point you in the right direction, but positive psychology is ultimately about restoring your own personal agency and developing self-efficacy. In the process, you may find a more positive balance between work, family, health, and community.