The Value of Happiness
Harvard Business Review, Shawn Achor
July 2010 Burt’s Bees, a personal-care products company, was undergoing enormous change as it began a global expansion into 19 new countries. In this kind of high-pressure situation, many leaders pester their deputies with frequent meetings or flood their in-boxes with urgent demands. In doing so, managers jack up everyone’s anxiety level, which activates the portion of the brain that processes threats—the amygdala—and steals resources from the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for effective problem solving.
Burt’s Bees’s then-CEO, John Replogle, took a different tack. Each day, he’d send out an e-mail praising a team member for work related to the global rollout. He’d interrupt his own presentations on the launch to remind his managers to talk with their teams about the company’s values. He asked me to facilitate a three-hour session with employees on happiness in the midst of the expansion effort. As one member of the senior team told me a year later, Replogle’s emphasis on fostering positive leadership kept his managers engaged and cohesive as they successfully made the transition to a global company.
That outcome shouldn’t surprise us. Research shows that when people work with a positive mind-set, performance on nearly every level—productivity, creativity, engagement—improves. Yet happiness is perhaps the most misunderstood driver of performance. For one, most people believe that success precedes happiness. “Once I get a promotion, I’ll be happy,” they think. Or, “Once I hit my sales target, I’ll feel great.” But because success is a moving target—as soon as you hit your target, you raise it again—the happiness that results from success is fleeting.
In fact, it works the other way around: People who cultivate a positive mind-set perform better in the face of challenge. I call this the “happiness advantage”—every business outcome shows improvement when the brain is positive. I’ve observed this effect in my role as a researcher and lecturer in 48 countries on the connection between employee happiness and success. And I’m not alone: In a meta-analysis of 225 academic studies, researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and Ed Diener found strong evidence of directional causality between life satisfaction and successful business outcomes.
Another common misconception is that our genetics, our environment, or a combination of the two determines how happy we are. To be sure, both factors have an impact. But one’s general sense of well-being is surprisingly malleable. The habits you cultivate, the way you interact with coworkers, how you think about stress—all these can be managed to increase your happiness and your chances of success.
Develop New Habits
Training your brain to be positive is not so different from training your muscles at the gym. Recent research on neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to change even in adulthood—reveals that as you develop new habits, you rewire the brain.
Engaging in one brief positive exercise every day for as little as three weeks can have a lasting impact, my research suggests. For instance, in December 2008, just before the worst tax season in decades, I worked with tax managers at KPMG in New York and New Jersey to see if I could help them become happier. (I am an optimistic person, clearly.) I asked them to choose one of five activities that correlate with positive change:
- Jot down three things they were grateful for.
- Write a positive message to someone in their social support network.
- Meditate at their desk for two minutes.
- Exercise for 10 minutes.
- Take two minutes to describe in a journal the most meaningful experience of the past 24 hours
The participants performed their activity every day for three weeks. Several days after the training concluded, we evaluated both the participants and a control group to determine their general sense of well-being. How engaged were they? Were they depressed? On every metric, the experimental group’s scores were significantly higher than the control group’s. When we tested both groups again, four months later, the experimental group still showed significantly higher scores in optimism and life satisfaction. In fact, participants’ mean score on the life satisfaction scale—a metric widely accepted to be one of the greatest predictors of productivity and happiness at work—moved from 22.96 on a 35-point scale before the training to 27.23 four months later, a significant increase. Just one quick exercise a day kept these tax managers happier for months after the training program had ended. Happiness had become habitual. (See the sidebar “Happiness and the Bottom Line.”)
Help Your Coworkers
Of the five activities described above, the most effective may be engaging positively with people in your social support network. Strong social support correlates with an astonishing number of desirable outcomes. For instance, research by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy Smith, and Bradley Layton shows that high levels of social support predict longevity as reliably as regular exercise does, and low social support is as damaging as high blood pressure.
The benefits of social support are not just physical. In a study of 1,648 students at Harvard that I conducted with Phil Stone and Tal Ben-Shahar, we found that social support was the greatest predictor of happiness during periods of high stress. In fact, the correlation between happiness and Zimet’s social support scale (the academic measure we used to assess students’ positive engagement with their social networks) was a whopping .71—for comparison, the correlation between smoking and cancer is .37.
That study focused on how much social support the students received. But in follow-on research I conducted in March 2011, I found that even more important to sustained happiness and engagement was the amount of social support the students provided. For example, how often does a student help others when they are overwhelmed with work? How often does he initiate social interactions on the job? Social support providers—people who picked up slack for others, invited coworkers to lunch, and organized office activities—were not only 10 times more likely to be engaged at work than those who kept to themselves; they were 40% more likely to get a promotion.
How does social support work in practice as a tool for employee happiness? Ochsner Health System, a large health care provider that I work with, uses an approach it calls the “10/5 Way” to increase social support among employees and patients. We educated 11,000 employees, leaders, and physicians about the impact of social support on the patient experience, and asked them to modify their behavior. When employees walk within 10 feet of another person in the hospital, they must make eye contact and smile. When they walk within 5 feet, they must say hello. Since the introduction of 10/5, Ochsner has experienced an increase in unique patient visits, a 5% increase in patients’ likelihood to recommend the organization, and a significant improvement in medical-practice provider scores. Social support appears to lead to not only happier employees but also more-satisfied clients.
Change Your Relationship with Stress
Stress is another central factor contributing to people’s happiness at work. Many companies offer training on how to mitigate stress, focusing on its negative health effects. The problem is, people then get stressed-out about being stressed-out.
It’s important to remember that stress has an upside. When I was working with Pfizer in February 2011, I asked senior managers to list the five experiences that most shaped who they are today. Nearly all the experiences they wrote down involved great stress—after all, few people grow on vacation. Pick any biography and you’ll see the same thing: Stress is not just an obstacle to growth; it can be the fuel for it.
Your attitude toward stress can dramatically change how it affects you. In a study Alia Crum, Peter Salovey, and I conducted at UBS in the midst of the banking crisis and massive restructuring, we asked managers to watch one of two videos, the first depicting stress as debilitating to performance and the second detailing the ways in which stress enhances the human brain and body. When we evaluated the employees six weeks later, we found that the individuals who had viewed the “enhancing” video scored higher on the Stress Mindset Scale—that is, they saw stress as enhancing, rather than diminishing, their performance. And those participants experienced a significant drop in health problems and a significant increase in happiness at work.
Stress is an inevitable part of work. The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, try this exercise: Make a list of the stresses you’re under. Place them into two groups—the ones you can control (like a project or your in-box) and those you can’t (the stock market, housing prices). Choose one stress that you can control and come up with a small, concrete step you can take to reduce it. In this way you can nudge your brain back to a positive—and productive—mind-set. It’s clear that increasing your happiness improves your chances of success. Developing new habits, nurturing your coworkers, and thinking positively about stress are good ways to start.
Recent research has argued that psychological well-being is U-shaped through the life cycle. The difficulty with such a claim is that there are likely to be omitted cohort effects (earlier generations may have been born in, say, particularly good or bad times). Hence the apparent U may be an artifact. Using data on approximately 500,000 Americans and Europeans, this paper designs a test that makes it possible to allow for different birth-cohorts. A robust U-shape of happiness in age is found. Ceteris paribus, well-being reaches a minimum, on both sides of the Atlantic, in people’s mid to late 40s. The paper also shows that in the United States the well-being of successive birth-cohorts has gradually fallen through time. In Europe, newer birth-cohorts are happier.
On the eve of Adobe MAX 2016, the world’s premier creativity conference, Adobe today released global survey findings that show investing in creativity pays off with tangible benefits – from higher income to greater national competitiveness and productivity.
The report, “State of Create: 2016,” which surveyed more than 5,000 adults across five countries, reveals people who identify as creators report household income that is 13 percent higher than non-creators. More than two-thirds believe that being creative helps make people better workers, leaders, parents and students.
More: Creativity Pays
You have no shortage of great ideas. Our goal is to help you bring those ideas to reality as beautifully and easily as possible. At the open Adobe MAX 2018 Keynote, the Adobe Creative Cloud team will unveil hundreds of new tools, features, and innovations that will accelerate your work, liberate your creativity, and drive new mediums.
More: Linkedin Learning
World Happiness Report 2018
The World Happiness Report is a landmark survey of the state of global happiness. The World Happiness Report 2018, which ranks 156 countries by their happiness levels, and 117 countries by the happiness of their immigrants, was released on March 14th at a launch event at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the Vatican. A launch event was also held on March 20th, celebrating International Day of Happiness at the United Nations.
More: World Happiness Report
How to be happier at work
Learn to know when you’re happy and to enjoy the process of finding out what’s right for you
It’s broadly accepted now that we do our best at work when we are happy. It sounds simple but happiness comes in many forms. It’s as individual as you are and is significantly influenced by the culture that shaped you.
Making progress on our goals makes us happy
Research shows that happiness typically comes to those who are making progress toward or are achieving meaningful goals. We have life goals, family goals and work goals, and if we’re making progress on any of those, then we’re usually happy and if we’re not, then we’re not usually happy in that particular domain.
This can present a challenge for organisations. What usually makes goals meaningful is that they are challenging and serve a higher purpose. However, by definition, this means that such goals will be more difficult for employees to make progress on or achieve. Organisations must constantly balance enabling people to make stable progress on existing goals while challenging them with new goals in order to help provide favourable conditions for happiness at work.
Individuals must also be mindful of how they pursue happiness. Often people can get stuck pursuing happiness like they would pursue perfection. What can happen is that happiness becomes an outcome that is always on the other side of accomplishing the next goal, and therefore, happiness is rarely achieved. Because we’re always adding new goals and pushing our goals to the next level, if we wait to be happy only when we accomplish our goals, we will miss out on many moments of happiness. Thus, pursuing happiness is a noble and worthwhile cause as long as you know it’s the process of being happy that often matters more than hoping for a particular result to make you happy.
Recognising this can give you back control over your happiness. You can define what that looks like for you and enjoy the process. Enjoy the winding path and ups and downs of your journey as opposed to just allowing your outcomes to drive your happiness for you. Everyone fundamentally can be happy. Instead of seeing unhappy periods as a bad thing, see it as part of the process.
Happiness matters: the how and the why
Individuals, organisations and governments are taking notice of happiness. Find out how you and your organisation can be happier
This is a podcast about happiness with three organisational behaviour experts, Professor Dan Cable, and Assistant Professors Selin Kesebir and Michael Parke.
Happiness is big business. Organisations are now taking an intense interest in happiness and the link to productivity. Governments too are moving away from the purely economic concept of GDP to measuring the wellbeing of a nation. Find out why happiness matters and how to create happier workplaces and a happier you.
Here’s why intelligent people are happiest alone
In a just-published study about how our ancestral needs impact our modern feelings, researchers uncovered something that will surprise few among the highly intelligent.
While most people are happier when they’re surrounded by friends, smart people are happier when they’re not.
The researchers, Norman P. Li and Satoshi Kanazawa, of the Singapore Management University, Singapore and the London School of Economics and Political Science, UK, respectively, were investigating the “savannah theory” of happiness.
The savannah theory — also called the “evolutionary legacy hypothesis” and the “mismatch hypothesis” — posits that we react to circumstances as our ancestors would, having evolved psychologically based on our ancestors’ needs in the days when humankind lived on the savannah.
The study analyzed data from interviews conducted by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) in 2001-2002 with 15,197 individuals aged 18–28. The researchers looked for a correlation between where an interviewee lived — in a rural or urban area — and his or her life satisfaction. They were interested in assessing how population density and friendships affect happiness.
How We Feel About Being in Large Groups
The study found that people in general were less happy in areas of greater population density. The report’s authors see this is as support for the savannah theory because we would naturally feel uneasy in larger groups if — as evidence they cite suggests — our brains evolved for functioning in groups of about 150 people:
- Comparing the size of our neocortex to other primates and the sizes of the groups in which they dwell suggests the natural size of a human group is 150 people (Dunbar, 1992).
- Computer simulations show that the evolution of risk aversion happens only in groups of about 150 people (Hintze, Olson, Adami, & Hertwig, 2013).
- The average size of modern hunter-gatherer societies is 148.4 people (Dunbar, 1993).
- Neolithic villages in Mesopotamia had from 150–200 people (Oates, 1977).
- When a group of people exceeds 150-200 people, it will tend to break into two in order to facilitate greater cooperation and reciprocity among its members (Chagnon, 1979).
- The average personal network, as suggested by the typical number of holiday cards sent per person per year, is 153.5 people (Hill & Dunbar, 2003).
The study discovered, though, that the negative effect of the presence of lots of people is more pronounced among people of average intelligence. They propose that our smartest ancestors were better able to adapt to larger groups on the savannah due to a greater strategic flexibility and innate ingenuity, and so their descendants feel less stressed by urban environments today.
You’ve Got to Have Friends. Or Not.
While it seems self-evident that good friendships increase life satisfaction in most people, Li and Satoshi and Kanazawa note, surprisingly, that they know of only a single study that looked at the reason why this is true, and which concluded friendships satisfy psychological needs such as relatedness, the need to be needed, and an outlet for sharing experiences. Still, the reason a person has those needs remains unexplained.
Li and Kanazawa feel that we need look no further than the savannah. They say that friendships/alliances were vital for survival, in that they facilitated group hunting and food sharing, reproduction, and even group child-rearing.
The data they analyzed supports the assumption that good friendships — and a few good ones is better than lots of weaker ones — do significantly increase life satisfaction for most people.
In highly intelligent people, though, the finding is reversed: Smart people feel happier alone than when others, even good friends, are around.
A “healthy” social life actually leaves highly intelligent people with less life satisfaction. Is it because their desires are more aspirational and goal-oriented, and other people are annoyingly distracting?
However, just in case this makes too much sense, the study also found that spending more time socializing with friends is actually an indicator of higher intelligence! This baffling contradiction is counter-intuitive, at least. Unless these smart people are not so much social as they are masochistic.