I’ve been a fan and follower of Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project for some time.
If you’re not familiar with Gretchen or her project, her goal was to spend, as she says, “a year test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happy—from Aristotle to Martin Seligman to Thoreau to Oprah.”
Her New York Times’ bestselling book The Happiness Project is a memoir of that year, and her blog of the same name was one of the hundreds of experiments she ran.
I asked her about why happiness is good for business, and what could be done by employers to boost happiness at work.
Q: Why should employers take steps to help make their employees happy?
A: I can think of at least two good reasons. One is because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a well-documented fact that Americans spend over twice as much time at work as in leisure, and for many people, their work dominates their life. So happiness at work is critically important for people’s general happiness. The second one is that employee happiness is just plain good for business. Research shows many ways in which happy employees out-perform their less happy peers.
Q: Why do happy people do better at work?
A: People like being around happier people much more than less-happy people. Happy people are perceived to be more friendly, warm, and even more physically attractive. Also, research shows that happy people tend to be more cooperative, less self-absorbed, and to be able to offer the empathy needed in close relationships. They’re more willing to help other people—say, by sharing information or pitching in to help a colleague. Then, because they’ve helped others, others tend to help them.
Q: So happy people are good for teamwork. Is there any correlation between happiness and qualities related to things like leadership, or innovative thinking?
A: Yes. Happier people are viewed as more assertive and self-confident than less-happy people, and better at public speaking. They perform better on managerial tasks, like leadership and mastery of information. Positive moods improve problem-solving and creativity by making it easier for people to think with flexibility and complexity.
Laughter, too, helps people think expansively. Studies show that when people are put in a good mood, they choose higher goals, do better, and persist longer. Studies also show that happy people will search for new answers to problems, while depressed people are more concerned with avoiding errors.
Q: Given some of the large-scale errors we’ve seen recently, that could could be a good thing, don’t you think?
Q: Maybe it’s just me, but if I’m around a happy person, I feel happier myself. And if I’m around an unhappy person, it’s a downer. Anything to that?
A: Yes. And you’re not alone. You’re talking about what’s called “emotional contagion.” It’s a strong psychological effect in which we “catch” the happy, sad, or angry moods of others. An employee in a happy, energetic mood will help boost the moods of others. And in business that’s particularly important, obviously, when that person is engaged with customers, clients, patients, or a work team.
Unfortunately, negative moods are more contagious than positive moods, and one crabby employee can trigger a wave of bad feelings. And because people try to steer clear, unhappy people find it harder to be effective.
Q: What’s the bottom line on happiness vs. unhappiness for a business?
A: I looked at things like absenteeism, turnover, and health-care costs. And there’s some interesting and important findings. For example, not only are happy people more likely to show superior performance, but they’re also less likely to show counterproductive behaviors like burnout, absenteeism, counter- and non-productive work, work disputes, or retaliatory behavior.
Happy people tend to be healthier than unhappy people. They have a stronger immune function. They have more tolerance for pain. They act in healthier ways than unhappy people do...they exercise more and eat healthier, for example.
Q: So the big question is: how can employers help make their employees happier?
A: The research is clear: people’s happiness is affected by their sense of control over their lives. Being able to do your own work in your own way, or to influence your environment, gives a big boost in satisfaction. So employers can look for ways to amplify employees’ sense of control over their work, schedule, and environment.
Q: Any specifics?
A: Sure. Take commuting. Bad commutes are a major source of unhappiness. People feel frustrated, powerlessand stressed. Employers can consider whether telecommuting or staggered start/end times for work might be practicable, to allow people to avoid rush hours.
Or take issues like wasted time and tight deadlines. According to one study, the factor that most upset people’s daily moods was having tight work deadlines. One way to free up work time to meet deadlines is to stop having long, inefficient meetings.
There are things you can do related to social connections. Studies underscore the critical importance of social relationships to happiness. I’d look at workplace design, for example: does it make social interactions more pleasant and convenient?
Research supports the idea that people have a strong desire for growth, progress, and advancement in their lives. Employers can consider creating benchmarks for people whose jobs don’t provide a sense of completion and accomplishment, providing opportunities for training so employees can expand their skills, giving employees a chance to take risks and enlarge their responsibilities.
Q: You make the point on your blog that sometimes it’s the small and unexpected things that can have a big impact on happiness. Is there a business application for that thought?
A: Even a small treat can boost people’s happiness. And people get a bigger kick from an unexpected pleasure. So... consider some kind of intermittent small benefit or give-away. This might seem kind of childish, but we’ve all seen adults scrambling for little freebies in very undignified ways. People love a treat!
As Gretchen points out, these kinds of suggestions don’t just hold for employers. We should all be trying to bring more of these elements of happiness into our own lives.
Matthew E. May is a design/innovation strategist and author. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewemay.