Is Workplace Happiness Just A Fad?

It seems everywhere we look there are formulas promised to make us happier.  Just putting ‘workplace happiness’ in a google search gives you fourteen million different takes on the topic.   Is it just the latest fad – along with hot-desks, open office, or business process re-engineering– that’s likely to come and go?  Or is there more to happiness at work?

“Positive emotions at work can do more than make you feel good,” explained Suzy Green, founder of The Positivity Institute when I interviewed her recently. “They can have a really significant impact on how you function at work.”   

Far from being a passing fad, over four decades ago ground-breaking research by Professor Alice Isen identified that positive emotions can offer powerful benefits above and beyond just simple pleasant feelings.  For example, Alice and her colleagues found that positivity can expand your cognitive flexibility so you’re more likely to take in new information, solve complex problems and think creatively.  She also found that feeling positive can improve your social relationships by helping you feel more generous and helpful,  and become more accepting of differences with others.

Building on Alice’s work, Professor Barbara Fredrickson more recently found that positive emotions – such as joy, interest, pride, and contentment – can broaden the range of attention, thoughts and actions you may use to respond to your current circumstances, and build your personal resources for the future.   She suggests that this ‘broaden and build’ effect of positivity can help you see new possibilities, bounce back from setbacks, connect more deeply with others, and reach your potential. She has also found that positive emotions can improve your social connections and physical health.

Other researchers have found that positive emotions can have a contagious effect, they can ripple through a team lifting everyone’s mood and productivity.  As a leader, if you’re in a positive mood, you’re more likely to have better coordination among your team members, and they require less effort to complete their work.   And feeling positive seems to mean you’ll be more likely to be more successful in your business negotiations and building future partnerships.

Of course, this is not to say that you need to feel positive all the time.

“The broad range of human emotions are completely normal and you need to be able to respond authentically to the challenges that confront you,” explained Suzy. “It’s not about avoiding experiences of frustration, disappointment or sadness, but learning how to progress through these challenges with a solution-focus approach fueled with hope and optimism.”

What’s important is to find ways to experience more genuine heartfelt positivity in your day.  And while there is debate about just how much positivity you need compared to negativity to feel as though you are flourishing in life, generally you need to be experiencing more positive emotions to negative emotions on a day to day basis. 

Suzy suggested that you can build more authentic ‘heartfelt’ positivity across your organization by:

  • Cultivating self-awareness – learn about your own emotions and how they impact on your ability to show up at work. Understand that positive and negative emotions are neither good norbad in themselves, but have different neurological and physiological impacts that will serve you well in different situations. Be aware of all your emotions, and what you need to be able to respond authentically and effectively to the challenges in front of you. And if you’re needing a boost of heartfelt positivity try engaging the practices of mindfulness and/or gratitude.
  • Looking for what’s working well in your team – It is often the smallest things that make the biggest difference in turning team cultures around quite quickly. For example, instead of jumping straight in to addressing challenges in your team meetings, simply starting with a quick check-in on what’s working well for team members can engage the ‘broaden and build ‘effect. This means you can be more open and creative around addressing the challenges that you face.
  • Making positivity an organizational value – Link the practices of positivity with the broader values of your organization such as inclusiveness, innovation or wellbeing. For example, Professor Barbara Fredrickson’s research has found that when you are in a positive mood you are likely to see more similarities than differences between yourself and people from a diverse racial background. Some of her other studies have found that simply imagining a joyful memory or receiving a small kindness can make a difference in the ease with which people locate creative and optimal solutions to the problems they face on a daily basis. And studies are currently exploring positive emotions resulting from physical activity may also create increases in resources such as environmental mastery, social support, and purpose in life.

What can you do to increase your positive emotions at work?

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