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Happiness leads to success

I’m always on the lookout for data supporting the use of playful, stress-reducing learning techniques.  This article was synthesized by Kim Marshall and posted in his wonderful weekly journal, The Marshall Memo. Of the five happiness-enhancing activities listed below, the one found to have the greatest impact was to “write a positive message to someone in your social support network.” As trainers, perhaps we can build such an activity into the end of a learning session. Have participants write a positive message to someone else in their group, identifying a new idea they picked up from them. The synthesis of the article follows.

How Mindset Affects Happiness – and Productivity

In this intriguing Harvard Business Review article, corporate CEO and author Shawn Achor says that when anxious managers pester their employees with urgent demands and frequent meetings, they “jack up everyone’s anxiety level” and activate the part of people’s brains that processes threats (the amygdala), which steals resources from the part of the brain that handles problem-solving (the prefrontal cortex). This is why a negative management style is counterproductive: it results in unhappy employees and continuous damage to the organization’s mission.

High-pressure, intrusive managers often take their cues from two misconceptions about employees’ happiness:

Misconception #1: That people attain a happy state when they’ve accomplished something worthwhile: Once I achieve my goal, I’ll be happy. This belief can make a boss demanding and uncaring about people’s feelings, thinking they’ll be happy when they’ve done good work. “In fact, it works the other way around,” says Achor. Happiness precedes success. “People who cultivate a positive mind-set perform better in the face of challenge.”

Misconception #2: That how happy people are is largely inborn – some people are naturally cheerful and some people are sourpusses. This belief leads all too many bosses to scorn the “touchie-feelie” stuff because it doesn’t make any difference. But people’s general sense of well-being is “surprisingly malleable,” says Achor. “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.”

So he urges managers to take the time and effort to create a more positive culture: “Research shows that when people work with a positive mindset, performance on nearly every level – productivity, creativity, engagement – improves.” And he says that training our brains to be more positive is not very different from training muscles at the gym: specific activities and new habits can literally rewire the brain.

Working with a tax company during a very busy and stressful filing season, Achor asked employees to choose one of the following activities and do it every day for three weeks:

  • Jot down three things you’re grateful for.
  • Write a positive message to someone in your social support network.
  • Meditate at your desk for two minutes.
  • Exercise for ten minutes.
  • Take two minutes to describe in a journal the most meaningful experience of the past 24 hours.

After three weeks, researchers assessed these tax workers’ level of optimism and life satisfaction and found it was significantly higher than that of a control group – and the advantage was still there four months later. “Just one quick exercise a day kept these tax managers happier for months after the training program had ended,” says Achor. “Happiness had become habitual.”

Of the five activities above, the most effective was the second – engaging positively with people in a social network. “Strong social support correlates with an astonishing number of desirable outcomes,” writes Achor. “[H]igh levels of social support predict longevity as reliably as regular exercise does, and low social support is as damaging as high blood pressure.” This works in both directions – providing social support and receiving it. One study found that people who help coworkers who were overwhelmed by their work, pick up slack for others, invite colleagues to lunch, and organize group activities are not only happier but more successful.

In another experiment, Achor asked 11,000 employees in a large health-care organization to adopt the “10/5 Way” – when they walked within ten feet of another person in the workplace, they were to make eye contact and smile. When they walked within five feet, they were to say hello. Most people complied, and this simple intervention led to measurable improvements in unique patient visits, patient recommendations, and medical-practice provider scores. “Social support appears to lead to not only happier employees but also more-satisfied clients,” says Achor.

Stress is another cause of unhappiness and health problems. There are lots of stress-reduction programs, but some of them get people even more in a tizzy as they worry about all the ill effects. Achor believes that stress is an inevitable part of work – and in fact, it’s often the crucible of personal and professional growth (there’s evidence for this in the biographies of successful people). What’s important is our attitude toward stress. Achor recommends that the next time we’re feeling overwhelmed, we should make a list of the things that are stressing us out and then sort them into two groups: those we can control and those we can’t. “Choose one stress that you can control and come up with a small, concrete step you can take to reduce it,” he says. “In this way you can nudge your brain back to the positive – and productive – mind-set.”

“Positive Intelligence: Three Ways Individuals Can Cultivate Their Own Sense of Well-Being and Set Themselves Up to Succeed” by Shawn Achor in Harvard Business Review, January-February 2012 (Vol. 90, #1-2, p. 100-102), no e-link available

1 thought on “Happiness leads to success”

  1. I’ve known people who worried about the fact they weren’t worried–an attempt to reduce their stress would actually increase it.

    While trainers can certainly create a “happy” learning environment, this is no different than the misconception #1 – that achieving a goal creates happiness–at least at some fundamental level. Being in a happy environment isn’t going to create happiness. (I think there’s a difference between being happy and having fun.)

    Personally, I’m not big on reducing stress — I’d rather see it managed. I believe that one of a trainer’s major functions is managing the learning environment (and that obviously means more than having control of the thermostat).

    To wit, I have had students tell me about an instructor who could do stand up comedy. I’ve taken courses from him and he does make it fun… but some of these students also don’t like his courses because they think the fun supercedes and distracts from the learning.

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