Scott Crabtree spent 24 years climbing the ladder in the gaming and software industries, eventually leading his own engineering team at Intel. And after observing life at companies big and small, he recognized one commonality: The happiest people are the most productive. The difference was so striking to him that he retired and rebooted his career, founding Happy Brain Science to surface and share the scientific underpinnings of what makes people happy and how that makes them more effective at their jobs and in their lives.
“Happier people are more successful, more creative, energetic, resilient,” says Crabtree. “They work better together. They absorb more information. They have more tools in their tool belt to help them handle whatever life throws them. They are healthier, they live longer–and they show up at work more often.”
There’s a common assumption, he says, that you will be happy when you are successful. But the reverse is actually true, and not just anecdotally. Hard neurological science supports the idea that happy people have more capacity to succeed. And beyond that, that happiness is not a genetic mandate, or a product of circumstance. It’s a choice. Here, Crabtree boils this choice down into three opportunities for change that can make people happier. As an employee, a manager, and a founder, these opportunities are also the building blocks of high performance.
In order to be happy, you can’t rely on goal achievement. You have to delight in the work that gets you there. The most productive people in the world don’t just like what they do on an everyday basis–they enter a flow or high-performance state that brings them consistent satisfaction.
“Science shows that when you reach a goal, sure you’ll be psyched, but that feeling won’t last for very long,” says Crabtree. “The sustainable source of happiness is enjoying every step of the way toward the finish line.”
There are several tactics that can help facilitate this “flow” state:
Structure your goals: Great goals go beyond SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant to your interests, and time-bound). They have specific milestones that help provide a sense of progress, which is crucial to happiness at work. If you start off with well-defined goals that will allow you to realize success and that have multiple steps toward an endpoint, you are much more likely to enjoy working toward them.
Make goals meaningful: “Is pursuing a goal going to bring you internal happiness because you connect with it on a personal level?” Crabtree asks.
As a manager, these can be very helpful recommendations for assigning projects. It may take a little extra time, but you can definitely fulfill the first requirement: You can create metrics and deadlines and explain why tasks are important. The second one is a bit harder, but evidence shows that people who understand how their work will directly impact the success of their team or their company feel a stronger connection and are likely to perform better.
“When I was at Intel, leaders like me were graded on how well we were able to connect individual reports with broader organizational strategies–and I think that was very smart,” Crabtree says. “If you understand how the work you’re doing will influence the bigger picture, maybe not just the company but the world, pursuing those goals will bring you more happiness.”
Align goals with strengths: In this context, ‘strengths’ doesn’t just refer to people’s talents or skills. A strength is something you are both skilled at and enjoy. “If you have goals that speak to what you’re good at and what feeds you with energy, you’re more likely to be happy,” he says. Managers should keep an eye not only on who is good at what, but what tasks people seem to gravitate toward. Does an engineer want to learn more about product management? Does a writer want to get more involved with design? See if you can find tasks at the intersection of those interests and what they are already good at.
Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is famous for identifying the state we’ve come to call “flow.” Out to discover and document people operating at their peak, he spotted this behavior in artists, athletes, musicians and others who described entering and feeling like they were in “the zone” with everything clicking and all cylinders firing.
“When you’re in flow, you’re completely immersed in what you’re doing,” says Crabtree. “You are entirely focused on a challenge that is difficult but possible for you. You’re making progress to an extent that self-awareness and time start to disappear. You look up and suddenly hours have passed and you’ve barely noticed–you’re that involved in the work in front of you.”
So, what keeps most of us out of flow?
This is something many people have heard, but it’s become so deeply embedded in our culture of work that we fail to acknowledge it or refuse to believe that it’s having a detrimental effect on our efficiency. A lot of people believe that multitasking makes them even more efficient at what they’re doing. Science shows otherwise, in dramatic fashion.
Everything that demands your active attention is pinging your prefrontal cortex, and while it’s possible to rapidly switch your attention and hold onto information, your brain is paying a price. You might think you’re able to text while hearing every word your co-worker is saying to you because your brain is able to retain and fetch it for you. But you’re wrong.
“It can actually feel really good to multitask because anything challenging for your brain releases more neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, and they make things feel good,” Crabtree says. “In fact, data suggests that you’re slowing down your performance, making more mistakes, and as Stanford communications professor Clifford Nass would say it, ‘becoming a sucker for irrelevancy.’ You’re losing your ability to stay focused even if you want to.”
Studies led by Nass show that frequent multitaskers have more trouble staying focused, even when they know that’s their goal.
Avoiding multitasking seems like an impossible task, especially in technology, when most people feel like they’re drinking from a fire hose of information. We’re all bombarded by emails, meeting invites, tasks, news, Twitter feeds, etc. The key is to separate the important from the unimportant, and to be willing to sacrifice the latter. If you need to devote attention and energy to a task, multitasking can seriously damage your ability to do your best work. Some sources even suggest that it temporarily lowers IQ.
“Most importantly, multitasking makes attaining flow impossible. That’s the happiest, most productive state of mind, and you can get into it simply by focusing completely for 20 minutes or more on a challenging but possible task.”
Professor Csikszentmihalyi says that distractions over two minutes tend to take us out of flow. Let’s say you’re in flow state working on a project. You’ve got your brain in exactly the right place. All the right gates are open and closed, with just the right amount of neurotransmitters firing to keep you focused. Now, if you’re in the middle of that, and you see an email notification that takes a few minutes to attend to, when you go back to the other task you’ll feel lost, disoriented, less likely to follow through and finish–and definitely not at the same level of performance.
“I know for many people, it’s their job to be available and to be interrupted,” Crabtree says. “But even then it still makes a difference to be aware of the price you’re paying by multitasking and make conscious decisions when you do have the choice. You can turn off the automatic interruption machines built into your computer and your day, like email or anything else that pulls your attention away.”
As he points out, email is almost designed to be addictive. Not only is it signaled by some sort of indicator, like a movement or a sound, but subject lines play into the brain’s hatred of incomplete thoughts. Once you see a message, your brain compels you find out what it says.
“Email is feeding you pellets, and sometimes you get yummy pellets–an invitation to a friend’s party or a congrats on something you did–and sometimes you don’t. But you just keep pressing, you keep checking. Turn it off and give yourself time to focus. To do your best work. To get into flow.”
While Crabtree is a big proponent of working in silence, citing several studies showing that it is the most productive environment for the average person, he understands that this is simply not possible in most places. Either you’re surrounded by the cacaphony of an open floor plan, or you opt to plug in your headphones and block out your surroundings. “If you do listen to music, studies suggest that familiar instrumental music or nature sounds (like rain or the ocean) are as close as you can get to silence,” he says. “If you listen to something unfamiliar, you’re going to start paying attention to it instead of what you’re doing.”
The other major component of flowing toward goals is coping well with stress and anxiety.
“As you flow toward objectives that are important to you, challenges, hardships and stress are sure to arise–science can’t help you avoid those things,” says Crabtree. “What science does tell us is that our ability to cope is critical. A huge difference between happy people and unhappy people is how they cope.”
Three top coping strategies recommended by doctors sound common enough but are too rarely practiced:
- Talk to someone who cares about you (not just anyone, it won’t have the same effect);
- Meditate or try to be mindful for even just a few minutes;
- Get physical exercise.
It’s shocking, Crabtree says, how many people would rather internalize their stress than show any weakness or take a break from work to partake in a proven remedy. People are either too self-conscious or too busy. But this self-care can make or break productivity too.
Speaking to someone who you know cares and has compassion for you is vital. This is another pointer for managers of reports who may be anxious or burned out. A common strategy is to try to get the person to open up, share roadblocks, express what is bothering them. But if an employee doesn’t genuinely believe that their manager cares about their well-being, this won’t work. They either won’t be forthcoming enough to get help, or exposing their shortcomings will only add to the stress of the situation. This is a major argument for cultivating authentic relationships at work where everyone feels appreciated and safe.
“When it comes to meditation, some people have odd associations–like it has to be something spiritual–but it’s simpler than that,” says Crabtree. “Mindfulness is simply paying complete attention to the present moment without judgment. Sounds easy right? No. It’s really hard, but it will make a huge difference.”
The response he often gets to this technique is that no one has time to sit and breathe with their eyes closed at work. But it doesn’t have to be some big commitment. “You just have to find a few moments here and there. Do what I call a 4-6-8 breath. Breathe in as much as you can for a count of four, hold for a count of six, and breathe out for a count of eight. Whatever pops into your mind let that thought go and focus on how that breath feels wherever you feel it. When you exhale, you will feel different. It will have shifted your mindset.”
Meditation manages stress and empowers what Crabtree calls the inner CEO, the part of the brain that’s involved with all executive functions–paying attention, making decisions, initiating good actions, and inhibiting inappropriate behaviors.
Meditation adds neurons to your prefrontal cortex. This brain health is then turbo-boosted by exercise. There’s copious proof that students who take a walk before taking a test score consistently higher than those who don’t.
“Having a good attitude is as effective as it is cliché,” says Crabtree. “But I bet it’s more powerful than you realize.”
The way the brain works, when you focus on one thing, you suppress input from other things. As it follows, when you focus on positive things, you’re essentially feeding yourself happy thoughts. When you focus on negative things, you’re immersing yourself in everything that’s not going right. “I’m not preaching that ignorance is bliss. There are times when unpleasant things need your attention, but there a lot of times when you have a choice.”
Take, for example, the personalities of the people on your team. You might like all of them except for one who really drives you crazy. One thing you can do is acknowledge that you can’t change people and then focus your attention on those you enjoy. “You will actively start suppressing negative feelings toward that one person,” says Crabtree. “Your attention determines what’s getting into your brain, and that can determine whether you’re happy or not at work.”
Psychology Professor Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina led the development of a theory she calls “Broaden and Build.” One aspect of this theory is illustrated by a common scenario at work. If someone has an idea and they get positive feedback, that strengthens the bond between those two people. The person receiving the compliment feels a spike in their mood and more of what Crabtree calls their “prime brain real estate” comes online, enhancing their potential to have more good ideas. Then, when those ideas get recognized, the person starts to feel safe, lets down their guard, and is in even better shape to offer more.
“When you’re in fight or flight, you’re not using your prime brain real estate,” says Crabtree. “When you’re in a positive, safe, receptive environment, your limbic system and brainstem–which manage fight or flight response—calm down, freeing up other, productive parts of the brain. This is where we see data showing that people have better ideas because they’re happier.”
There’s a lot of upside to being a positive person, but you can’t just become one overnight if it hasn’t been your default. It’s something you have to practice and exercise like a muscle, Crabtree says. The better you get at it, the more it will impact your life.
For instance, there’s a huge difference between people’s response to vapid, forced positivity and genuine positivity. Almost everyone can tell the difference, but it’s not always easy to be genuine unless you’re practiced at it. He’s seen this phenomenon firsthand.
“When I came across this research, I decided to start meetings with recognitions–simple positive comments that people could make to anyone else in the room to help us get to a high ratio of positive to negative comments,” he says. “So I explained this new requirement to my team, and the next time we met it was obviously hard for people because they weren’t used to it. By week three people were okay at it, and then by week four something clicked–people started sharing genuine comments and everyone could tell the difference.”
At the start, people would offer things like, “I want to thank Pete for being a good guy.” This eventually evolved into, “I want to thank Pete for staying late and helping me even though it wasn’t his project and he needed to get home.” “That’s genuine gratitude,” Crabtree says. “After a few weeks of getting used to it and role modeling it, staff meetings were awesome.”
All that said, he’s not advocating for positivity every day all the time. “Actually if you get to a super high ratio of positive comments for every one negative, say 20:1 for example, performance starts to drop off because people sense that they can’t be real with each other,” he says.
At companies where exceeding expectations is often counted as simply meeting them, and where managers are more focused on problems to be fixed than achievements to be rewarded, not acknowledging the positive can put a big dent in productivity. “It’s worth the time to say, ‘Hey, this part of your presentation or project was really clear, helpful and on-point,’ instead of going straight to what was wrong or needs to be fixed. When you take that extra half second to say something nice, you’re creating conditions for better results by bringing more people’s prime brain real estate online.”
According to Crabtree, one of the most active and effective expressions of optimism is writing down your best possible future. It can’t be a fantasy. It has to reflect the real you. But taking that brief moment to be positive changes the landscape around you. It will make you happier, more confident, and more likely to achieve that future.
“According to the body of research on happiness, this is true of the vast majority of people—when you focus time and attention on your relationships, they improve, and that improves your happiness. You also improve your coping ability because you have more support. Bottom line: Warm relationships can fuel happiness more than any other single factor we have found.”
When it comes to the positivity or negativity of relationships, multiple studies have shown that mood is literally contagious. It’s not simply that unhappy people gravitate to each other–the people adjacent to you can actually move your mood up or down. This happens because our brains contain mirror neurons.
“When you see me jump up and down with happiness, you have cells that fire in your brain that would fire if you did the same thing,” Crabtree says. “The entire circuit doesn’t light up or you’d be jumping up too, but a few share my response. These neurons are the physiological foundation for empathy. We are wired to understand each other’s feelings and intentions.”
This makes managing for morale extremely important at a company because one unhappy person can infect an entire team. Similarly, a few satisfied, high-performance people placed strategically throughout an organization can spread happiness and produce even better results. As a leader or manager, you need to invest in engineering social networks for optimum happiness and effectiveness.
So how can you invest in your relationships and your own happiness at the same time?
There are several actions you can take that have an outsized impact on the quality of your relationships.
One of them is forgiveness. “There’s a saying that holding a grudge is like trying to kill someone else by taking poison, and it’s true,” says Crabtree. “When you forgive someone for something they did to you–maybe they let you down or disappointed you in some way–it’s good for both people, but you’re the one that will feel the effects and become happier almost immediately. All relationships, if they’re real and long enough, experience some bumps in the road. Great relationships are the ones that find a way over those bumps. That’s what you want for your team at work.”
Celebrating the good stuff is another key action. “We all know on a gut level that it’s good to be there for each other during hard times, and it is. It’s bad for a relationship if someone tells you they’re having a bad day and you say, ‘Sorry, I have to go.’ But it turns out it’s even more important for me to be there when things are going great. So if you say, ‘Wow, I’m having an awesome day!’ and I say, ‘Great, I have to go,’ that hurts the relationship even more. On the flipside, it strengthens the bond even more when I’m ready with a high-five and choose to celebrate with you.”
Random acts of kindness are underrated. “Being kind for no particular reason will almost certainly elevate your mood,” says Crabtree. And, if this doesn’t come naturally to you, there’s a lot of evidence that proves that you can in fact ‘fake it till you make it.’
One of the best examples of this was showcased in a TED talk by Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy. To simplify her point, if you pose like a super hero, or make yourself as expansive as possible by stretching out your arms and legs for two or more minutes, your body will release hormones associated with confidence, assertiveness and calm. Testosterone goes up and cortisol levels indicating stress go down.
A similar physical response occurs when you smile. Several studies have had people hold pencils in their mouths in different ways, essentially forcing them to smile or frown for a few minutes. Then they were asked to rate cartoons. The frowners consistently reported finding the cartoons less funny than those who were smiling. Even sitting up straight at your desk can release chemicals that enhance happiness. You can take actions that mainline feelings to your brain. Just like cultivating positivity or focus, you can condition yourself to be kinder and gentler to your colleagues. And when people are the recipients of unexpected kindness, they like you even more.
The last, and perhaps most important action to take, is to express gratitude. “It’s among the simplest techniques science has found to boost your mood,” Crabtree says. “When you say thank you, you increase your own happiness. I know of one executive who puts 10 pennies in his left pocket every morning. Every time he thanks someone or expresses gratitude, he moves a penny to his right pocket. He won’t go home until his left pocket is empty. Whatever you need to do to remind yourself to say positive things at work, it’s worth it. Your co-workers will benefit, and you’ll be even happier and more successful.”
One hurdle to people doing and saying any of these things is that they don’t feel comfortable enough with their colleagues to even start. Crabtree ran into this at Intel when his division reorganized and he suddenly had to work with people he didn’t know very well. Things got competitive and confrontational fast, and he felt his happiness and productivity drop in lock-step. So he confided in his manager, and was impressed with the response.
“We decided to each give what’s called a Pecha Kucha presentation. In Japanese, Pecha Kucha roughly means chit chat, but it’s a specific format of presentation. Usually, each person brings 20 slides with just pictures on them, and they get 20 seconds to explain each slide. In typical Intel fashion, we cut it to 10 slides and 10 seconds each, but we made the rule that people could only share things about their lives outside of work.”
Crabtree talked about growing up in Massachusetts, living in Oregon and watching his four-year-old daughter grow up. Others shared similarly personal details. “The difference was immediate and significant,” he says. “We immediately started treating each other less like competitors and more like collaborators. As our cooperation improved, my mood improved. As my mood improved, my productivity improved. It’s the best tool I have ever seen for quickly building trust and understanding on a team.”
It used to be common knowledge that people are born with billions of brain cells that quickly set like concrete when you become an adult, and then you start losing neurons and connections until you die. That’s a very bleak picture–and one that has fortunately been disproven since. “There’s so much good news coming out about neuroplasticity–your brain’s ability to rewire itself over the course of your lifetime,” says Crabtree. “Some things may be easier to learn when you’re young, like languages, but if you’re paying attention, staying healthy and focusing on learning new things throughout your lifetime, you can change the way you think about things, the way you do things.”
The key is to do this consistently and continuously–and he has some tips to go even further.
The action of writing things down is surprisingly impactful. You internalize information that much faster and are able to recall it that much better. “Say where and when you’re going to do something, because when you say where and when, research indicates you’re more likely to follow through and actually do it. After you’ve written it down, say it out loud to someone else. It has the same effect.”
Beyond clearly stating and committing to your intentions, repeating actions has the highest success rate.
“If you committed to someone else to write three things you’re grateful for once a day for a month, you would be happier during that month and for months after you stopped. Why? Because in that month alone, you would’ve physically changed your brain to be more grateful.”
Repetition signals the brain to add clusters of neurons in particular areas that reinforce behavior and beliefs. This is what will accelerate your progress toward goals that are personally important to you, at work and home.
“Solid science tells us that yes, happiness comes from our genes, but also from the choices and thoughts going on between our ears–and surprisingly little from life circumstances,” Crabtree says. “The place you have the most effective chance of changing your happiness level is in your own mind. You can choose happiness. Flow toward your goals, practice positivity, and prioritize people.”