By the late 1990s, the number of people diagnosed with depression in the U.S. had increased by nearly 1,000% in just a half-century according to the World Health Organization.
Believing that psychological research had been too narrowly focused on finding new treatments for human despair—and not on a cure—University of Pennsylvania professor, Martin Seligman, reframed the problem entirely, and challenged academics across the country to begin exploring the causes of human well-being.
"What are the enabling conditions of life that help people achieve greater happiness and thrive in their lives," he pushed his colleagues to discover. "What makes people flourish?"
It was in this inspired moment that Seligman gave birth to "positive psychology," the scientific study of optimal human functioning. And over the past 15 years, extensive positive psychology research has proven to have a remarkable impact on lifting people out of depression—exactly what Seligman had hoped.
But many of its discoveries have produced an additional, and likely unintended, benefit. They provide profound new clarity on what influences workers (human beings) to becomes the most enthusiastic and productive in their jobs. What Seligman and thousands of other academic researchers collectively discovered is that people turn out to be far more creative, engaged, and successful when their mindsets are positive—when they feel "happy."
"Happiness" is, of course, a loaded word today, and Seligman is clear in distinguishing that its true meaning extends well beyond transitory feelings of pleasure. In positive psychology’s more complex definition, "happiness" includes experiences of positive emotions, combined with deeper feelings of engagement and meaning:
Positive Emotions: What we feel. Pleasure, joy, and comfort.
Engagement: The flow that comes from the frequent use of one’s greatest strengths and talents while doing gratifying work.
Meaning: Having strong connections with other people, personal growth, and feelings of achievement.
Seligman emphasizes that people definitely need frequent experiences of positive emotions in order to thrive in the here and now, but that sustainable happiness only is attained when we’re certain our life activities matter and are leading to personal growth. Simply put, we need all three to be "happy."
According to Shawn Achor, positive psychology expert and New York Times best-selling author of The Happiness Advantage, "data now abounds showing that happy workers produce higher sales, perform better in leadership, and earn higher job performance ratings and pay. Study after study shows that feelings of happiness lead people to excel in their jobs."
I recently had the opportunity to meet with Achor and asked him to share some of the best ways workplace managers can directly influence greater happiness in their teams. Here are three leadership practices I found to be the most uncommon and useful:
"Countless studies have found that social relationships are the best guarantee of heightened well-being and lowered stress," Achor told me, "and both are an antidote for depression and a prescription for high performance."
While it’s all too common in business for bosses to spot a few employees chatting it up in the halls and instinctively conclude that they’re dodging work, the research proves that the better people feel about workplace relationships, the more effective they become.
When surveying employee engagement all over the world, Gallup routinely asks workers, "Do you have a supervisor or someone at work who cares about you?" While many CEOs have asked Gallup to remove this question with the belief that it’s inherently soft and un-useful, Gallup discovered that people who answered "yes" to it were more productive, contributed more to profits, and were significantly more likely to remain with the firm.
During the early days of the financial meltdown, financial services firm, UBS, elected to eliminate the beer carts that circulated on the market floor every Friday afternoon. Achor told me that there was one manager who noticed an immediate and negative impact on his team’s spirits tied to this one cost-cutting move—and he decided to dip into his pocket to bring it back. As the economic crisis wore on, his team proved to be tighter, stronger, and less inclined to leave for a higher paying job. "I’m a professional investor," the manager said, "and this was the best investment I ever made."
Said Achor, "that simple act of paying for refreshments showed that he cared about his team’s level of happiness—not just their level of performance. And we now know those two things are directly linked."
Yale Psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski interviewed hundreds of workers in all professions and found that people have one of three work "orientations" or mindsets:
- They see work as being a "job," or a chore, and use the paycheck as its reward.
- They approach work as a "career" and work to advance and succeed.
- They see their work as a "calling" and find work fulfilling because it gives them feelings of meaning and purpose.
Wrzesniewski shows that people with a calling will work harder and longer simply because their jobs are rewarding. Consequently, Achor’s advice to hiring managers is to ask people, "Where do you see yourself in ten years?" Their answer will reveal how much of their heart they’ll likely bring to their work.
University of North Carolina psychologist, Barbara Frederickson, took a team of researchers into 60 companies and transcribed every word used in their business meetings. Afterwards, they parsed every sentence for positive and negative words, and took a simple ratio of the positive-to-negative statements.
What they discovered was that the companies with the greatest financial performance had a better than 3:1 ratio for positive communication. They additionally found that a ratio of 6:1 was characteristic of teams with consistently extraordinary achievement.
Achor’s advice: "Go out of your way to build employee strengths instead of routinely correcting weaknesses. When you dip below the Losada line, performance quickly suffers."
The idea that it’s become the job of organizations to foster employee happiness is unquestionably one that still rankles many in business. Many of us can’t get beyond the traditional belief that happy workers produce unhappy shareholders.
But Achor offers this advice to the slow-to-adapt and openly skeptical: "We’re hitting a tipping point where we realize we can no longer increase the number of hours and stress loads that we’re putting on people to raise their level of productivity.
"What we’re finding is that if you want to see what people are capable of achieving, it requires new types of leadership—and new definitions of how we pursue happiness in organizations."