Positive psychologists would say ‘yes’ happier organizations are more successful; and as leaders we need to know about the happiness advantage.
Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, defines happiness as the experience of positive emotions – pleasure combined with deeper feelings of meaning and purpose. Specifically he measures happiness with three key emotions: pleasure, engagement, and meaning.
How does happiness impact the success of an organization? Should leaders consider employee happiness as a strategy to achieve organizational outcomes?
Happiness as an Advantage
We live in a world view that states if we are diligent and work hard, we will be successful. Recent studies in Positive Psychology have turned this notion upside down. Happier people are more successful – that happiness is the precursor to success (and not the other way around). People with a positive mood/ mindset do better on cognitive tasks and are more motivated than their negative counterparts. They don’t look at happiness as some distant reward at the end of logging in the hours; but capitalize on the daily positives and harness the rewards that present themselves.
Happiness also has an advantage based in biology. Positive emotions increases dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain. These neurotransmitters help make and sustain more neural connections; which in turn allows for quicker and more creative thinking. Even short bouts of happiness, such as watching a funny You Tube, or hearing a funny joke, show this effect. Some organizations (Google being arguably the most famous) create work environments that purposefully infuse periods of happiness and joy in order to maximize the potential of their employees. With a call for innovation and creativity as key factors in educational reform; can schools use the happiness advantage to promote creative designs? Can this be a strategy during teacher collaboration time; or in instructional design?
Leaders can leverage happiness by looking at aspects of their organization through a lens of gratitude, hope, resilience, optimism and meaning. How we process the world is important, primarily as this determines how we react to, and frame aspects of our organization.
How we shift our mindset (the position of our fulcrum) to ‘raise’ the potential power we believe our organization has (length of our lever) can generate positive change in the organization. When we move our fulcrum (or positive mindset), the lever lengthens – and is ready to move our organization ‘up’.
‘Reality’ is subjective. It is our present understanding of the world based on our cognitive mindsets. Mindsets can be powerful agents. Neuroscience has shown that our expectations can create brain patterns that can be just as real as those created by events in the real world. In essence, “the mental construction of our daily activities, more than the activity itself, defines our reality.” (Shawn Anchor, 2010). Even our mindset of our own abilities affects our performance. If you believe in your ability to succeed, the more likely it is that you will. Simply believing we can be successful in our lives increases our motivation and job performance. In essence, success becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
What we leaders expect from people and ourselves manifests itself in the words we use, and those words can have a powerful effect on end results. Words matter, both said internally and externally. Great leaders view each interaction as an opportunity to ‘prime’ their employees for excellence. With intentional and authentic positive messages, employes are primed for enhanced creativity and problem solving. How we define and celebrate success is important. By modeling this in our buildings, can we support teachers in harnessing this effect with our students?
Great leaders recognize the prevalence of cognitive patterns. When we practice a pattern of thinking for a period of time, it becomes ingrained and habitual. We see what we look for, and often miss out the rest, or contrary evidence to your patterned thinking (the Tetris Effect).
This phenomenon was demonstrated years ago by the famous ‘gorilla in the basketball game‘ study. When asked to count the number of passes the white team makes during the video while playing the black team, a gorilla walks through the court. Almost 46% respondents miss the gorilla on the first watch! This video speaks to selective attention. If leadership is overly focused on the negatives of an organization, they miss the positives and the possibilities that are dormant and that could be leveraged.
Optimism has been shown to be a tremendous predictor of work performance. Optimistic employees are more engaged, put in more effort, and rise above obstacles more easily. Optimism is not a blind belief that all will turn out – but a recognition of the good and the bad; with the healthy sense of mastery and purpose that lends itself to triumph in a given situation. By no means does this mean leaders should put blinders on or ignore the negatives inherent in the organization. Leaders should strive to maintain a reasonable, realistic and healthy sense of optimism – to maximize the potential of their employees and move their organization forward.
The Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor, is a quick read focusing on seven principles of Positive Psychology that can support success in organizations.