Recently I joined over 400 people at a talk by Tal Ben-Shahar, one of the world’s leading happiness researchers, organised by Action for Happiness.
Action for Happiness? Sounds a little ‘new age’ doesn’t it? And, until a few years ago, you’d never have caught me at a happiness event.
But in the last few years, I’ve become more acquainted with positive psychology and research around wellbeing and happiness, including studies featured in Tal’s book Happier. As a result, I’ve changed my outlook completely. And I came away from this event feeling lighter, more empowered, and full of ideas and positivity.
Understanding the factors that increase personal happiness can not just help us as individuals, they can also help increase organisational success. Here are four key takeouts from Tal’s talk.
1. Focus on what’s working – as well as what’s not working
Traditionally, sociologists and psychologists have focused almost solely on questions like:
- Why do we fail?
- Why do we have problems?
They’ve then come up with programmes to address these issues. But taking this approach is often ineffective.
Positive psychology changes the questions to:
- Why do some people succeed?
- What are the factors that contribute to their success? And can we replicate them?
Take relationships for example. For the first three or four years of a relationship, the part of the brain focused on critical thinking switches off. After that, it switches back on again and we start to pay attention to what’s wrong with the relationship. What needs fixing? As with much of our lives, we focus our attention on the negatives rather than the positives.
The limitations of our mental energy mean that our attention is incredibly selective, even though we often don’t realise it. For a demonstration, look no further than the famous Invisible Gorilla experiment shown below. Typically, around 50% of participants taking this test for the first time fail to spot the gorilla: their attention is elsewhere.
Our attention is often decided by the questions we ask. The questions we ask out loud, and in our head, are how we create our own reality.
In fact, the late Peter Drucker, one of the foremost authorities on management, believed that one of the most common mistakes managers make is to put emphasis on finding the right answer, rather than the right question.
Focusing on what’s working – as well as what’s not – can bring big rewards. In Switch, Chip and Dan Heath call this tactic ‘looking at the bright spots’: shining a light on areas of good performance to encourage more of that behaviour.
On a personal level, I’ve tried to incorporate this approach into my own work. One current example is a major project to improve the capability of our leaders. Rather than focus exclusively on raising the capability of poor or average leaders, we’re shining a light on our high performers, and using them to spread the word.
2. Focus on your strengths
Perhaps one of the most ignored aspects of employee engagement is the importance of individuals doing work that they find personally enjoyable and meaningful. But what makes work enjoyable and meaningful?
Tal describes an individual’s ‘peak potential zone’ as when they are:
- using their personal strengths in their work
- doing work that energises them
In a major research study, Gallup asked people where they focus their development at work: on their strengths, or on their weaknesses. The vast majority said their weaknesses. Yet those who focused on their strengths were more successful.
According to Tal, if you teach managers to look for people’s strengths rather than their weaknesses, they immediately improve performance. And spending just one or two more hours a week in your ‘peak potential zone’ can have a significant impact on your happiness levels.
Clearly we can’t ignore weaknesses, especially if those areas are fundamental to the job. But surely it’s time to focus more on building and using our strengths – and encourage leaders to actively develop and use the strengths of their team members.
3. When you appreciate the good, the good appreciates
One outcome of recognising and using people’s strengths is that we get more of the behaviour we want to see.
‘When you appreciate the good, the good appreciates,’ Tal says. When we recognise good behaviour or performance, then we get more of that performance. Appreciating the good increases people’s sense of being valued.
Many leaders equate recognition as saying ‘thank you’. But it’s more than that. It’s about noticing and appreciating an individual’s particular strengths and characteristics, and helping them use those unique gifts to contribute to the success of the team.
4. Focus on others
Science shows that one of the best ways to increase your own sense of happiness is to help others.
In one experiment, researchers gave two groups of people some money to spend. They told the first group to spend it on themselves: on clothes, gadgets, whatever they wanted. They told the second group to spend it on someone else: their partner, children, or give it to charity or a homeless person.
They then used brain scans to measure activation in the part of the brain related to happiness.
Both groups were happier. But for the first group, the effect was short-lived. Science proved the existence of the ‘shopper’s high’ – but by the next day, happiness levels were back to normal.
Those who spent the money on others, however, still had increased happiness levels over a week later.
For organisations, this suggests that employee volunteering or charity activities have a dual value. On the one hand, they increase corporate social responsibility and consequently can have a positive impact both on the commercial and the employer brand.
On the other, participation in these activities can have a positive and lasting impact on an employee’s sense of happiness and wellbeing. And that can only be good for performance.