The Latest Findings on Workplace Happiness

Flying into Los Angeles with its final approach nestled between mountain and sea, I was reminded of how much I love L.A. It is truly a beautiful place, one bathed in light. Driving downtown during the soul-sucking rush hour on a crowded bus, I was reminded of how much I hate L.A.

I used to live here, you see. I know its good, bad and ugly.

Our jobs can be like that, whipping up a complex stew of contradictory emotions when we ask ourselves that most confounding of questions: “Am I happy at work?” There are no simple, or even consistent answers. Exploring that question, and the more fundamental issue of what it means to be happy and what that word actually means, is what I try to do with this blog.

I am not the only one exploring happiness. This past weekend some of the top social scientists in the world gathered to present the latest research on human flourishing and well-being. More than a thousand people packed an L.A. hotel to listen to luminaries such as Martin Seligman and Barbara Fredrickson dissect empirical findings on what it means to be happy. Literally hundreds of papers were presented in a variety of forums, and my goal was to sift through them and bring you a few nuggets on work and happiness.

That, and stay out of the margaritas at the hotel bar, at least until after I attended a few sessions.

Let me warn you – looking to find places where positive psychology produces business results is not easy. In more than five years of studying and writing about happiness and work, I have yet to come across the randomized, controlled, large-scale study that establishes once and for all the causal connection between workplace happiness and shareholder value. It is like diversity or engagement – we know it helps, but it is tough to prove. That said, here are a few things I learned in L.A.:

  • Organizations with strong values perform the best. Kim Cameron of the University of Michigan’s school of Positive Organizational Scholarship presented data from 40 financial services firms where performance was measured across a variety of results such as sales and ROI. Comparing the top performers against the bottom, he found that almost half the variance could be explained by “virtuous” HR practices at the top companies, such as encouraging teamwork and focusing on employee strengths. Things that make us happy at work. Take that, you 6-Sigma Death Lizards.
  • A daily vacation improves your performance and happiness. Take a vacation every day, at least mentally. Your annual trip to Myrtle Beach, jammed in the family truckster with squalling kids, is not going to do it. German researcher Sabine Sonnentag presented data showing that deplugging psychologically from work needs to be daily to improve well-being and your overall attitude about your job. Turn off the smartphone and the computer at home – at least when you are finished reading this blog.
  • Character strengths predict performance, but in different areas. Regular readers of this blog know that using your strengths of character at work are good predictors of performance and overall well-being. Claudia Harzer, a postdoctoral student at the University of South Carolina, is more specific. At the conference, she showed how different strengths predict performance in different areas. High levels of self-regulation means you are good at task performance, for example, and are well-suited for task-oriented assignments. If your strengths are more in the emotional intelligence arena, relationship and team-based activities get you going. If you have no strengths whatsoever, become a blogger.
  • Finding meaning and purpose in your job is essential. Happiness at work requires that you draw some link between what you are doing and something larger, according to numerous presenters at the conference. By large they don’t mean do-goody Mother Teresa stuff, they mean something that is important to you on some level. Maybe it is a sense you are paying off your student loans and meeting new people. Maybe it is the satisfaction of mastering a new skill. Maybe it is knowing that people depend on you. Keep it simple, but look for some meaning. Look hard. The truth is that you aren’t going to be happy if you see absolutely no reason or purpose for what you do.
  • Tweet nice to live longer. Or write nicer emails if you don’t tweet, says researcher Margaret Kern. A big data review of the language used by more than 70,000 social media users indicated that negativity and aggressiveness are bad for your health. I hope that doesn’t hold true for blogging.

That is enough for now. I will report back soon with some more takeaways from the conference, but know this: there is no magic pill to be happy at work (well, maybe there is, but I don’t do pharmacology). It is hard, complex and individualized work – sort of like living in L.A. – but it is worth the effort. Keep trying.

And help yourself to a margarita, on me.