Fuel Purpose, Passion and Performance
Do you make happiness a priority at work?
Most business leaders are focused on growing their business or their profits. They focus on the numbers, on market share, on strategy. But there’s growing evidence that focusing on employee happiness is the key to creating sustainable success. Not only do I agree, but I’ve experienced this first hand in the companies I have had the privilege to lead. If you help employees increase their fulfillment, express their unique gifts, and live out their purpose, you will fuel happiness and see dramatically improved results.
The evidence to support this focus on happiness is masterfully compiled in Jennifer Moss’ book, Unlocking Happiness at Work. She distills decades of research and data and then lays out an actionable book with immediate guidance to leaders. If you want to ensure your team thrives, this book is a must-read. Jennifer is the co-founder of Plasticity Labs, committed to supporting people on their path to happiness. She and her co-founders were named Innovators of the Year by Canadian Business Magazine. I recently spoke with her about her findings.
Your family story is compelling and provides a personal backdrop to your research. Tell us about Jim’s accident and how it impacted you.
In 2009, my husband Jim and I were living in San Jose, California. At the time, Jim was a professional lacrosse player, former Gold Medalist for Team Canada, who’d played in the World Cup on four professional teams. Obviously, he was a high-performing athlete who’d spent his entire life competing. It was why we were so shocked when the firefighters had to knock down the door to pick him up, race him to the ER, and then within hours he was diagnosed with West Nile, Swine Flu and a post-viral illness, Guillain Barré Syndrome (GBS), a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system.
The response to treating Jim was all about acting fast. He would essentially experience a rebooting of his immune system through a treatment known as immunoglobulin (IVIG) therapy. IVIG therapy is an antibody (immunoglobulin) mixture, given (in Jim’s case) intravenously to treat or prevent a variety of diseases including GBS. It is extracted via the plasma of 10,000-50,000 donors. For Jim, and for our family, the treatment would be life-saving.
This is when the physicians shared both the good and the bad news. Jim would live. But, he may not recover fully.
Ok, we swallowed that statement. But what did that mean?
We learned that Jim would likely need some kind of assistance from either a wheelchair or a cane and shouldn’t expect to compete again. Ever.
I was worried about how Jim would react, but he refused to let this news take away the most important part of him – his psychological strength. He had the foresight to know that his mood would be either a barrier or the fuel to keep him motivated.
He reached out to his fans and friends on social media and asked for support. The books, research, links, podcasts, and TEDtalks came pouring in, and it was most undeniably helping him to heal.
I would sometimes struggle with his newfound optimism. I wanted to be happy, but I just couldn’t seem to authentically feel the gratitude that Jim had discovered for his illness. See, I was also pregnant with our second child. A two-year-old boy, Wyatt, was waiting at home for me every night. He would beg me for answers, and I would fake a teary smile and tell him all sorts of fun stories about daddy in the rehab hospital. It was hard and I was lonely, stressed out, and infinitely scared.
But. I also found that once Wyatt would drift off and I had chosen to fill his sleepy dreams with positive thoughts, removing his worries at the same time, it made me feel way better than the nights I would lock myself in the bathroom and cry. Granted, I needed those nights, too – there was a certain level of catharsis to crying that I needed. But, I never felt as good as I did when I watched Wyatt drift off with a crooked smile on his face, thinking of how lucky Daddy was for being able to eat vanilla pudding in bed!
We’d learned through much of the literature, research and science that gratitude has a vast and complex set of benefits when we practice it. So, we did. Gratitude for the view from the hospital bed. Gratitude for the health insurance I was lucky enough to have in place. Gratitude for all the people rooting for us. And the list goes on.
I also noticed that Jim’s positive mood impacted his doctors, nurses, occupational and physical therapist’s ability to assist his healing. The more optimistic he was and grateful for all their efforts, the more time they spent with him. When he needed something, they were there—as opposed to his grouchy neighbor who would complain all day about how long it took to get a nurse in to help when he rang his buzzer. Jim and I also witnessed the occupational and physical therapists volunteer an extra hour of time at the end of their shifts. Nurses would change his bed sheets faster, and they would give him extra rice pudding to brighten his mood. Doctors would check in at off hours and make sure he was keeping up his happy spirit. All of this increased his determination to heal, to walk, and to disprove the pessimistic outlook by the early doctors.
What was going on with me simultaneously was a better understanding of how life still continues to ebb and flow around you, even though a crisis strikes. Jim was strangely cocooned inside the hospital. Although that certainly isn’t where he wanted to be, it allowed him to have tunnel vision on his healing. I, on the other hand, came in and out of his world.
My personal development came in those moments. When I would have to face the world including my boss, who was obviously concerned, but who still had expectations. It came from the stakeholders that I had to serve in my role with whom I chose not to share any of this situation. It came in my “on” moments when I had to wake up and play the role of mother, wife, friend, coach and of course, employee, peer, colleague, leader, follower.
Six weeks after being rushed to the hospital, Jim walked out of the hospital assisted by his forearm crutches, but he refused the wheelchair. And of course, he still had a good hold on Wyatt’s tiny hand.
He would be there when we delivered our second child. And he would be there to see the birth of our third child, something altogether impossible if he hadn’t survived this trauma four years before.
Jim would never go back to play, and that took some getting used to. Someone who has a lacrosse stick in his hand by two doesn’t give up on that dream immediately. But what did happen was this: a life focused on learning how to give back to the world.
Jim and I would start on our mission to give others the same psychological tools to walk out of a hospital after six weeks—or at the very least, better handle the massive shifts that life hands us. We didn’t realize it then, but it would be our catalyst to start Plasticity Labs, a research and technology company that increases psychological fitness for individuals so they can better handle stress and trauma. We spend most of our time working with employers to help them make workplaces healthier and happier. We also work in schools to help youth develop their HERO GEM traits (Hope, Efficacy, Resilience, Optimism, Gratitude, Empathy, Mindfulness). This isn’t just a job for us. It will be our legacy.
Learn from Two Nurses
My favorite story in the book is about the morning nurse and the night nurse. We don’t get a choice of who is taking care of us in this type of situation, but wow, what a story!
This story is still highly resonant for me as well! Although this experience truly belongs to Jim, I witnessed the impact, and I’ve heard him repeat this narrative many times over the years. As I watch him continue to be the best human he can be, I know this one moment in time would be part of what defined our future.
About two weeks into his rehab hospital stay, Jim told me this story about one of his recovery nurses. Despite all of the requests to stay in bed and use a bedpan, Jim would refuse. See, Jim still had a powerful desire to compete and win. When he had to make his way to the bathroom, he would call his nurse to come help him drag his feet across the room. What most of us would take for granted as a ten second effort, was torturously lengthy for Jim. But, he was determined to maintain dignity and believed it mattered to his healing.
The setback came as a result of the routine I’ve just described. Since Jim would repetitively request the nurses to help him get from his bed to the bathroom, it was sometimes met with frustration. The process was long and painful and, eager to get back to work, nurses would have to wait patiently for Jim as he would take a rest about halfway to his goal.
One morning, with annoyance at this time-consuming effort, the morning nurse told Jim that he “better get used to it, you’re going to be like this for a long time!”
This completely gutted Jim. When I saw him later, his demotivation could be felt on his face, and throughout his sluggish body. This comment would haunt Jim. But it would also motivate him.
Not one to take loss lying down, he would get back up and initiate the excruciatingly slow walk to the bathroom. But this time, as Jim took his regular 10-step break between him and the goal, the evening nurse said jovially, “Don’t you worry about it, sweetheart, you’ll get back on your feet in no time.”
These are the moments of our lives. They break us—or they advance us.
The Latest Happiness Research
Would you share some of the research findings in the field of neural and psychological sciences that you find promising in the field of happiness?
Neural and psychological sciences are deeply rooted in our work. We have a team of PhDs analyzing how our daily habits impact our mood and subsequently make us who we are. The term neuroplasticity is derived from the root words neuron and plastic and refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize by creating new neural pathways to adapt as needed. Neuroplasticity refers to our brains’ ability to be malleable or “plastic” so that our experiences change both the brain’s physical structure (anatomy) and functional organization (physiology).
Novel research focused on memory is quite exciting. Specifically, Dr. Bridge at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine who found that our “memory is faulty” explains that memories “insert things from the present into memories of the past when those memories are retrieved.”
From a happiness standpoint, we can rewrite the past with current and new information, updating our memories with new experiences. If this is the case, stressful experiences can be reframed with a healthier perspective so we draw the best from them. This reframing exercise can help us to be happier in the present, and predict a happier future because we now believe we can overcome the stress we confront.
Another one of my favorite scientists and storytellers is neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence. As he points out:
Due to the evolutionary hangover of a deeply rooted negativity bias based in our “fight or flight” response, our brains have become “Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” Because we yank our brains offline when we’re in a state of stress and fear, it reduces our ability to ideate and be creative. Stress is a massive disruptor to innovation, an issue based in neurosciences that most organizational leaders have no idea how to handle.
How is gratitude potentially linked to profitability?
Gratitude has powerful and lasting impacts on productivity. Research suggests that grateful people are better at perspective-taking and are more agreeable and more open to new ideas, all of which have important implications for the workplace. Gratitude also promotes prosocial behavior, which can contribute to social support and cohesiveness among team members. Employees who simply write down three grateful things before the start of every workday increase the likelihood of promotions by 40%; they improve sales by 35%, reduce coding errors by 37%, and even improve healthiness by reducing sick days from six to two every year.
One study proved that employees who focused on and described three things that they were thankful for at work reported more workplace-specific gratitude. Additionally, the research showed correlations to decreased procrastination and increased sense of community among coworkers – a fantastic biproduct of a simple gratitude intervention, particularly for employers who are looking for ways to increase productivity and engagement.
According to Dr. Robert Emmons, the foremost researcher in gratitude and its impact on performance, people who spent 10 weeks writing down weekly gratitude statements felt 25% happier; they were more optimistic about the future; they felt better about their lives, and they exercised almost 1.5 hours more per week than people who had to, conversely, share their weekly hassles.
And unhappiness can dramatically affect output. In new research coming out of Cornell, 40% of developers self-reported that unhappiness negatively impacted their work. They describe issues like fatigue, sloppiness, messy code, being forced to delete projects due to lack of direction, etc. as a result of decreased well-being. Unfortunately, we don’t often see leaders in technology open to fostering happiness strategies. We have to educate leaders about the linkage between happiness and higher-performance so they stop seeing psychological fitness training as “fluffy” or “light.”
Train Yourself to Be Happier
Many people think that you’re wired to be an optimist or a pessimist. Is it possible to train yourself to be happier and more optimistic?
Absolutely! Yes. As far back as 1885, William James, in his book Principles of Psychology, proposed that the human brain is capable of reorganizing. In the early years of life, humans manufacture an estimated 250,000 neurons per minute and then spend the next few years wiring them together. However, more neurons do not mean more intelligence. Instead, it’s better to focus on the wiring and rewiring (habit building!) of those neurons that are ready and waiting to be plugged into.
It can explain how we can build a jogging habit after years of sedentary living, or be capable of adapting to a life in a big city after growing up in a small town. It helps some of us rebuild hope after tragedy with more ease, be grateful after trauma, or have empathy for people we’ve never met.
Actually, according to positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, we have a big opportunity to develop happiness as part of our learned behaviors. According to her research, 50% of happiness is determined by our genes, 10% of happiness is determined by the circumstances in which we live, and a whopping 40% of happiness is determined by our actions – our attitude or optimism, and the way we handle situations, reframe the past, and experience the present.
What does the research say about friendships at work and how this impacts engagement?
Friendships at work can be the difference between loving your job or hating it. It has a huge impact on our health, well-being and happiness. As a leader, creating healthy friendships and positive relationships is one of the most effective ways to increase talent retention according to a wide range of research on the topic.
Donald Clifton, an American psychologist and professor of educational psychology, acquired Gallup, a research-based consulting company, and developed the Q12 survey. The Q12 survey asks one very important question that pertains to friendship at work and how important those relationships are to a company’s success.
The result of that question had rippling effects on how leaders now see the value of community in the workplace. Clifton and Gallup learned that by having at least one (yes, just one) close friend at work is one of the strongest predictors of productivity. Studies show that employees with a friend at work tend to be more focused, more passionate, and more loyal to their organizations. They get sick less often, suffer fewer accidents, and change jobs less frequently. They even have more satisfied customers (Gallup 1999).
In a meta-analysis of 148 studies, including 300,000 people studied over seven years, researchers found that people with strong social relationships had an increased likelihood of long-term health and were less likely to die than those with weaker social relationships.
Brigham Young University Professors Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Timothy Smith, in their report “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review,” state that social connections, including friends, family, neighbors or colleagues can improve our odds of survival by 50%. Here is how loneliness puts us at risk:
- Equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day
- Equivalent to being an alcoholic
- More harmful than not exercising
- Twice as harmful as obesity
Obviously increasing community at work is highly valuable to our business. Perhaps it’s time to create a “friendship building” budget.
How can technology improve workplace happiness?
The proliferation of technology in our personal and professional lives is a contentious topic. I happen to believe that just like anything else in life, moderation is key. Personally, I don’t see technology going away and would bet that our relationship will continue to become more entangled in the near and long-term. I also believe technology has vastly improved our workplace experience, specifically:
- Global Mindedness: When we bridge communication across cultures and in other languages outside our mother tongue, we build up our cognitive empathy, which plays out inside the teams we work with every day.
- Enhanced Connections: Social media collaboration tools in the workplace provide warmth unfelt in mass emails generically distributed. Conducting business over social networks allows those within a worker’s circle of influence to offer opinions or helpful suggestions and, in turn, offers the network a level of legitimacy by allowing it to prove useful at a corporate level. It also scales and flattens communication between managers and employees.
- Adeptness: Obviously speed is crucial to today’s rapidly moving, highly competitive business world. Technology is hugely influential in facilitating communication in a controlled and efficient way that has proven to be successful for almost every company who uses it well. Organizations that incorporate the newest technology are the most attractive to possible clients because of the company’s ability to meet their needs in an unprecedented way.
- Flexibility: When information is portable, we can live and work in a world on the go. As a parent, I can work from home with a sick child, and I can get home for dinner in time to connect with my spouse and my kids. When our employees believe that we care about their work/life continuum, retention, loyalty, engagement, plus other traits of a higher performing person come back to us as a result.
What’s the future of happiness?
I predict, along with other futurists in the happiness space, that we’ll see a huge shift toward human-centered economics-based decision making. I know this may seem unbelievable with the growing tensions in our world today, but I am optimistic that we will see how compassionate capitalism is the only way forward to increase economic output, decrease poverty, improve education standards, eliminate homelessness, and solve most of these problems we once deemed unsolvable.
This opinion stems from my purview into the world of policy building, directed by the UN. I happen to be a member of the UN’s Global Happiness Council (workplace sector) and have been give the privilege to witness the most incredible scientists and human beings attempt to solve some of these big problems. The reason why I believe economics will be at the root is that the core of the team are made of up the most prominent economists in the world. They ask questions like, “Why do we have hedge cities? Should we make housing a human right instead?”
This way of thinking, led by prominent influencers in this space like Harvard Professor Tal Ben Shahar (finance) and Mo Gawdat (tech) will help shift our mindset as it pertains to humanity, happiness and sustainable, economic growth.
When you’re talking about your happiness research, what do audiences find the most surprising?
I find that most people I speak to at my talks are surprised by how happiness is so deeply rooted in science, and in neurosciences specifically. I love debunking the myth that happiness is a soft concept. We build our happiness over time through frequent but simple interventions, and it is the elegant simplicity that makes the habits work and stick. Humans tend to associate rigor with complexity, and that isn’t always true. I like to remind people that common sense isn’t all that common. We need to change that.
For more information, see Unlocking Happiness at Work.