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.
“Happiness is a habit. Cultivate it.” -Elbert Hubbard
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?
Some bemoan the constant interruptions and endless internet surfing. Others celebrate the new-found freedom and capabilities.
How has the digital age impacted our happiness?
Amy Blankson is one of the world’s leading experts on the connection between positive psychology and technology. She is the only person to be named a Point of Light by two presidents (President George Bush Sr. and President Bill Clinton) for creating a movement to activate positive culture change. A sought-after speaker and consultant, Amy has now worked with organizations like Google, NASA, the US Army, and the Xprize Foundation to help foster a sense of well-being in the Digital Era.
I want to start with the question that an entrepreneur asked you at one of your presentations: “Social media and technology are destroying our happiness, right?”
In recent months, I have seen a growing number of posts about how bad technology is for us. Technology is blamed for social isolation, disconnection, and corruption. But I’ve also heard and seen how technology can be used for good — a means to connect, to share knowledge, to empower, even to save lives. So, which is it: Is technology good for us or bad for us? Does technology make us less happy or more happy? As Shakespeare once said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Technology is a tool, a means to an end–and WE get to decide how that story ends.
Fact: 95% of Americans spend 2 or more hours a day using a digital device.
Since technology can both bring joy and destroy it, tell us a few ways you’ve used it to your advantage. And tell us about what apps you’re using for happiness, productivity, and to “tune in, not zone out.”
One of my favorite examples of “happytech” is the Spire stone. The Spire stone is a small wearable that clips onto your bra strap or waistband to monitor your respiration and, in turn, lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and increase the flow of endorphins in your blood stream. The Spire uses your breathing patterns to figure out when you are tense, calm, or focused, and provides gentle notifications to guide you when you need it most.
When I first started testing out the Spire stone, I had a particularly poignant experience. Last spring, my family jumped into our backyard pool to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather. In an unfortunate turn of circumstances, my younger daughter jumped into the pool a bit too close to her older sister, landing on her neck and breaking her neck. I happened to be out of town when this happened, so I didn’t know how bad the situation was until I returned home and took my older daughter to the doctor. I was wearing my Spire stone the whole time and had managed to stay fairly calm through the doctor visit; however, as I was walking out of the hospital with my daughter in a giant neck brace, my Spire stone began to vibrate to let me know I was feeling tense. Pausing to think about what was going on, I realized that I was actually anxious about how other people would perceive me as the mother of a child with a broken neck. The nudge was just enough to help me reframe my thoughts to be more present for my daughter rather than worried about myself, and I was able to short-circuit an emotional response that might have taken me a week or more to realize before I had the Spire stone.
“You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” –Robert Solow
Sometimes tech is fun just for the sake of the endorphin rush and the dopamine boost. But at what point do those focus-altering diversions cause us to lose sight over what we really care about? At what point do diversions turn into fixations that are distracting?
Sometimes we become so engrossed in our diversions that we don’t notice that they are no longer making us happy anymore. Like Wile E. Coyote in Looney Tunes, we get our legs going so fast that it actually takes us a moment to realize that we have run right off the Happiness Cliff. Let me assure you that this never turns out well for poor Wile E.
According to the Law of Diminishing Returns, many diversions can actually be beneficial for our productivity and happiness—up to a point. Beyond that point, the diversion simply becomes a waste of time and eventually a time suck that becomes harmful to our productivity. To avoid falling off the happiness cliff, start your day by setting your intention for how you want to use your time. When you start to find yourself engrossed in a task, pause to ask if your technology use is helping you tune in (helping you to achieve your intention) or causing you to zone out. If your answer is the latter, then try to set a time limit for yourself to engage in that activity so that you don’t get sucked in and lose focus.
Happiness Tip: pause to see if you are tuning in or zoning out.
What does the latest research tell us about our ability to train our brains to be more positive?
The latest research from the field of positive psychology reveals that training our brains to be more positive is not only possible, it’s actually essential to striving after your full potential. Why? Because when your brain is positive, it receives a boost of dopamine, which turns on the learning centers in the brain and makes you able to see more possibilities in your environment. In fact, a positive brain has been linked to: 37% higher sales, 3x more creativity, 31% higher productivity, 40% increase in likelihood of receiving a promotion, 23% decrease in symptoms of fatigue, 10x increase in the level of engagement at work, a 39% increase in the likelihood of living to age 94, and a 50% decrease in the risk of heart disease.
Research: Positive people have a 40% increase in likelihood of a job promotion.
Why is the study of happiness and the pursuit of happiness such a rage today?
Well, I think some of the things that used to make us happy such as a sense of community and connection have been lost. So, a loss of place and being more urban is now a contributor. Also, a rising middle class focuses more on happiness. They say there is also something bigger when things in the larger society seem out of control—things like climate change, terrorism, the pace of change. We realize we cannot control these things so we often focus in where we can change—which, by the way, is a good instinct because it is where all societal change begins anyway. Finally, I think the fact that science has started to study happiness in a serious way helps because maybe people feel that you can actually hardwire happiness rather than thinking that some people are simply happy.
“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” -Shakespeare
“Attention without attachment” immediately pulled me in. How do we best make this a daily practice?
It is a critical concept for happiness. Attention is about the actions we take, the intention we have moment to moment. Attachment is a focus on a goal or what is called in yoga a “sticky desire.” Here is a simple example: I play a great deal of tennis. Attention is about being in the present moment at every point in a match. Being aware of my body, how I want to hit the ball and seeing what is happening around me. There is great happiness in playing and even the artistry of the moment-to-moment intention to improve. Winning the match is attachment and is something I cannot control. The more I focus on my attachment to winning, the less happiness I will have and, ironically, the less likely I am to win. The way we cultivate this is to first recognize the difference when it shows up. When we feel that happiness is in the outcome we must stop that thought and instead have this mantra: “I choose to be in the present moment accepting whatever is. The outcome is not in my control.” This takes training of the mind which we have trained to focus on attachment to what we cannot control: the future. When our intentions don’t lead to our desired outcome, we must then simply re-choose how to be in the present moment again. So, you lost the match, the relationship, the promotion, or even playing golf this afternoon when the rainstorm ruined it. Once you see that unhappiness is resistance to whatever is at any moment. Happiness is being present in each moment and open to what might arrive. Never confuse this with some resigned passivity. I am still going to practice hard for the next match, but it is attention without attachment.
“Routine is deadening to the human soul.” -John Izzo
Surrender is the opposite force from control. But it’s so far from easy for many of us. How do we build up a reservoir of surrender energy to be used just when we need it?
Surrendering is very hard for most people. It begins with the realization that all emotional and spiritual suffering is resistance to whatever is happening at any given moment. This may seem like hyperbole, but it isn’t. All the great teachers taught surrender in one form or another. I think you start by practicing with the little things. You had a busy day and can’t wait to get home; suddenly there is an accident, and you’re stuck in traffic for an hour. Practice accepting what is with no resistance, surrendering to the outcome and asking, “How can I find joy or meaning right now?” If you practice surrendering to the small detours in life, you will be ready for the big ones like the death of someone you love or your eventual loss of health. We are a society of doers, so we don’t like surrender, but my idea of surrender is not simply giving up. It is embracing whatever is while trying to influence it as best I can. But surrender comes before action. Acting from what I call “surrender energy” is more powerful because you aren’t taking on the misery of attachment. You begin with the little stuff because if you can’t surrender to that, you have no chance when the big stuff shows up.
“The future cannot be controlled, only experienced.” -John Izzo
Happiness. Some people pursue it. Those who have it radiate with an inner joy.
There are various techniques to develop a more positive attitude, ways to train yourself to be content. The people I would describe as the happiest aren’t those with the most things, or even the most friends, but those who have a deep faith.
“Worry can rob you of happiness but kind words will cheer you up.” –Prov. 12:25
An artist I know loves to show me a blank canvas and describe, in detail, the painting. To her, it’s so clear. Where I see only a blank canvas, she sees an entire landscape full of vibrant colors.
An entrepreneur I know once took his family on a tour of a remote piece of property. He shared his vision for where buildings would go and all the customers who would be mingling in various parts of the land. The family couldn’t imagine it, but he saw it all vividly. And, today, it looks exactly like that. It’s a thriving business.
An author friend of mine creates characters in her mind. Month after month, she dreams about them, talks with them, listens to them. They become so real to her that, when she finally starts writing, it’s as if she is merely recording what happens instead of inventing it.
“I dream my painting and I paint my dream.” –Vincent van Gogh
On a recent vacation, my wife was relaxing on a deck with a view of a mountain. As she often does, she was bringing people into her mind and praying for them one by one. Mesmerized by the beautiful scene in front of her, she decided to take a quick picture with her phone.
When we returned home, she was looking at her pictures and shared this one with a few close friends. Immediately, the responses started coming back. There’s something in the clouds!
“The trick to forgetting the big picture is to look at everything close up.” –Chuck Palahniuk