Happiness January 25, 2013

Futures Rambling #66

Finding Happiness at Work and in Life

I caught up with a number of old friends over the holidays and noticed a disturbing, but not totally surprising trend; quite a few aren’t happy campers. They are dissatisfied with a host of life’s conditions such as their partnes dirty undies on the floor, children requesting money, neighbours dog’s poop on the nature strip, ATM fees you name it. They dream of happiness, but it eludes them, lost in a quagmire of mortgages, school tuition payments and dealing with elderly parents.

It is an interesting juxtaposition to what I learned late year at the Fast Company Uncensored conference in San Francisco.  Jennifer Aaker from Stanford University and author of “the Happiness Paradox’, delivered a presentation suggesting that even though many of us are driven towards happiness, we find that achieving it is not all it’s cracked up to be. She warns our tendency is to pursue the wrong paths, we follow our true beliefs.

We believe we know what makes us happy, but we don’t and we have very poor memories when it comes to accurate reflections of the real cause of our happiness. If we are lucky enough to achieve our notion of true happiness, it fades forcing us to start all over again with the bar being raised higher.  Emanuel Kant noted “The concept of happiness is such an indeterminate one that even though everyone wishes to attain happiness, he can never say definitely and consistently what it is that he really wishes and wills.”

Some of the confusion is the result of there being two types of happiness: the exciting rah rah version and the more insightful, fundamental content version of happiness. Research done at Stanford by Aaker, Kamvar and Mogilner in 2009 focus on these types of happiness and suggest that when we are younger we associate with the first type, but gravitate to the latter as we age. Age is not the only influence; depending on gender and culture we have very different interpretations of what it means to be happy.

This explains why those in their fleeting youth are happy to frequent doof doof bars, dance till all hours and slurp overpriced cocktails; whereas others like me, are happy watching episodes of The Walking Dead in their jammies. Another example is that of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse in the UK whose cultural background prohibited her from finding the call from Australian DJs pretending to be the Queen and Prince Charles very funny.

The experience of happiness steadily shifts over the course of a life to become associated more with a feeling of peace and connectedness to others. Research undertaken by the spiritually minded physician and scientist Dr Deepak Chopra into what makes us happy found only 10% of happiness is gained from our living conditions, the amount of money we have and the assumed comfort of our lifestyle. 40% of our happiness comes through fulfilment of personal pleasure including hobbies.

Similarly Aker’s research at Stanford is similar and finds sustainable happiness results from events that are meaningful, cause us to make connections and feel a part of something bigger. An important aspect of happiness is the perception that we can control our time, freedom to choose and perform meaningful work with higher purpose is a key ingredient. This explains why so many feel such inspiration from volunteering.

Our own Tina Murray would concur; she spent three weeks in Ghana with Center Of Refuge Ministry working with children rescued from slavery. Surprisingly, this gave her a far deeper sense of happiness than she receives donning a black outfit and coming to work at Geyer! Her only reservations came from not being there long enough to see tangible results; it’s not like here where the job is done when the defects are completed.

We are very lucky, within each of us there is the ability to redefine our notions of happiness; it is a benefit to being human. Unlike other species, man has evolved over the past two million years, and it isn’t just learning to walk upright and possessing opposable thumbs that evolved. Our brains tripled in size and changed in their structure. We now have a frontal lobe, in particular a prefrontal cortex that works as an experience simulator. This gives man the ability to imagine what an experience will before it actually happens. And this is where many of us go wrong, scientist refer to it as an ‘impact bias’, we think something will be better, but it really isn’t.

Studies done by Dan Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University demonstrate that when people are given a choice of either becoming paraplegics or winning the lottery they naturally choose the latter believing the impact on our life of winning lotto will be superior to losing the use of our legs. Interestingly, it was the paraplegics who were happier a year on. Why? It is due to our ability to simulate happiness and change our view of the world.

We make adjustments to cope with the events of our life, simulated happiness – putting on rose coloured glasses helps us to cope with life. I experienced this first hand when my husband rode his bike off a 3 meter cliff. I was happy because he wasn’t dead, the shattered clavicle, 7 broken ribs and a collapsed lung became minor annoyances in the grand scheme of things.

Chopra talks about this differently, but his results are equally hopeful, their research found that 50% of our happiness is found through what they call a “set point” developed in childhood and influenced by the positive and negative things that happen to us. It is possible to adjust this set point through meditation and mindfulness, effectively changing your attitude. Of course many are not willing to take this path and look for quick fixes with gurus, therapists, Prozac and purchasing far too many pairs of shoes.

Despite these attempts, happiness is still highly elusive, especially when it comes to our jobs. The US research firm Conference Board has been studying employee satisfaction and engagement for 25 years and their work shows happiness has fallen every year since they began. A decade of research proves the single greatest advantage in the modern economy is a happy and engaged workforce and happiness raises nearly every business and educational outcome: sales by 37%, productivity by 31%, and accuracy on tasks by 19%. Therefore, how can we afford to not pay attention to worker happiness and importantly what can we do to improve it?

Not surprising, the research suggests a significant change in leadership practice is required to improve happiness scores. Employees care whether their managers are interested in their wellbeing and today only 40% of those surveyed in the US believe they are. In Australia this year’s Randstad World of Work Report identified workforce productivity as our biggest human capital challenge. Given productivity is directly related to employee motivation and a significant portion of Aussies believe their current manager is neither motivating nor inspiring, our situation is no better.

It is recommended that leaders begin advocating for people and providing meaningful work as this plays a critical role in their happiness at work, as does recognizing and appreciating efforts and achievements. If a leader does that and something as simple as telling people they care, they can make a big difference according to the research. Of course it is not only leadership, each of us also plays a role in our own happiness.

Whether we simulate happiness, eg put on rose coloured glasses as Dan Gilbert recommends or follow Deepak Chopra and meditate we have the ability to retrain our brain, research into neuroplasticity indicates it is possible to teach old dogs new tricks! As a start here are five activities recommended that correlate with positive change, if you choose one to do over a three week period it can have a lasting effect.

  1. Jot down three things you are grateful for.
  2. Write a positive message to someone in your social support network.
  3. Meditate at your desk for two minutes.
  4. Exercise for 10 minutes.
  5. Take two minutes to describe in a journal the most meaningful experience of the past 24 hours.

We have a long way to go in our research and understanding of how to create and sustain a positive and engaged workforce. What we do know is companies can influence happiness with short interventions and low investment of resources, but the effects last,  even in tough times such as those we faced in 2012: The  apocopolise, if you’re a Mayan, or hurling over the fiscal cliff, if you’re a yank.


Aaker, Jennifer Mogilner Cassie, Kamvar Sep; The Meaning(s) of Happiness; Research Paper No. 2026 Research Paper Series Stanford Graduate School of Business, May 2009

Achor, Shawn; The Happiness Dividend; The Harvard Business Review, June 23, 2011

Achor, Shawn; Positive Intelligence; The Harvard Business Review, January & February 2010

Christensen, Clayton; How to Find Work That you Love; Fast Company Expert Blog 05 – 14-2012

Crowley, Mark C; The Sharp Drop-Off In Worker Happiness–And What Your Company Can Do About It

Fast Company Expert Blog 04-30-2012

Gilbert, Dan; TED talk http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy.html

Ranstad World of Work Report 2011/12

Schwartz Ariel; How to Find Meaningful Work; Fast Company, March 26, 2012


2 thoughts on “Happiness January 25, 2013”

    1. Thanks Vic I’ll be interested in hearing what you think about Daniel pinks new book, I’ve not read it either but am a fan and would expect nothing less than something that challenges the status quo from him

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