If you ask someone not to think of a pink elephant for the next minute, there’s a pretty good chance that they’ll spend most of the next minute thinking about pink elephants. So what do you think happens when you deliberately try to suppress bad thoughts because you’re trying to “think positively”? Richard Wiseman, in his excellent book 59 Seconds, says there’s some evidence that the pink elephant problem rears its head and you end up thinking even more negatively than you would otherwise have done and, as a result, end up making yourself less happy. So if positive thinking is a dangerous route to happiness, what’s the real happiness secret? And how can we use this secret to increase employee happiness? This post will discuss both of these questions.
The happiness challenge
Why is employee happiness so important? Well aside from the fact that most of us want our employees to be happy for their own sakes, employee happiness can increase productivity, sales figures, profits, and workplace attendance, amongst other things. With such a substantial roll call of benefits, it would be a mistake to ignore the importance of employee happiness in driving business results.
Of course, even if employee happiness is important, it’s only worth investing time into trying to increasing happiness if we have some reasonable chance of success. For example, if people are just naturally happy or sad and there’s nothing we can do to change this then it would be a mistake to waste resources trying to improve happiness.
So what does the research say here? Well, unsurprisingly, happiness is partially genetic. Wiseman cites Sonja Lyubomirsky who says that 50% of happiness is determined genetically. Most importantly for our purposes, though, this leaves a huge 50% of happiness which is down to our environment and attitudes (10% of which Lyubomirsky takes to depend on big factors like income, marital status and so on and 40% of which she takes to come down to more minor factors relating to day-to-day environment and attitudes).
Regardless of the specific figures, the point is this: even when genes play a big part in determining some trait, we can normally still do a lot to make things better. If someone has poor eyesight for genetic reasons, they can wear glasses. If someone has pale skin that burns in the sun, they can put on sunscreen. Similarly if happiness is partially genetically determined, there’s still room for us to make a big difference.
So employee happiness matters and we can make a difference to it.This gives rise to the happiness challenge: what do we need to do to increase happiness?
The gratitude attitude
The answer, according to Wiseman, is that happiness is increased by adopting the gratitude attitude. That is, if people want to be happier then they should take the time to remind themselves of all the things that they have to be grateful for.
His basic point is that most of us have a variety of things to be happy about. Perhaps for some people it’s their relationships (with friends, family, co-workers or whoever it may be). For others it might be their job, their hobbies, their health, their financial security, a planned holiday, or even just a nice evening of relaxation they have planned. However, as humans we tend to become accustomed to our lives to the extent that we take these things for granted. So sometimes we need a reminder of just how lucky we are. It is a reminder of this sort that, according to Wiseman, can encourage the gratitude attitude and can, in turn, increase our happiness.
So according to Wiseman, the gratitude attitude is key to happiness (and it’s not just Wiseman who has positive things to say about gratitude: a whole bunch of people agree). Which is all well and good but it still leaves us with the key question: how can we encourage people to adopt the gratitude attitude?
3 tips for encouraging the gratitude attitude
Wiseman, who is writing for individuals rather than organizations, suggests a simple intervention that can encourage the gratitude attitude. His intervention involves writing a brief (it really shouldn’t take long!) diary entry on five different days over a week exploring things that you have to be grateful for. For example, on one day you might write an entry reflecting on someone you love. On another you might list three things that you have to be grateful for. Wiseman, who provides a more detailed diary template in his book, cites evidence suggesting that doing this exercise for just one week is likely to have an effect on happiness that can last months (he suggests repeating the exercise when you notice the effects wearing off).
But how can we integrate this idea into the workplace? Here are a few of our favorite ideas.
#1. The gratitude lottery
Each month run a lottery. To enter, employees simply have to write down one (or two, or three) things that they’re grateful for and put the list in the box. One name is drawn from the box at the end of the month and that person wins a prize. A standard prize will do but to make it more fun, you can relate the prize to the thing the person is grateful for: if they name their spouse, for example, give them a voucher to a local restaurant so they can enjoy a night out together.
#2. Team building
Alternatively, you could integrate the gratitude attitude into a team building session. Get people to write down a list of 2 or 3 things that they are grateful for. If you think it suits your team environment, you could then get them to share and discuss them with the person next to them. Hopefully not only will it encourage employee happiness but if you do the exercise at the start of the day it could help to get people in the right frame of mind for the rest of the team building session.
#3. Recognition platforms
Peer recognition programs that allow all employees and management to recognize one another publicly provide an excellent solution to boosting happiness in the workplace and, more specifically, a great way to create the gratitude attitude. Whenever an employee recognizes someone else, not only is the recipient’s mood lifted but the act is likely to encourage the sender to feel the gratitude attitude by reminding them of a great aspect of their workplace (here we like to think that our cloud-based peer recognition platform is particularly well suited to this role because it incentivizes the giving of gratitude, and not just its receipt).
Avoid the pink elephants
A step towards improving employee happiness is also a step towards building a more engaged and motivated workplace – a happy employee is far more likely to be an engaged employee than an unhappy one. And taking that first step is a lot simpler than you might have previously thought. Why not try an exercise to encourage the gratitude attitude today? Oh and, perhaps more than anything else, remember to avoid thinking about those pink elephants!