positive psychology

Happiness and Productivity

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ThumbsUp-maleAre happy workers more productive or are more productive workers happier?

This is a question that has exercised work and organisational psychologists for over 50 years. And there have been mixed results from workplace interventions. For example in Sweden – with a highly educated workforce doing repetitive work in the car industry – increasing job satisfaction reduced absenteeism but didn’t increase productivity.

Economists at Warwick University think they have the answer as reported in a Sunday Times article; “Why happy people are the hardest workers” (11 July 2010). Professor Andrew Oswald was quoted as saying; “... human happiness has large and positive causal effects on productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings while negative emotions have the opposite effect“. (This is straight from the positive psychology handbook of course and as a psychologist I wonder why they didn’t just ask one of us).

The research team carried out a range of experiments and showed their subjects either a comedy film or a boring (placebo) film. The subjects who reported higher happiness levels after seeing the comedy film were 12% more productive whereas unhappy workers were 10% less productive.

However those subjects who watched the comedy film but did not report increased happiness were not more productive. So the increase in productivity was linked to an increase in happiness but not to just watching a comedy film.

A surprise finding was that those subjects who had experienced a death in the family in the last two years were 10% less productive. But subjects whose parents had divorced recently didn’t appear less happy or less productive. Perhaps with divorce being so common it’s no longer seen as a negative life event.

They conclude that if happiness does bring increased productivity then HR departments and business managers should be paying more attention to the influence of emotions at work.

This is interesting but there are lots of questions. Some companies have tried to inject fun into work, for example call centres (often the modern equivalent of Victorian sweat shops) but I haven’t seen any evidence it does anything than temporarily alleviate boredom.

The fact that some subjects didn’t report increased happiness after seeing the film might be because they didn’t think the film was funny (it featured a well-known British comedian for a start) and humour is very subjective.

The subjects’ personality as measured by the Big 5 might have been a factor. Extraverts tend to be happier and more positive than Introverts and also respond better to incentives (the subjects were paid an attendance fee plus a performance fee depending on their output).

It also appears that the subjects were working individually rather than in teams. This reduces the element of “social loafing” and usually maximises the incentive effect but there is a strong social effect when working with friends or in teams, especially for more sociable types.

Anything that improves employee engagement (at an all-time low at the moment) is of interest to business leaders but I can’t help thinking that the more holistic approach adopted by companies like Sony Film is worth looking into. See “Rituals engage staff“.

Originally posted in SGANDA in 2010

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My most read posts in 2014

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Screen Shot 2012-10-05 at 22.49.07My output on this blog was pretty paltry last year as I was busy writing elsewhere and tweeting (probably too much!)

However the number of countries in which my lists were read more than doubled to 85 countries, mainly the USA, the UK, and Brazil but also in Suriname, Belize, Lebanon, Qatar, Algeria, Sri Lanka, the Faroe Islands and China. So thank you for such an international interest.

For what it’s worth the most read posts on this blog in 2014 were:

  1. Thinking outside the box – literally
  2. MBTI typies – for the believers
  3. Empathetic introverts make the best carers
  4. Learning to become an optimist
  5. Using social media impacts on academic performance
  6. Mentally challenging jobs are good for you
  7. Can scientists really change your memories
  8. Were the Victorians really smarter than us?
  9. Your partner’s personality adds value
  10. End of the road for Positive Psychology at work? jointly with Gender differences in responding to stress

End of the road for Positive Psychology at work?

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Breathe London

Lion-Wallpaper-the-animal-kingdom-3695548-1600-1067There is a great scene near the end of the Australian film, Animal Kingdom. The murderous, ever positive matriarch of the family gang is confronted by the death of her last son. Up until that point every set back, including the gangland slaughter of most of her family, had been met with a rosy one liner about how all would turn out well. In one of the last scenes of the film we see her hunched and sobbing at the breakfast table. She turns to one of the few remaining gang members, red eyed and sobbing and blurts out, “I’ll be fine darl, I’m just looking for my positive spin”. Of course it all ends painfully for the drug gang, who had a date with destiny from the start of the film.

About nine years ago I started to get really interested in the emerging field of Positive Psychology. I’d…

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Making friends as healthy as regular exercise and your five a day.

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stick_figure_drawing_people_leader_1600_wht_5133Making a new friend is as good for you as regular exercise.

People with a sunny outlook are more popular and have better health.

That’s according to a study reported last week in the Daily Telegraph.

It showed that optimistic people experience more positive emotions because they make more social connections which in turn improves physical health.

So positive emotions could be as important for your health as exercise and your regular fruit and vegetables.

The study, published in the journal Psychology Science, was led by positive psychology pioneer Prof Barbara Frederickson, at the University of North Carolina, and Dr Bethany Kok from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany.

They observed the physical effects of positive emotions  by studying participants’ vagal tone – the body’s control over the vagus nerve which helps to regulate heart rate among other things.

People with a high vagal tone ie more control over the vagus nerve, tend to be better at regulating their emotions. It was hypothesised that those with higher vagal tone experienced more positive emotions. The optimism arising from that should improve social connections, further increasing vagal control and thereby improving physical health in an upward spiral.

The researchers wanted to know if participants could cultivate optimism and thereby improve their chances of better health. So participants were randomly assigned to either a 6-week loving-kindness meditation (LKM) course or left on a waiting list for the course. All of them had their vagal tones assessed at the start and end of the study.

Those on the course learned how to cultivate positive feelings of love, compassion and goodwill towards themselves and others.

The results showed that those with higher vagal tone in the LKM group showed steeper emotions over the course of the study. As their positive emotions increased so did their reported social connections  which in turn led to an increase in their vagal tone. Those on the waiting list showed no change in vagal tone over the course of the study.

Prof Frederickson was reported to have said that “positive emotions may be an essential psychological nutrient that builds health, just like getting enough exercise and eating your fruit and vegetables”.

The ability to manage your emotions is an important aspect of emotional intelligence which has been posted elsewhere on this blog.

It appears that this study was carried out in a scientific way unlike an earlier report from Germany about alternatives to going to the gym  which turned out to be an urban myth.

Don’t be mean minded about tea & coffee breaks

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British DSCF1290workers lose 24 minutes a day getting tea and coffee. So what?

That’s about 5% of a working day. A small price to pay at a time when employee engagement is at an all-time low and stress is on the increase.

According to a story on the BBC  News website this is a habit that the company that carried out the survey, T6,  says employers need to crack down on as it costs £400 a year in lost man hours.

Fortunately the cavalry has come to the rescue. In fact not just the cavalry but the heavy brigade. The UK Tea Council, who might of course have a vested interest, talked about the sociability of tea-making and tea-drinking.

And doing a good turn by offering to make someone a drink is good for you as any positive psychologist will tell you.

Professor Cary Cooper is definitely all for it saying that breaks are essential in coping with a sedentary office job especially when you are glued to a screen and even e-mail your colleagues in the next department (and in one BBC department at the next desk according to a reliable source who once worked there).

Cooper even suggests organising free coffee breaks a couple of times a week so people can socialise together. Doesn’t have to be coffee of course and some experts warn about over-doing the caffeine.

A professor in biological psychology at Bristol University dismisses the idea that it increases alertness and in fact believes that drinking it regularly actually tires us. When we have a drink it just takes our energy levels back to what they would have been had we not had caffeine withdrawal symptoms.

Tea also contains caffeine and a substance called theanine which actually relaxes us as well as many other compounds – unlike cola or energy drinks – which might be good for us. And preferable I would have thought to taking Ritalin or other cognitive-enhancing drugs.

A professor in occupational health psychology at Cardiff University  says caffeine is rightly prized by workers for combating fatigue, and for over-riding severe sleep deprivation. It won’t stimulate you if you’re not tired but it gets you back on form when you are – the “restoration of function” effect.

But what they both agree on is that holding a hot drink, enjoying the aroma, and coming together with other people to enjoy is a wonderful thing. Amen to that.

Updated 13 January 2011: More evidence to support more frequent breaks away from your desk has emerged from a study of almost 5,000 workers in the USA.

The researchers at the University of Queensland, Australia, found that among those who spent a long time sitting down, the more breaks they took  – even if only for a minute – the smaller their waist-line and the healthier their heart. The number of breaks taken by workers over 7 days varied from 99 to 1,258.

Sedentary work has resulted in more obesity and conditions such as diabetes. Genevieve Healy who led the research published in the European Heart Journal says the slogan should be: “stand up, move more, more often”.

She recommends standing up to take telephone calls, walking to see a colleague rather than telephoning or e-mailing, having standing meetings, and centralised services so that workers have to walk to them, having lavatories on different floors, and using the stairs rather than the lift.

She didn’t specifically mention coffee breaks but walking to the kitchen to make yourself, and a colleague, a refreshing cup of tea or coffee has got to be the best option of all surely?

Last posted January 2011

How do you make adults behave better at work?

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Make sure there are reminders of children there.

Researchers at the Centre for Ethics at Harvard have found that when people worked in the presence of children’s toys or reminders of children or if they engaged in children’s activities or if there was a creche on site they behaved more ethically and in more pro-social ways.

In laboratory experiments participants in a child-related environment cheated less at games, were more generous, and in word games chose more virtuous words than those in a normal setting.

In the real world they found that companies which had 5 or more day-care centres, nurseries or kindergartens within a 2 mile radius of their HQ gave significantly more to charities.

The researchers think that being in the vicinity of children or being reminded of children aged up to 9 years of age – and maybe their presumed innocence – makes people behave better.

They suggest using coloured fonts in e-mails or having children’s music in the lifts. Thinking about it you could have crayons instead of flip chart markers and encourage people to have family pictures of children in their cubicles. Perhaps more primary colours?

They are now interested to see if the same effect would apply to diversity and reducing discrimination. They also admit there is a dark side in marketing where they found children being used to market soda, in cigarette adverts, shaving products and fast food. Think Ronald McDonald!

Source: HBR September 2011

Self-control (those marshmallows again)

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Latest research from New Zealand demonstrates that childhood levels of self-control are clearly linked with outcomes later in life.

1,000 NZ children were assessed at 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 years of age and then interviewed at age 22.

Participants with poor self-control were more likely to become one-parent families, more likely to have credit and health problems, and more likely to have a criminal conviction. This was true even allowing for the effects of intelligence and social class.

  • In the top fifth – in terms of childhood self-control –  11% had serious adult health problems compared to 27% in the bottom fifth.
  • 13% of the top fifth were involved in a criminal offence compared with 43% of the bottom fifth.

Terrie Moffitt and her colleagues argue that this is a strong case for introducing universal self-control training into schools for children and adolescents. This would not carry the stigma of one-to-one interventions and would benefit everybody in society.

Source: February 2011 Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences

NB Marshmallows refers to Mischel’s famous experiment often cited in connection with emotional intelligence.

Here is another article about self-control with an embedded video showing 4-year olds using distraction to avoid eating the marshmallows.

Are you flourishing?

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Are you flourishing? Happiness is over-rated according to Martin Seligman, the grandfather of positive psychology.

This might be a bit of a shock as his book “Authentic Happiness” was influential in persuading influential people that the government should start measuring happiness and well-being.

In his latest book “Flourish” he says he got it wrong promoting happiness as it was only concerned with life satisfaction and how cheerful you were. He thinks well-being is … Read More

via Mike the Psych’s Blog with permission

Developing Resilience

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Research among elite performers found that they had a number of characteristics in common. As well as being intelligent, disciplined and bold, with strong practical and interpersonal skills, they bounced back from adversity.

Jim Collins describes in his new book “How the mighty fall” people who are exasperatingly persistent and never give up. They are not necessarily the brightest, most talented, or best looking, but they are successful because they know that not giving up is the most important thing they do. He says; “success is falling down and getting up one more time, without end”.

Early research on resilience focussed on survival in extreme situations (and we still see examples in the recent events in Japan). However resilience is now seen as a more regular phenomenon and the evidence is mounting that most people recover from traumatic events and regain their emotional equilibrium fairly quickly.

In doing so they may use seemingly dysfunctional coping strategies, for example boosting their egos almost to the point of narcissistic behaviour. Or they may choose to repress negative thoughts or emotions – what some psychologists might see as denial. George A Bonanno calls this “coping ugly”.

In his research after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the SARS epidemic, he found that up to 2/3 of survivors experienced few if any symptoms and after 6 months there were only about 10% who needed help.

Until recently disaster sites would be inundated with counsellors offering critical incident stress debriefing, something now considered unnecessary and possible harmful. And after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami the World Health Organisation actually warned against using this technique. It only takes one person in a group to react badly to re-living the trauma for the whole group to be affected.

Linked theoretically with positive psychology and CBT resilience is partly about filtering negative messages, to enable you to take a more realistic perspective, and partly about being single-minded about what you can and cannot control.

It is also linked to personal attributes such as calmness in stressful situations, reflection on performance through feedback, and learning systematically from both success and failure. Resilient people generally:

  • Recognise what they can control and influence and do something about it, rather than worry about what they can’t
  • Stay involved rather than becoming cynical or detached or simply walking away
  • Work with others to shape the environment and influence things that affect them most
  • Act as a source of inspiration to others to counter self-destructive behaviour

So it’s not just about “bouncing back” and carrying on where you left off before. It’s about reflecting and learning from what has happened and then getting back to business.

So can you learn to be more resilient? Clarke & Nicholson, authors of “Bounce back from whatever life throws at you”, think so and set out a 10-point plan.

  1. Visualise success
  2. Boost your self-esteem
  3. Enhance your efficacy – take control
  4. Become more optimistic
  5. Manage your stress
  6. Improve your decision-making
  7. Ask for help
  8. Deal with conflict
  9. Learn
  10. Be yourself

And the US Army certainly thinks so as well. Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology, is currently delivering a multi-million dollar contract to teach over 1 million soldiers how to be more resilient and using a “train the trainer” approach to train NCOs how to cascade the programme.

Based partly on the Penn University resilience programme the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Programme incorporates large chunks of positive psychology eg looking at character strengths, emotional intelligence elements such as empathy, self-awareness and impulse control, and CBT techniques such as Ellis’s ABC model.

Because it also incorporates elements about family and spirituality it may appear to have more in common with life-coaching than executive coaching but it is designed to reinforce the warrior ethic and to make better leaders.

Research shows that resilient people can have a positive effect on the well-being of organisations and their employees so it’s well worth organisations developing such capabilities.

If you want a free report on character strengths go to: http://www.viacharacter.org/

Finnish top of the world

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Finnish top of the world Economists and social policy experts have decided that Finland is the best country in the world.

Newsweek magazine asked the expert panel to decide based on education, health, quality of life, economic competitiveness, and political environment. Finland, the small country that gave you saunas and Nokia telephones, rally drivers and probably the last real blondes in the world, classy designs and IT expertise, full of forests and lakes, came top ah … Read More

via Mike the Psych’s Blog with permission

Danes are the most satisfied people – how about you?

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Danes are the most satisfied people – how about you? No sooner had Finland won 1st place in “best country in the world” category than their Nordic neighbours Denmark have to go and spoil the party by coming 1st in Wikipedia’s “satisfaction with life” index.

Finland ranked 6th, just ahead of Sweden, in this 2006 study which asked people directly how satisfied they were. Interestingly Switzerland came second in both surveys. The USA came 23rd and we came a measly 41st, behind Germany but ahead of Spa … Read More

via Mike the Psych’s Blog with permission

How to be happier 

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Despite what England fans might feel right now football competitions can make you happy. But only in the short-term – and only if you are the host country. And even that doesn’t make you as happy as a good marriage.

Married people are happier than single people (of course it could be that happy people get married more easily).

And the 30% improvement in happiness due to being married even counteracts all the negative affects of unemployment but don’t get divorced (the two worst life events are losing a spouse and unemployment).

There are some differences between the sexes and between age groups. For example women look less happy but angrier than they are, whereas men look less angry and happier than they are. Probably because we have cultural expectations that women should be happier than men and men angrier than women and we notice when people display behaviour counter to that norm.

Older people focus more on positive aspects of goods and services because they focus more on emotional goals than young adults.(See “What makes you Happy”). Optimism is associated with happiness, good physical and mental health and longevity. Conversely when we are stressed it lowers our immune system so we are more likely to become ill. Middle aged people who are happy have fewer physical symptoms of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Extraverts are happier than Introverts because they spend more time doing enjoyable things. But introverts who are asked to behave as extroverts can be even happier than real extroverts. And we are attracted to happy people because we think we will give good genes to our children.

Happiness IS NOT associated with: wealth (once basic needs are met), education, high IQ, youth (20-24 year olds are more depressed than 65-74 year olds) and watching TV more than 3 hours a day – especially watching soaps.

But it IS associated with: religion (although it may be the community rather than the belief), having lots of friends, and drinking in moderation (compared to teetotallers).

We are not evolved to be happy all the time otherwise we would have nothing to strive for. However 50% of happiness may be due to our genes compared to les than 10% due to our circumstances. We may have a set point or range of happiness to which we return after experiencing ups and downs. So like the football example, winning the lottery may not make us happy forever.

According to Martin Seligman – the inspiration for positive psychology – we can raise our happiness levels by enjoying life’s experiences more eg by savouring sensual experiences, by becoming more engaged with life and by finding ways of making our lives more meaningful.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of “The How of Happiness: a practical guide to getting the life you want“, suggests the following programme to raise your levels of happiness:

  • Count your blessings – keep a gratitude journal each week of 3-5 things
  • Practise being kind – both randomly and systematically
  • Savour life’s joys
  • Thank a mentor
  • Learn to forgive
  • Invest time and energy in friends and family – these are more important than work to your happiness.
  • Take care of your body and health
  • Develop strategies for coping with stress and hardship – having a strong belief system helps.

Updated 2 July 2010: Catherine Bennett in the weekend’s Observer (27 June 2010) took a rather cynical view in her piece; “Phew. At last we can ignore the gurus peddling happiness“. Clearly not impressed by the wave of optimism being generated at a time of world-wide problems and austerity at home. She refers to the Movement for Happiness and its founder Lord Layard who said; “… as our society has become richer, our happiness has not risen in step. Despite ever greater affluence, our lives are increasingly stressful. This paradox requires a radical rethink of our lifestyles and our goals”.

Conceding that the strategies proposed by happiness enthusiasts are neither complicated or expensive she also quotes the GREAT approach (advocated by the New Economics Foundation). GREAT stands for: Giving, Relating to others, Exercising the body, Attending to the world around, and Teaching yourself something fresh – but she wonders what good they are to people who have just lost their jobs or never had one.

Well I know that exercise is the best form of anti-depressant, relating to others might help develop networks and reduce self-obsessing, and keeping up-to-date and learning a new skill is a good way to get a new job. Maybe we should just ignore the journalists peddling negativity?