May 30, 2014
Does success make us happy? Or do happy people succeed? Both, obviously. But a growing body of research suggests that while the former isn’t guaranteed, the latter just might be. Happiness research – yes, there is such a thing – reveals that while there’s nothing wrong with deriving happiness from one’s success, happiness is an integral part — and, for some of us, maybe even a prerequisite — of achieving success in the first place.
And it all starts with attitude. Here’s one finding that might surprise: it seems that positivity – not exactly happiness, but certainly a close relative – is more important than raw intelligence when it comes to professional success. An oft-cited 1984 meta-review concluded that high IQ can explain only about 25 percent of the variance in how successful a group of people will be in their careers. And in a 2011 TED Talk, Shawn Achor, a former Harvard University psychology professor and current CEO of consulting firm GoodThink Inc., says the other 75 percent comes from traits such as optimism and the ability to see stress as a challenge and not simply something we must endure.
“The greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain,” Achor tells The Financialist. The more positive you are at work, for example, the more likely you are to help out your fellow employees, and that pays big dividends over time. In a recent study, Achor classified employees into four groups according to how much “social support” they gave their coworkers. He dubbed the most supportive group “work altruists”—the kinds of people willing to take on more work to help others on their teams and also those more likely to organize outings with co-workers—and the least supportive one; “work isolators.” There’s clearly subjectivity and judgment involved in making these kinds of classifications, but the results were stark: About 40 percent of the workers in the top three social support quartiles were promoted within a year, versus only about 7 percent of those in the bottom quartile – the isolators.
So how do we stay positive on the job? According to Achor, it’s easier than you might think. In December 2008, for example, he worked with a group of people at audit and tax advisory firm KPMG. Despite the fact that workers were gearing up for tax season, Achor asked those KPMG employees to do one of five things every day for three weeks – write down three things they were grateful for; write in a journal for two minutes about the most positive experience they’d had in the last 24 hours; send a positive note to someone they knew; meditate at their desks for two minutes; or exercise for 10 minutes. At the end of the study period, those who had done even one of those five scored significantly higher on measures of engagement and optimism at work (as well as general life satisfaction) than a control group that had not participated in the training. And the effect was lasting. Four months later, says Achor, those same employees still registered significantly higher life satisfaction scores than the control group.
While it’s somewhat commonsensical that happier people should be better able to navigate the challenges of the workplace better than those mired in cynicism or negativity, the results of ever-increasing amounts of happiness research are backing up that thesis with actual numbers. Achor points to a study conducted by researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and Ed Diener that shows happy workers are 31 percent more productive than unhappy ones and have 23 percent fewer stress-related ailments. Other research shows positive attitudes improve sales effectiveness by 37 percent.
Making positivity a part of the job can yield rich benefits for companies as well. At Ritz-Carlton and other corporations, workers are encouraged to follow the 10/5 practice: If an employee walks within 10 feet of a guest or co-worker, he or she should make eye contact and smile. Get within 5 feet, and a greeting is in order. How effective is it? Ritz-Carlton has opened up its own Leadership Center, where companies pay $2,050 a head for their executives to learn how to improve corporate culture and customer service the Ritz-Carlton way. In Achor’s 2013 book, “Before Happiness,” he cites the example of a Louisiana hospital system that received demonstrably improved scores on patient satisfaction surveys after its 11,000 employees adopted the smiling-and-greeting technique.
Few among us need to be reminded that making our happiness contingent on external measures of “success” — reaching a career milestone or building up a large nest egg of cold hard cash — won’t necessarily make us happy. But research seems to be showing that the reverse might actually be true. Says Achor: “Greater success does not bring greater happiness. But greater happiness does raise success rates dramatically.”
Above: Happy people tend to achieve success more readily than unhappy ones. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com.