Happiness training

When was the last time your workplace sponsored a seminar on happiness? Never, you say? Yet on a recent weekday morning, nearly 100 co-workers and I crowded into a small auditorium for just that. (The actual name of the course was “The Science of Positive Leadership.”) Though the course was optional, three hours long, and had been advertised only to managers, the room was packed. We were there to see what Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, could tell us about how to be happier and how that would affect our productivity and that of our teams.

You might think this was a feel-good session devoted to learning affirmations, but it was far from that. The relatively new field of Positive Psychology uses scientific methods to study what makes us happy, giving us a deeper understanding of the causes and effects of happiness as well as tools for achieving those. And it turns out that being happy leads not only to feeling better but also to greater success in all areas of life.

So how can we become happier, and how will that help us at work? While it can take a whole book to explain this thoroughly, here are some key concepts:

We can raise our happiness level. Everyone has a natural baseline of happiness, but it need not be fixed. Recent science has shown that our brains are much more plastic than was once thought — so we don’t have to be defined by our genes and stuck in one way of being. We can take actions like these to increase our happiness:

  • Focus on the positive. This doesn’t mean looking at the world through rose-colored glasses and ignoring problems, but if you see only problems you won’t be happy. Some simple ways to increase your happiness include identifying three good things that happen each day and writing down what you’re grateful for.
  • Nurture your social network. Research has shown that the greatest predictor of success and happiness is not IQ, skills, or abilities: it’s one’s social support network. When we get busy and stressed, connections with others can be among the first things we neglect, but that’s the opposite of what we should do.
  • Cultivate your strengths. People who use their strengths in their life and work are happier and more successful. Identify your signature strengths and find ways to use them each day.
  • Control your own narrative. You can learn to tell yourself a different story in any given situation. For example, if something negative happens, you might consider yourself unlucky — instead, try imagining how the event could have been worse, and you’ll find yourself feeling lucky to have escaped a worse outcome. You might even see new possibilites resulting from the event.

We can affect others’ happiness and productivity. You may be thinking, It’s great to have tools to become happier, but how does that make me more effective in the workplace? The first answer is that happier people achieve better outcomes in all areas, and work is no exception. But there’s more: because of mirror neurons, which mirror the behaviors and moods of those around us, our moods can spread easily to our co-workers. A manager, more than anyone, sets the tone for their team — so just being happier is a great start for any manager. And it doesn’t end there. As a manager, you can take steps like these to make your team both happier and more productive:

  • Help employees identify and capitalize on their signature strengths. Employees who have a chance to regularly use their unique strengths experience not only greater job satisfaction but also higher productivity.
  • Praise others in the workplace. The praise must be specific, authentic, and public. It helps to focus not just on outcomes but on processes used to achieve them, as well as moving from individual to collective achievement in order to include the whole team.
  • Provide opportunities for socializing. Though socializing at work can be seen as a waste of time, it’s far from that. Teams with strong social connections among the members are actually more productive.

How does this apply to project management? This is all excellent advice for people managers. An ongoing challenge for a project manager is how to motivate people when you have no direct authority over them. Positive Psychology can help here, too.

The first step involves yourself: try the recommended exercises and see if you feel happier. If you do, that feeling will tend to spread to your colleagues. As project managers we can have a profound effect on those we work with, thanks to mirror neurons.

Beyond making yourself happier, you can use many of the techniques a people manager would use. Though you may not be able to assign work based on people’s signature strengths, there’s nothing to stop you from being sociable; in fact, relationships and connections are key to project management. If you have lunch or go out after work with your co-workers, you’re already bonding with them in ways that help you all work together better. If not, knowing the effect it has, you may want to find ways to socialize more with your colleagues.

Giving praise can be even easier. Meetings provide ample opportunity for public praise, and project managers go to plenty of meetings. I sometimes e-mail a colleague’s manager (and copy the colleague) to let them know how helpful that person has been on my project. It’s all too easy to speak up only when there’s a problem, but praise has such a powerful effect and takes so little time and energy.

Just writing this blog post has put me in a good frame of mind. If taking a few moments of my day to focus on the positive can have such an effect, imagine what can be done with regular practice. I’m looking forward to continuing happiness training on my own and to seeing what happens as a result.

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