Happiness at work – the good and the bad

bottomlineI’m always a bit dubious about psychology studies that purport to show that happy employees are more creative, diligent and productive. Sure we all want to be happy at work and be surrounded by happy colleagues but apart from having some fun at work we also want to be inspired, pushed, challenged and to find meaning.

 The happiness industry

Here’s an example of some recent research:

A 2010 study, by Andrew Oswald at Warwick Business School, concluded that there was a positive link between an employee’s happiness and their productivity. The team conducted a range of exercises in their research. The subjects were asked to add a series of two digit numbers in ten minutes. They were paid an attendance fee, and also a performance fee based on how they performed.

Half of the group was then shown a ten-minute comedy film. The film apparently led to an increase in the self reported happiness levels of participants, compared to those who did not see it or who watched placebo film clips. The participants then repeated the task. The researchers concluded that those participants with an elevated self reported happiness level were 12% more productive than the participants with non-elevated happiness levels.

They also noted that those participants who watched the film but did not feel any happier did not demonstrate improved productivity.

 Reality check


This was reported in the media as groundbreaking research, however it merely adds to the body of findings from the field of Positive Psychology, which has a far more nuanced understanding of the role of emotions in the workplace. Emotions, both “negative” and “positive” have a vital role at work. They are a call to action to help change behaviours. There is a danger in that this type of research might suggest that positive emotions are appropriate in all workplace settings.

The Andrew Oswald study involved students at the business school and not employees on a production line or sitting in an office.  When the media reports on these studies they often miss the vital aspect of context.

We have seen a large growth in the Positive Psychology industry in recent. Many wonderful coaching organisations have sprung up around the world, however I am concerned that the simple message that we should all be happy at work can be disempowering and disengaging for lots of people.

Organisations do not exist in a vacuum. They mirror society

Here are some of the stats for Australia:

  • Anti depressant use in Australia is the second highest in the OECD
  • The Safety at work Australia survey noted in 2013 that 20% of people at work had been humiliated by a colleague and 42% had been bullied at work
  • 1 in 5 Australians say their stress levels affect their health
  • Depression affects 1 million Australians

Given this background it needs care and sensitivity when introducing Positive Psychology programs at work. Happiness is not the goal but can be a by product of being engaged, finding meaning, being well rewarded, experiencing growth and feeling close to colleagues

Emotional intelligence and mindfulness

UntitledDifferent situations and tasks at work require different types of emotions to be generated. For example, research indicates that where fine attention to detail is required( for example when studying the findings of a report) it’s more useful to foster serious, almost downbeat emotions.

Where creative, blue sky thinking is required it’s more useful to engender a fun, light hearted approach. So clearly before HR departments rush out and hire comedians its worthwhile understanding that context and task are at least as important as creating a fun place to work.

We need to learn skills to help us switch between emotions in a calm manner and have the ability to return to the default position, within the organization, of happy and upbeat.

Some of the downsides of happiness at work

 Happy people can be lazy thinkers.

Happy people are more likely to use cognitive shortcuts and approximations when thinking about the world. In one study researchers presented people with a list of 15 words related to a theme (e.g. tired, bed, rest, etc) and then asked participants to recall the list as best they could by looking at a separate list and identifying the original words.

The researchers include some false items related to the theme such as “sleep” that never appeared on the first list. Happy people were 50% more likely than their counterparts to mistakenly identify such words.

Happy people may be less persuasive.

Researcher Bob Cialdini identified concepts associated with persuasion: scarcity, expertise, and so forth. One element of persuasive communication is clear, concrete, detailed arguments. Exactly the stuff happy people are inclined to gloss over.

In three studies, judges rated the arguments about everyday issues such as allocating tax money. Happy people were rated as about 25% less impressive and 20% less detailed than were their more negative counterparts.


I think that the key points that HR departments need to draw from this research are as follows:

  • Ensure that staff have a clear understanding of how to use emotions at work, in particular how to match the appropriate emotion to the task in hand
  • Be aware that because emotions are easily transferable and escalate its easy for the mood of an organization to tilt into a downward spiral
  • Get into the habit of celebrating the strengths and achievements of individuals and teams
  • Find authentic, fun ways to raise the overall mood of the organization
  • There is a place for letting people be moody – it reflects reality. When we are close to our colleagues we adapt and grow accustomed to these moods. Creating a false positivity can be stifling

Our next Townsville courses are at www.breathe-australia.com/sessions


Posted on October 1, 2014, in Coaching, Meditation etc., positive psychology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Really enjoyed this balanced and grounded perspectve.

  2. Wise counsel in a well argued piece. Many thanks. Also, I really connected with your previous blog post.

  3. Very interesting point of view indeed!

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