Research shows that happy people tend to be more effective at their jobs. When we’re feeling good about our lives, we connect with others more easily, think more optimistically and free up valuable mental resources to focus on novel ideas. Happiness also breeds confidence. Positive moods make our situation feel more controllable, which can give us the grit to power through challenging tasks. How exactly do you foster happiness in the workplace? Well, very simple, by taking a cue from casinos and embedding psychological triggers into the employee experience that promote a positive mind-set.
WHY WORKPLACE HAPPINESS IS HARD TO FIND
One of the more distressing facts about human nature is that we are not particularly good at staying happy. Positive emotions wear off. Whether we’ve earned a promotion, landed a new client, or moved to corner office, with time we tend to return to our happiness baseline. Often the process doesn’t take very long.
Consider what happens when you order a wonderful dish at a new restaurant. The first bite is exquisite. The second is very good. By the third, you’re ready to share. The more you eat, the less enjoyment you derive from your meal, until after a certain threshold you couldn’t bear another bite. Chances are, the next time you return to the restaurant and order the same dish, it will taste like it’s missing something. It is: novelty. The good news about our inclination to adapt is that the same psychological process responsible for acclimating us to positive events is also at work when we experience a tragedy.
Studies show that lottery winners, for example, return to their happiness baseline roughly one year after receiving their windfall. Accident victims show a similar pattern. Just 12 months after losing the use of their legs, paraplegics estimate that they will feel just as happy in the future as did before their injury. Our brains are programmed to adapt to our circumstances, and for good reason. Too happy and we’d lack any ambition; too sad and we’d never leave our beds. To some, learning about the existence of a happiness baseline can feel incredibly liberating. It means that no matter how badly you screw up your next project, inevitably your disappointment will wear off, and you’ll return to your happiness set point. So why not take some risks? After all, you’re working with an emotional safety net.
To others, it can seem downright depressing. If happiness is fleeting what’s the point of even trying? It’s the reason some researchers have equated the human condition to a “happiness treadmill.” We struggle as hard as we can, only to remain stuck in the same emotional place. Studies examining ways of slowing the adaptation process as a means of prolonging happy experiences show that If we can prevent ourselves from habituating too quickly to positive experiences, the reasoning goes, we can sustain the initial high for longer periods of time.
How do you delay adaptation? Here’s a look at what we’ve learned so far.
INSIGHT #1 – Frequency is more important than size.
Every positive experience takes some getting used to. And the more positive events we have, the longer it takes us to return to baseline. Which leads us to our first happiness insight:
Small, frequent pleasures can keep us happy longer than large, infrequent ones.
What this means from a practical perspective is that bringing home a 10-dollar arrangement of flowers every Friday for a month is a wiser happiness-promoting strategy than purchasing a single 40-dollar bouquet. So is spacing out weekend getaways over the course of a year instead of taking a single 2-week vacation. The more frequent our happiness boosts, the longer our mood remains above baseline.
The implications from an organizational standpoint can be profound. For one thing, we may be better off splitting up positive annual events into quarterly ones. Companies often hand out bonuses at the end of the year, but delivering smaller, quarterly bonuses may be a more effective strategy. The same logic applies to parties. Instead of spending lavishly on a single holiday party, it may be wiser to divide spending into smaller increments, providing seasonal get-togethers. The importance of frequent positive events also provides a new lens for appreciating the psychological value of office perks. Offering employees relatively inexpensive workplace benefits-for example, by purchasing a high-end espresso machine or stocking the refrigerator with interesting snacks-is more likely to sustain day-to-day happiness levels than the sporadic pay increase.
From the employee perspective, access to office perks can often do than temporarily elevate mood. It also sends an implicit signal that an organization cares about them. While financial bonuses tend to be viewed as payment for performance, perks communicate on an emotional level and provide a motivational boost. Studies show that when employees feel cared for, they are inclined to reciprocate by working harder.
INSIGHT #2: Variety prevents adaptation
Increasing the frequency of positive events isn’t the only way of delaying adaptation. So is introducing variation.
Because our brains are programmed to habituate quickly to our circumstances, we tend to tune out events that happen repeatedly, no matter how positive. Our minds slip into autopilot when our environment is predictable, conserving mental energy for when changes occur. We need new experiences to keep us emotionally engaged. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s a process that’s served us well. The inevitable boredom that arises once we adapt to our circumstances is what keeps us striving for bigger and better, not how much we’ve achieved. What it hasn’t done, however, is make us very good at savoring positive experiences when they happen. The more we do the same enjoyable things, the less attention we pay them. Which teaches us an important lesson about happiness:
Sometimes, in order to continue enjoying something we love, we need for it to temporarily disappear.
This is one reason traveling can feel so rewarding. When we go away, we break the routine of everyday life. Not having access to your bed, your car, or your favorite reading corner might hardly be noticeable when you’re traveling. But when you return, you suddenly have a newfound appreciation for the little things that contribute to your comfort. In some ways, the real benefit of a vacation is in helping us recognize the pleasures of being home. Variety helps prevent adaptation, which is why creating a happy workplace involves more than just repeating the same enjoyable activities again and again. One way of introducing variety into the workplace is by linking certain in happiness boosts to specific seasons.
Summertime barbecues, fall clambakes, Halloween pumpkin-carving contests, and winter chili cook-offs are just a sampling of seasonal events that can quickly become office traditions. Some workplaces take it one step further and design unique seasonal events that reflect their company culture. By connecting positive events with certain months of the year, organizations can enhance an activity’s emotional impact while creating an additional layer to the experience: giving employees something to look forward to.
INSIGHT #3: Unexpected pleasures deliver a bigger thrill
Picture this: You arrive at the office on a Monday morning and discover that your lobby is covered in a sea of balloons. A local band is playing by the elevator. Tuxedoed waiters are handing out breakfast hors d’oeuvres. What would you think?
When something surprising happens, our brains automatically pay closer attention, lending unexpected events greater emotional weight. We’re motivated to make sense of events we haven’t predicted devote more mental energy to thinking about them after they occur. In this way, surprises provide an emotional exclamation point enhancing the impact of any event-good or bad.
This is why the one reason the start of a romantic relationship is so alluring, is that every encounter reveals something new about your partner. With each shared activity comes a new revelation about his or her interests, history, and goals. The constant flow of surprises keeps you engaged. But with time, you get to know your partner. The discoveries stop and it’s at this point that many relationships are at risk of losing their glow.
The same can be said for most jobs. When we first join an organization, each day involves meeting new people, exploring new locations and learning new practices. Then one morning the surprises stop. We know almost everything about our workplaces, and suddenly our jobs are predictable. Given that surprises enhance the impact of an event, it’s ironic that most workplaces only use surprises to communicate negative information. A colleague is fired; a department is reorganized, a product is discontinued. Some bad news is clearly unavoidable, and there’s no changing the fact that certain information is better kept under wraps. But when events like these are unexpected, it causes us to stand up and take even more notice than we normally would. By leveraging positive surprises in the workplace, organizations can get a bigger emotional bang for their buck.
How do you surprise your employees? One idea might be renting out a movie theater and taking everyone out for the premiere of a major release. Or hiring a massage therapist to walk around the office for a day. Or paying a professional impersonator to call an employee on her birthday. The goal is not just to improve mood temporarily but to create an environment of positive expectations. The more employees anticipate good things happening, the more likely they are to find them.
INSIGHT #4: Experiences are more rewarding than objects
Suppose you’ve just wrapped up a successful year. Your client base has expanded and your revenues have soared. It’s just been announced that you can expect a larger budget in the next fiscal year. Things are going well in your division, and you want to be sure you retain your current team. What’s the best way of investing the money to make your employees happy?
When it comes to choosing between different purchases options, one line of research worth consulting is the emerging science of smarter spending. In recent years a number of psychological studies have begun investigating the happiness ROI of various products and services. What they’ve discovered is that purchasing life experiences (for example, a hot-air balloon ride, a wine-tasting class, or a vacation to Italy) tends to provide a greater happiness boost than spending a comparable amount on material objects (for example, a flat-screen television, a fancy suit, or a purse).
Why is this the case? For one thing, it’s because experiences tent to involve other people, and being in the company of others elevates our happiness. Experiences also expose us to new ideas and surroundings, growing our intellectual curiosity and expanding our horizons. Material objects, on the other hand, are often used in private, when we’re away from friends and family, and rarely entail novel adventures.
Unlike material objects, experiences tend to improve with age. Think back to a vacation you’ve taken in the past. Did you have a good time? Research shows we remember events more positively the further they are in our rear-view mirror. But that overpriced watch buried in your dresser? It’s suffered a few scratches and no longer seems quite as chic as the day you bought it. When facing a choice on departmental spending, it’s worth keeping this insight in mind. Investing in employee experience –by sending staff members to conferences, sponsoring exciting group outings, or giving away a weekend getaway in place of a small bonus- can yield a bigger happiness boost than investing in new furniture or upgrading your phone system.
One cautionary note: If your office equipment is a constant source of frustration and prevents your employees from doing their jobs, investing in your business infrastructure makes good sense. But if your team is relatively satisfied with their office setup, it’s then that you should favor experiences. Not only are experiences likely to lift the moods at your office, they can also foster stronger connections among colleagues and help them see their workplace as a vehicle for continued growth.
INSIGHT #5: We don’t always know why we’re happy
Our minds absorb an enormous amount of information about our surroundings and use it to guide our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
And much of this process happens outside of our conscious awareness. One feature of our environment that we rarely pay attention to is scent.
Research shows than when we’re exposed to positive scents-as we are standing outside a cafe, a candle shop, or a bakery, for example-we tend to become happier and we don’t know why. Interestingly, the change in mood often affects our behavior. We become more helpful, less competitive, and show greater generosity. A recent study found that stores that spray pleasing scents through their ventilation systems (a practice known in the industry as aroma marketing) are rated as more colorful, cheerful, and modern. Shoppers also perceive the products sold at these locations as “higher quality” and more “up-to-date,’ which explains why they’re more willing to return to scented stores than their unscented competitors.
The fact that scents can unconsciously put people in positive moods hasn’t escaped the attention of casinos. It’s no accident that many of the world’s most successful gambling destinations continue pump fragrances onto their gaming floors, despite the fact that smoking at their facilities (which used to be the main reason for modifying casino’s scent) has been banned for years. Research shows that slot machines near pleasing scents rake in a stunning 50% more than those in unscented locations.
Music can also lift our mood unconsciously. Our heart rates tend to synchronize to the sounds we hear, which is why techno can send our pulses racing while the slow croon of Frank Sinatra can help us relax. Retailers often use music as a tool for influencing shoppers, and the research shows it’s effective. When the music in our environment is slow, we tend to move accordingly. Studies show that customers linger in stores and restaurants that play relaxing music, which often leads them to purchase more. For bar owners, however, a different strategy applies. The faster the music, the more quickly people drink, and the larger their tab.
Obviously no office wants to smell like a casino or sound like a bar. Yet the findings do hint at subtle ways ordinary workplaces can tweak their environments to promote better moods. Lavender sachets in the break room or fresh flowers near the entrance can provide a modest psychological boost. So too can jazz music in the hallway or a collection of employees’ favorite tunes playing in the restrooms. No one change is enough to single-handedly transform a work environment. But together, they add up.
INSIGHT #6: A grateful mind is a happy one
There’s another thing we can do to foster happiness in the workplace:
Train ourselves to be grateful.
It’s a lot harder than it sounds. In many ways,we’re implicitly encouraged to tune out the positive when we’re working. Much of our day is consumed with thinking about future deadlines and tasks we have yet to accomplish. The process can take a toll. Over time a continuous focus on what’s missing trains our minds to center on the negative. It’s rare that we pause to savor what we’ve achieved. The moment one grueling project ends, the next begins. But by taking a moment to direct our attention to things that are going right, we enhance our enjoyment and stave off the process of adaptation. Gratitude helps us appreciate positive events when they happen, making them last longer. We restore a balance to our thinking that elevates our moods and prevents negative emotions like resentment, envy, and regret from creeping in.
Psychologists have found that simply asking people to identify specific aspects of their lives for which they are thankful alters their perspectives in powerful ways. When we build appreciation for our current circumstances, we feel happier about the present and more optimistic about the future, which improves the quality of our work. Grateful people also recover from stress more quickly and behave more generously toward those around them. An activity that researchers recommend for cultivating gratitude in our lives is jotting down positive events, either electronically or in a notebook. The simple practice of keeping a gratitude journal has been shown to promote a healthier mental outlook and lower one’s chances of growing depressed.
While journaling may work well for individuals, implementing the practice on an organizational level presents considerable challenges. The moment you start requiring employees to document positive events, the practice gains all the appeal of filling out time sheets, So what can you do to help employees-and yourself-feel grateful?
One solution involves setting aside time every few weeks for employees to share their recent accomplishments as a group. Think of a traditional staff meeting-with an important twist. In most organizations, staff meetings involve a small subset of colleagues discussing tasks that have not been completed. It’s designed to bring everyone in a department up to speed on current projects and create plans for the week ahead. While traditional staff meetings certainly have their place, their focus on what’s missing does little to promote a sense of gratitude. An alternative to this approach is to include a broader group, inviting employees from a range of departments for a planned get-together. Instead of asking everyone to talk about what they haven’t done, use the meeting as an opportunity for staff members to share what they are most proud of having accomplished since the group last met. It’s fascinating to watch the process unfold.
When people are asked to talk about their accomplishments in front of others, they often try to shift the focus away from themselves. Inevitably, during meetings like this an employee will thank a colleague for a contribution he or she has made. And when that happens, others are likely to mimic this behavior by recognizing their coworkers and the help they’ve provided. Soon the practice of expressing gratitude-not just about the employees own circumstances but toward their colleagues-catches on. By subtly shifting the focus from what’s missing to what’s been achieved, progress-focused meetings allow employees to reflect on aspects of their work that are going right, instead of falling for the “what’s missing?” trap.
Progress-focused meetings make these experiences easier to notice and more fully appreciate. What’s more, they also expose employees to the work of their colleagues, building a sense of connection between teammates, while helping everyone recognize the way their efforts are linked.