paintings

Natural and Synthetic happiness at work – Here’s why you need both

This article was written byTais Lyager Rasmussen and Woohoo inc’s newest employee Thomas Christensen .

What do you do when you do not get the happiness you wanted? You make it yourself!

As a child growing up, you quickly learn that you do not always get what you want. This is pretty much a fact of life. You wanted the red electronic toy car but instead you got told to use your imagination and go play outside. Your favorite band is playing tomorrow night – sorry, you have to work late.

Everyone experiences these kinds of situations and everyone hates them. When life fails to match your expectations, for whatever reason, a gap is created between the expectations of your life and the realities of your life.  Obviously, this makes you unhappy, life was revealed to be less than you thought it was. But is this always the case? Research has shown that our ability to cope with unfavorable situations is greater than previously thought – because of a mechanism called synthetic happiness. Synthetic happiness is a form of personal psychological happiness.

According to Professor of Psychology at Harvard University Dan Gilbert there exist two different kinds of psychological happiness, the natural kind and the synthetic kind. Gilbert explains that: “Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted”. Hang on; is happiness not just the result of getting what you want? Surely it is not something you can just make up yourself. People that say that they are happier about the outcome they did not want are just fooling themselves, right? Well it turns out that it is actually possible to create your own happiness, called synthetic happiness, and that this form of happiness is equally as good as natural happiness.

The name “synthetic” carries with it some associations that are less than ideal.  A more fitting name would be personal happiness, because the internal validation that adds value to a choice you have already made is just that, internal and personal.

Dan Gilbert’s fascinating experiment

Gilbert did an experiment with individuals suffering from anterograde amnesia, a condition making it impossible for them to acquire new memories – think of the movies “50-first dates” or “Memento”. Gilbert approached these individuals and asked them to rank 6 paintings from the one they liked the most to the one they liked the least.

The idea of synthetic happiness

Gilbert explained that they would receive a poster of one of the paintings. They could choose between number 3 and 4. Almost all individuals chose number 3, because they liked it a little more than number 4. Gilbert then went out of the room and came back moments later. Since these individuals have anterograde amnesia they could not remember who he was, that he was just in the room or that they owned a poster of painting number 3. He asked them to rank the 6 paintings from the one they liked the most to the one they liked the least. Surely they would rank the paintings in the same general order?

Actually, individuals now ranked the poster they owned at number 2 (previously ranked 3) and the poster they had said no to (previously number 4) was now ranked number 5. Indicating that these individuals liked the poster they now own more than before they owned it, even when they do not remember that they own it!

They also like the poster they gave up less, even when they do not remember that they gave it up!

These startling results indicate that not only can individuals make their own synthetic happiness but they do this unconsciously. Gilbert also found that this unconscious ability to synthesize happiness happens more often in situations where you do not have a say in the matter.

Dan Gilbert talks about the experiment in this TED talk:

4 reasons why this is important when thinking about happiness at work

Before going into the 4 points, a crucial observation must be made. In the experiment presented above, the choice of the pictures is presented in a low risk environment. There are no wrong choices, and no one to criticize their choice once it is made. Obviously this situation does not reflect the reality of most peoples lives. Rather than considering this to be just a criticism, it would be much more prudent to consider it an argument for fostering a low risk environment, so people are less likely to second guess themselves, because it is okay to be wrong.

1: A happy life is not always about getting what you want. It is about learning to enjoy what you get.

While this might read like “Don’t worry – be happy”, Gilbert’s experiment allows us to dig a little deeper. When your boss hands you a crappy assignment it is possible to end up feeling genuine personal happiness. Even if you have no choice in accepting the assignment or not because of #2.

2: Synthetic happiness is not “cheating” yourself to happier. The experiment with the amnesiac patients demonstrates that the happiness created by themselves is true and genuine.

The idea of “Synthetic” happiness sounds like you are somehow cheating. How can you be happy when your life does not match up to expectations, or the expectations of others. Thinking of “synthetic” happiness as  “personal” or “private” happiness is a much better metaphor. If you find yourself enjoying the crappy assignment your boss gave you, do not think of it as cheating or selling out.  Do not worry, it is allowed to enjoy things you did not choose.

3: Natural happiness primarily relies on external factors whereas Synthetic happiness primarily relies on internal factors. As such, Synthetic happiness can be a more long-term, stable form of happiness than natural happiness.

If you have to rely on always getting what you want to be happy there is a good chance that you will be unhappy, since life is unpredictable. Happiness derived from learning to live with any outcome is much more stable in that it is applicable to every outcome and not only those where you obtain what you want.

4: General happiness in life comes from the relationship between Natural happiness and Synthetic happiness.

This is probably the most important point. The idea of synthetic or personal happiness is not to suggest that you should be less involved in your decisions or just go with the flow. There is absolutely a time and place to stand your ground. The idea behind the division of happiness is to be more reflective of the idea of happiness. If you know that you can be happy from getting what you want but also from not getting what you want, it will take some of the pressure off on always having to achieve. Enjoying something you were told to do without feeling shameful, or like a quitter, has to go hand in hand with the ability to proactively seek out what you want. This is going to take a lot of practice. Thinking of happiness in these two metaphors can be really difficult, but ultimately rewarding. Having a sense of “personal” happiness that is removed from external factors requires discipline and practice, but it will lead to a happier life.

Related posts

Roosevelt on making mistakes

rooseveltlaughingIt is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

― Theodore Roosevelt

I’ve been writing recently about making mistakes. One irrefutable fact about doing awesome things is that sometimes you’ll get it wrong and some people may criticize you for that.

And that’s where the above quote comes in :)

I screwed up. Choose my punishment.

We currently have 500 people around the world beta-testing HeartCount, a better way to measure team happiness, and last Friday the system had a couple of fairly serious bugs.

That sucks. We’re only two weeks into the beta period and my biggest fear is that this will make users lose faith in the system.

However, we’ve also previously written about why we should celebrate mistakes at work and this is no exception.

So I just sent out an email to the users where I apologized for the mistake AND asked them to vote on a suitable punishment. Here are the options:

Vote on a punishment

Currently “Sing a song” is in the lead :)

Related posts

 

Why corporate values often have no value

A CEO of a large Norwegian company once told me that “you know a corporate values program is doomed to fail, when they start distributing mouse mats with the values printed on them.”

Many companies today have taken great pains to identify and communicate their core values, but often this kind of thing sinks below the surface like a stone, leaving very few ripples.

In this short video that I shot for one of our clients a while back, I talk about what it takes to create corporate values that have value and I give a great example from one workplace that’s done so very successfully.

The #1 mistake – or your happiness is not (only) about you

The most common mistake people make when they seek happiness (at work or in life) is that they focus on making themselves happy here and now.

This almost always fails because it becomes a meaningless, shallow pursuit of their own short-term pleasure.

True happiness on the other hand, comes from doing things to make many people (including yourself) happier in the long term.

This is illustrated by one of the most consistent findings in positive psychology, namely that if you want to be happier yourself, the best way is to make someone else happier. Not as a quid-pro-quo, but from a realization that we are social beings and that your happiness cannot be meaningfully extracted from the happiness of everyone around you.

And that goes in the workplace as well. If you want to be happy at work, focus more on making others (co-workers, customers, employees, vendors, random passers-by) happy by doing awesome work and by being an awesome person. If your workplace doesn’t let you do that, you will never be happy there.

Watch

Why every company needs to give employees Free Time on the job

My first “real” job was for a large and very famous Danish company who’d hired me fresh out of university to work on one of their big new products. One day, about a month into my employment there, I was sitting at my desk thinking big thoughts.

To other people it might have looked like I was slacking – I’d put my feet up on the desk and was staring into the air – but in reality I was considering if the approach I’d chosen to solving a particular task was the right one or of there was a smarter, faster way.

And for that I was reprimanded. When my manager walked by and saw me sitting there, he criticized me for goofing off. As long as he could see me pecking away at my keyboard, he felt confident that I was productive. Seeing me with my feet up automatically made him assume that I was wasting time.

Companies everywhere are looking to increase productivity. Employees are asked to work more efficiently and get more done faster. But it seems to me that the constant focus on short-term productivity gains is hurting long-term results because employees’ work days are filled to capacity (and over) with tasks, meetings, deadlines, projects, etc.

What’s missing from that picture? Free time. Or as some call it: Slack.

In the excellent article ”In Praise of Slack: Time Is of the Essence” from The Academy of Management Executives M. B. Lawson writes about the importance of having time during your work day that is not already taken up with tasks. From the article:

Slack is important for organizational adaptation and innovation.

Increasingly complex systems and technologies require more, not less, time for monitoring and processing information. Future demands for strategic flexibility and for integrating learning and knowledge throughout organizations highlight the need to reexamine the importance of time in organizational work – and to recognize that all organizational resources cannot be committed to immediate output efforts if we are to have time to pay attention, think and benefit from the knowledge gained.

Some managers (among them my first team leader) see all free time as wasted time, but they’re completely wrong. When every moment of the work day is taken up with, it damages the organization in many ways. Here are some we’ve seen among our clients:

  1. Creativity is lost because there is no time to come up with and act on new ideas.
  2. No one helps anyone else, because people are booked 100% (or more) on their own tasks
  3. There’s no time to learn new skills
  4. We end up always doing things the same way because there’s no time to optimize processes
  5. Customers become less happy because there is no time to go the extra mile and deliver great customer service.
  6. Everything becomes a chaotic mess because there is no time to organize and structure things
  7. Flexibility is lost because everyone is too busy to deal with changing circumstances
  8. Employees become less happy and more stressed because there is no time to deepen your skills

In short, organizations without slack become stiff and brittle and lose the ability to lift themselves out of their current problems and create ongoing improvements. These organizations become extremely fragile in the face of any unforeseen changes.

So slack is great for employees and for the workplace. But it must be created consciously. Workplaces must make a concerted effort to show employees

How do you do that in practice? Here are 5 ways we have seen work well in practice.

  1. Hackathons are well-known in software companies. Employees are given time (frome 1 day to several days) to work in groups on any project of their own choosing. At the end, teams present their results.
  2. 20%-time (popularized by companies like 3M and Google) means that employees can devote up to 20% of their work week to projects they come up with themselves.
  3. Training and development is crucial. In the company I co-founded, every employee had an annual training budget of 2 weeks and 8,000 USD, which they were required to use.
  4. Minimize time spent on useless meetings, status reports and similar.
  5. Plan for slack, so that employees’ time can not be . Software company Menlo Innovations in the US, only let their people budget for 32 hours a week – they know that the rest is spent on planning, training, coordinating, etc.

Of course workplaces need to become more competitive and productive. Of course we must constantly try to do more with the resources we have. But we can’t expect people to become more effective, if they never have time to reflect, plan, learn or try out new ideas. That takes slack.

Your take

Do you have free time at work? Or is every minute filled already? Are people in your workplace rewarded or punished for stopping what they’re doing, so they can figure out a better way to do it?

Write a comment, I’d love to hear your take.

Related posts

Top 10 Reasons why Constant Complaining in the Workplace is so Toxic

Workplace complainers
Years ago when I was still a software developer for a small consulting company in my second job out of university, I had a boss that was… shall we say unpopular. My co-workers and I hated his guts and we complained ceaselessly about him.

It got to the point where we couldn’t start a meeting, have lunch in the cafeteria, or even go out for a beer without spending half an hour complaining about him.

We whined about his attitude, his stupidity, his meddling, his spinelessness … hell, even his dress sense came under fire. But then again, he is the only manager who has ever interviewed me wearing a narrow 80s-style purple, fake-leather tie.

But did we ever tell him? Nooooooo! While we were bitching and moaning to ourselves, he blithely went on as usual because no one ever complained to him. Which might’ve made sense when you think about it…

Looking back, I’m not sure that complaining to him would have worked – I think he was incorrigible – but one thing is for damn sure: Out bitching about it, fun though it may have been, did not improve things one little bit.

Because that kind of chronic complaining, justified or not, in the workplace leads to no good. In fact, in can be downright toxic and can make a department or even a whole company a terrible place to work.

Here’s why constant complaining is so bad:

1: It makes things look worse than they are
When people complain, they focus only on what’s wrong. Things may be mostly fine in the company, but complainers only talk about the problems, annoyances and peeves they perceive.

If things in a company are 80% good and 20% bad and you spend most of your time thinking and talking about the bad 20% – the situation will look a lot worse than it really is.

2: It becomes a habit
The more you complain, the easier it gets. In the end, everything is bad, every situation is a problem, every co-worker is a jerk and nothing is good.

The more you focus on the negative, the harder it gets to switch into a positive mindset.

3: You get what you focus on
According to Wikipedia, Confirmation bias is:

…a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and avoid information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs.

In other words, what you already believe influences your perception of everything around you. That’s why constant complaining makes you see everything in a negative light, because your subconscious mind tries to make new observation fit with what you already know.

4: It leads to onedownmanship
A complaining session might go something like this:

The other day, my boss came in 5 minutes before I was leaving and asked me to finish two huge projects for him. I had to stay two hours and missed my football game.

Yeah, well my boss told me to work this weekend AND the next.

Hah, that’s nothing! My boss…

This type of interaction rewards the person with the worst story who can complain the loudest. Not healthy!

5: It makes people despondent
Not only does constant complaining make you see the workplace as worse than it really is, but because you’re constantly hearing stories of how bad things are and how they’re constantly getting worse it also destroys all hope that things can get better.

This of course makes people less likely to take action to improve their situation, because everybody knows it’s doomed to fail anyway.

6: It kills innovation
Because the situations looks so hopeless, people become less creative and innovative. What’s the point of coming up with ideas and implementing them – it’s never going to work anyway.

Also, chronic complainers are the first to shoot down any new idea.

7: It favors negative people
The way to get status among complainers is to be the most negative. To be the one who sees everything in the most negative light.

Any attempt to be positive or cheerful will be shot down and optimists will be accused of being Pollyanna, naive and unrealistic.

8: It promotes bad relationships
People who complain together unite against the world and can create strong internal relationships based on this. But these relationships are based mostly on negative experiences. That’s not healthy.

It also means that you can only continue to be a part of the group if you can continue to complain, miring you even deeper in a complaint mindset.

9: It creates cliques
Being positive, optimistic and appreciative makes you more open towards other people – no matter who they are. It becomes easy to connect to co-workers in other departments, projects or divisions.

Complaining, on the other hand, makes people gather in cliques with their fellow complainers where they can be critical and suspicious of everybody else.

10: Pessimism is bad for you
Psychologist Martin Seligman showed in his groundbreaking research in positive psychology that people who see the world in a positive light have a long list of advantages, including:

  • They live longer
  • They’re healthier
  • They have more friends and better social lives
  • They enjoy life more
  • They’re more successful at work

We sometimes think that pessimists and complainers have the edge because they see problems sooner but the truth is that optimists not only lead better lives, they’re also more successful because they believe that what they’re doing is going to work.

The upshot

Constant complaining in the workplace is toxic. It can drain the happiness, motivation, creativity and fun from a whole company. Wherever it’s going on it must be addressed and handled properly.

I’m NOT saying that we should never complain at work – quite the contrary. If you see a problem in your workplace, complain to whoever can do something about it.

What we should avoid at all costs, is constant bitching and moaning, where we’re always complaining about the same things, to the same people, in the same way, day in and day out.

So what can we do about it? Well first of all, each of us can learn to complain constructively. This means learning to complain in a way that leads to the problem being fixed – rather than to more complaining. Here’s my post on how you can How to complain constructively.

Secondly, we can learn to deal with the chronic complainers we meet at work. Unfortunately, our traditional strategies like trying to cheer them up or suggesting solutions for their problems don’t work because complainers aren’t looking for encouragement or solutions. Here’s my post on how to deal with chronic complainers.

Finally, you can train your own ability to be positive. Just like complaining can become a habit, so can being appreciative, optimistic and grateful. You could declare today a positive day, you could take a few minutes at the end of every work day to write down five good experiences from that day or you could praise a co-worker.

Try it and let me know how it goes!

Your take

But what do you think? Do you know any chronic complainers at work? What is their impact? How do you complain, when you see a problem?

Please write a comment, I’d really like to know!

Related

Here are some related posts about workplace complaining: