Category Archives: Psychology

Inside your head

Positive feedback is much better than fault-based feedback

This is a fascinating experiment in how different types of feedback affect people’s persistence and success in a creative task.

Unsurprisingly, positive feedback that doesn’t punish mistakes is much more effective. People who lost points for wrong attempts and were given negative messages gave up sooner and succeeded much less often.

I’m convinced that the exact same thing goes on in many workplaces. We need to change that and encourage much more positive feedback.

Here are some tips on how:

The 5 most important findings from the science of happiness that apply at work

Happy workplaces are more profitable and innovative, attract the best employees and have lower absenteeism and employee turnover rates. Simply put, happy companies make more money.

But how do you create a happy workplace? We believe some of the answers are found in positive psychology - a fascinating field and one of the main inspirations for the work we do with our clients around the world.

Traditional psychology looks at everything that can go wrong with our minds – psychosis, neurosis, phobias, depression etc – and asks how it can be treated/cured. It’s an incredibly important field but positive psychology asks the opposite question: When are we happy? What does it take for people to live good lives  and thrive psychologically? The field has been especially active for the last 30 years and we are learning some really interesting and surprising things about happiness.

Here are the five findings from positive psychology that we believe are the most relevant in the workplace.

1: Positive emotions have many beneficial effect on us and on our job performance

We tend to trivialize emotions in the workplace. It doesn’t matter what you feel, the prevailing thinking goes - it matters what you think.

You should never show emotions at work and the true professional has no emotions at work. You should be like Spock from Star Trek who once said “Emotions are alien to me. I’m a scientist.”

But this turns out to be impossible. Not only do we have emotions, those emotions affect our physical and mental well-being in many ways and, in general, positive emotions have some strong positive effects on our work performance.

Here’s one example:

… a number of the participants were either shown a comedy movie clip or treated to free chocolate, drinks and fruit. Others were questioned about recent family tragedies, such as bereavements, to assess whether lower levels of happiness were later associated with lower levels of productivity.

… they found happiness made people around 12% more productive.

So far, studies have shown that experiencing positive emotions makes us:

  • More productive
  • More creative
  • Healthier
  • Braver
  • Less stressed
  • More resilient
  • More helpful
  • Less biased
  • More optimistic
  • More intrinsically motivated
  • Faster learners
  • More likeable
  • Better team players
  • More generous

Simply put, happy people not only feel better and thrive more, they also do better work. This helps explain why happy companies are more profitable and hence why no workplace can afford to ignore how people feel at work.

2: Emotions are contagious

One study in emotional contagion at work brought test subjects together for a simulated negotiation. They didn’t know that one member of the group was an actor extensively trained by the researchers to exhibit certain emotions during the meeting.

Would the emotions of one person affect the rest of the group? The answer is yes – and when the emotions transmitted by the actor were positive, the whole group became more effective:

There was a significant influence of emotional contagion on individual-level attitudes and group processes. As predicted, the positive emotional contagion group members experienced improved cooperation, decreased conflict, and increased perceived task performance.

It turns out that how people around you feel rubs off on you and vice versa. Being around others involves taking on some of their emotions and transferring some of yours to them. We have all experienced this. Being around happy people makes us a little happier. Being around miserable bastards has the opposite effect.

This is highly relevant in the workplace because it shows we don’t exist in isolation. Happiness is a social phenomenon and each of us influence, and are in turn influenced by, the people around us.

3: Small actions can have a large effect on our happiness

One of the coolest things about positive psychology is that it is highly research-based and the various interventions are tested in numerous studies.

You may think that in order to become happier in life, you have to win the lottery or achieve massive amounts of success. But what they have consistently found is that simple interventions are surprisingly effective. Here are some examples of proven happiness interventions:

  • Write a gratitude letter to a person who has helped you
  • Make a list of 3 good things that happened to you today/this week
  • Perform a random act of kindness for someone else
  • Receive positive feedback

In the workplace, this means that while organizational factors like strategies, vision, values and processes do matter, it also matters how we work together and interact in our teams on a day-to-day basis. Do managers treat their employees with respect and kindness? Do coworkers trust each other, help each other and maintain good relationships? Do people take the time to treat each other well in the workplace?

However, the research also shows that happiness interventions only work under 2 conditions:

  1. You have to do it and keep doing it. This is hardly surprising.
  2. You have to want to do it yourself. If someone else forces you to do it, it doesn’t increase happiness. This is why you have to be careful not to mandate certain behaviors at work in the name of happiness.

4: Unexpected things make us happy

According to research, we become a happier when good things happen to us (duh!) but the effect is even bigger when good things happen to us unexpectedly:

Emory University and Baylor College of Medicine researchers used Magnetic Resonance Imaging brain scans to measure changes in human brain activity in response to a sequence of pleasurable stimuli.

They used a computer-controlled device to squirt fruit juice or water into the mouths of 25 research participants. The patterns of the squirting were either predictable or unpredictable.

The researchers found that the MRI scans showed a brain area called the nucleus accumbens to be much more active when the subjects received unpredictable patterns of juice and water.

So:

  • Something nice happens that you expect = good
  • Something nice happens unexpectedly = even better

This is interesting in the context of happiness at work because many of the things companies do to make their employees happier are utterly predictable: Summer parties, Christmas parties, Bonuses, team events, and so on happen on an almost completely fixed schedule, which serves to diminish their effectiveness.

This is why we advocate also doing random acts of workplace kindness. According to this research, a small well-meant surprising gesture towards an employee or a team may make them much happier.

So what could you do, to surprise a co-worker today? Here are some examples:

5: Making others happy, makes us happy

It’s been shown consistently that doing things to make yourself happier has a small effect on your happiness but doing things for others, elevates their happiness AND yours much more.

In one study, participants received a small amount of money that they could spend either on themselves or on others. Their happiness was measured before and after, and subjects who spent the money on others experiences a much larger boost to their happiness.

This means that one of the most reliable paths to happiness at work is to focus less on your own happiness and more on making others – be it coworkers or customers – happier.

This is not to say that you should sacrifice yourself for others, to the point where you neglect your own happiness. It just means that focusing only on your own happiness is likely to be a shallow, meaningless and ultimately unsuccessful.

The upshot

Happy employees are healthier and more productive and happy companies make more money.

That’s why every company and every manager need to make happiness at work their most important strategic priority. These findings from positive psychology  help point the way on how to do it.

Related posts

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

The movie “The Secret” is entirely fake

I recently saw the movie The Secret, a pseudo-documentary that explains The Law of Attraction. There are things in this movie that need a rebuttal and I haven’t found one elsewhere – so here’s mine.

The arguments and explanations put forward in The Secret are generally unscientific, mystical, nonsensical or just plain wrong.

But first, what is The Law of Attraction (TLoA)? Let’s say you’re poor and really want to be rich. Instead of always complaining about being poor and always focusing on what you don’t have, TLoA says that you should visualize yourself as rich. See yourself in this situation. Feel what you would feel if you were in that situation. Then, somehow, money will come to you.

Simply stated, it is the belief that what you focus on is what you get (or create for yourself), and there is some truth to that - but not for any of the mystical reasons claimed in this terrible movie.

These are my major beefs with the movie:

1: The movie claims that famous people knew “the secret”

The movie indicates that a number of famous people knew “the secret”, including Einstein, Plato, Newton and Edison. However, the movie offers no proof that any of these people knew of, agreed with or used the law of attraction.

2: The movie claims that TLoA is kept secret

The movie also claims that the people in power in society and business have long known of this law and worked to keep it from the rest of us. Scenes are shown of people being persecuted for trying to steal the secret and (I assume) bring it out to the rest of us.

No proof of this is offered and to the best of my knowledge, no conscious effort has ever been made to keep TLoA secret.

3: The movie talks about electromagnetic waves/vibrations as the explanation for TLoA

The movie claims that since thoughts are electromagnetic waves, every thought we have spreads to and affects our surroundings, and this is why our thinking affects the universe. The movie repeatedly shows people who, as they visualize their goals, generate a wave or signal that emanates from their heads. In some of the cases, this wave is seen to spread over the entire Earth.

There are many things wrong with this assertion, primarily the fact that while thoughts are, at least in part, electromagnetic waves, there is no scientific indication that our brain waves alter the world around us in any meaningful way.

4: The movie uses quantum flapdoodle. Badly.

The movie also offers explanations from quantum physics as evidence of why TLoA works. I happen to have studied a lot of quantum physics at university, and I can safely say that the explanations offered in the movie are a prime example of what Murray Gell-Mann called quantum flapdoodle, i.e. “hijacking the terminology of modern science without understanding the underlying concepts or employing any of the intellectual rigour intrinsic to scientific inquiry”.

5: The movie claims that the universe will provide

But my greatest beef with the movie is the claim that whatever you sit down and imagine in this way, the universe will provide. Almost as if the universe is a big vending machine: Insert sincere wish here, pull out cold coke (or shiny new Ferrari) here.

That seems to me to be a very mechanical, shallow, self-serving description of the universe.

The upshot

I believe that TLoA is sort of real.

But this is my point: Changing your thinking changes nothing out there, in the vast universe surrounding you. It changes something inside of you. Changing your perception, your focus, your emotions and your thinking from negative to positive (from what you lack to what you want) has an effect on your internal state – your motivation, energy and creativity and that’s why you may then be more efficient working towards your goals. It’s that simple.

No electromagnetic waves emanate from your head, magically transforming the universe. No mystical vibrations affect your surroundings. Changing your thinking does not change the quantum states of objects around you in any reliable, useful way. The universe doesn’t stand ready to grant your every wish.

Rather, you change yourself and THEN you change your circumstances. It works through a combination of entirely non-mystical, psychological and rational mechanisms, including confirmation bias and optimism.

The Secret offers precisely zero evidence that it could ever be otherwise, and instead proposes a number of mystical, unscientific and entirely unproved explanations. That’s why looking to this movie for explanations and insight will weaken your understanding of the TLoA and reduce your ability to successfully employ it.

So, while the law of attraction is real(ish), “The Secret”, quite simply, is fake!

PS.
And don’t get me started on What the Bleep do We Know – that one is even worse :o)

UPDATE:
I’ve disabled comments on this blog post because I kept getting personal attacks from fans of The Secret. If you’re a believer in The Secret and you disagree vehemently with this post, I suggest you simply sit down and visualize a world where this article doesn’t exist :)

Some interesting links:

Get lucky at work – be positive

Unlock your luckMy driving force in business has always been enthusiasm. I’m easily amazed and get curious and fired up about many different things. In fact, I refuse to work on anything that does not grab me in that way.

I remember one meeting I had with a woman who was… let’s say slightly less positive. At one point in the meeting, she said “You’re very positive, arent you?” I had to agree, that that was indeed so. It was only after the meeting that I realized that she’d meant it as criticism :o)

Positivity has been getting a bad rap at work. If you’re too positive you can be accused of being pollyannaish, uncritical, unrealistic, silly, etc… “Well,” some people say, “it’s all very good for you to be so optimistic but some of us have to work in the real world.”

And while there are many great reasons to be more positive at work, there’s one I’d like to mention specifically:

Being positive at work means you get lucky at work.
(no, not in that way)

Yes, it’s true: Being positive makes you lucky.
Continue reading Get lucky at work – be positive

Easter links

Easter’s here and I’ll be taking the rest of the week off (I need a vacation after my last vacation :o). Meanwhile, here are some cool links:

Sad monkeyDepressed monkeys. Yep, macaques can get the blues too. Research in this can increase our understanding of depression and open new possibilities for research.

The Slow Leadership blog offers excellent tips on how to kill creativity. It’s depressingly(!) easy.

Video of the most amazing Rube Goldberg-like devices. Now that’s creative. A word of warning: Turn down the sound, or the repetitive, japanese, childrens-tv-theme will drive you to desperation inside of 45 seconds.

The proven path to happiness

Positive psychology can make you happier and this article by Martin Seligman et al proves it (pdf). With diagrams! The paper studies a number of very simple actions (eg. writing down three positive things each day) and shows that they work very well.

Martin Seligman is the author of the excellent book Learned Optimism (read my review here) and the founder of the positive psychology movement which is based on the idea that psychology should focus more on what makes people happy, rather than focusing solely on curing mental illness. Makes sense to me :o)

Goal-free living

At the WorldBlu forum I had the pleasure of talking to Stephen Shapiro who just finished writing a book on goal-free living which is coming out in january 2006.

As soon as Stephen mentioned “goal-free living” a flash-bulb went of in my mind, and I knew what he meant. I also knew that this is what I’ve been doing for the last 3 years, I just haven’t had a name for it. Here’s how Stephen introduces goal-free living:

We are taught from a young age that in order to achieve great success we must set and achieve our goals. However in doing so, we become focused on where we are going rather than enjoying where we are right now. We sacrifice today in the hope that a better future will emerge, only to discover that achievement rarely leads to true joy. Goal-Free Living presents an alternative philosophy – that we can have an extraordinary life now, all without goals and detailed plans. By living for each moment, it?s possible to have a successful life and follow your passions at the same time.

YES! 3 years ago I left the IT business with no new plans in mind. I gave my self some time off, and never once though consciously about what I should do next. After about 3 months an inspiration came to me, and The Happy at Work Project grew out of that. Also, for the 3 years we’ve been running the project, we’ve been goal-free. Rather than setting strategies, plans, targets, measures and budgets, we’ve done our best to cultivate every opportunity that came along and to create some ourselves. So while Stephen’s book focuses on the personal sphere, I’m here to tell you that it works just as well in a business setting!

His book gives you 8 major tips on how to live goal-free:

– Use a compass, not a map
– Trust that you are never lost
– Remember that opportunity knocks often, but sometimes softly
– Want what you have
– Seek out adventure
– Become a people magnet
– Embrace your limits
– Remain detached

That is quite simply brilliant thinking. Read more about goal-free living here.

One of the high points of the forum was when Stephen took the stage and gave a goal-free presentation about goal-free living. He’d originally intended to talk about a different theme, and had nothing prepared on goal-free living, but a few other conference attendees dared him to do it. Needless to say he nailed it, and the goal-less nature of his presentation underscored and validated the message.