We spend most of our waking hours at work – an average of 47 hours a week in the US. We’re working for longer – half of us will work beyond their mid-sixties, according to a 2015 Gallup survey. Are we happy? Globally, 87% of employees are less than fully engaged, according to Gallup's 142-country study on the State of the Global Workplace.
If you employ or lead people, you want them to be happy too. A happy, engaged employee is a productive employee.
But the sad reality is that true, meaningful happiness often eludes us. Many modern workplaces exemplify this. At one retailer, the chief executive sometimes downs vodka shots with his interviewees. If you get in, on particular days, you can dress as your favourite animal. If you’re still down in the dumps after donning your squirrel outfit for your KPI review, you can go see their full-time chief happiness officer.
Despite corporate efforts, most of us still don’t like our jobs. Forced fun doesn’t work. What does work is activating our best selves. What does that mean? Put simply, when you’re at your best, you live up to your fullest potential. You’re more resistant to stress and disease. You’re better at creative problem-solving. You perform well under pressure and you have stronger relationships with your friends, families and co-workers. Of course, we’re all different, and so is the potential we possess and work towards. Still, there are universal traits of happy people.
1. They play to their strengths
If you’re working more than 40 hours a week, work is better described as life. As I wrote in my book Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do, a friend once told me, “Sure work sucks... that’s why they call it work.” But happy people have a habit of incorporating what they’re good at and what’s meaningful to them. People who feel they can play to their strengths at work are more energised, feel a greater sense of purpose, and are less likely to quit. To be clear, strengths-based work does not mean that you think you don’t have weaknesses to work on. We can always improve, and it’s wrong-headed to assume that your past successes will ensure future wins. In other words, happiness doesn’t have to be a competency trap. The point is that some people focus on using their signature strengths a little bit every day, instead of placing limitations at the centre of their focus, which activates positive emotions and creates personal energy.
If playing to strengths works so well, why isn’t it more common? The way we work today is largely based on a model that was invented alongside the industrial revolution. When working in large organisations became more common than farming, management made jobs very standardised and well-defined. Employees were told exactly what to do and when and how to do it. This allowed for quick scaling up of the labour force, and control over the work process. Today, the demands on organisations are changing so fast that employees must be flexible in order to stay relevant. Employers need and expect constant innovation. The people at the top who write the job descriptions might not be the best people to write them anymore. The best people to craft roles – shape them, challenge them, reinvent them – are often employees themselves, because they are closest to the work.
A while ago when I was teaching a group of leaders I met Charles, whose story illustrates this point. A born salesman, he had quickly climbed the ladder and after only a few years had 20 people to manage. Despite tripling his salary, he hated the endless meetings and missed talking to customers. So Charles tried an experiment. Every week, without the intention of selling anything, he would go and talk to his customers – about trends, what was selling, what wasn’t – with the sole purpose of just connecting with them. He learned two things. One: he found his tasks took on new meaning. For example, in product meetings, he could link the product to the experiences of the people he talked about it with. Two: he sold more. In this way, he made more sales simply by enriching his customer view. He was happier and work felt more meaningful because he played to one of his strengths: connecting with people.
2. They continually experiment
Heard of the 10,000-hour success formula popularised by Malcolm Gladwell? It’s the notion that 10,000 hours of focused practice will help you achieve world-class performance, in any field. Arguably – and as emerging research shows – 10,000 experiments may serve you better. In one interview, for example, Mark Zuckerberg said, “One of the things I’m most proud of that is really key to our success is this testing framework… At any given point in time, there isn’t just one version of Facebook running. There are probably 10,000.” Similarly, Jeff Bezos has suggested that Amazon’s success is a function of how many experiments it does a year, a month, a week, a day.
Fear is kryptonite to experimentation – and to happiness. It’s well known that fear narrows our attention and closes us to the broader environment. In times of crises we return to safe, old habits. A more promising track to experimenting, and to happiness, is to dial down fear and anxiety by activating positive emotions. This means that rather than inspiring fear, leaders should inspire creativity, innovation and higher engagement in their teams. They need to offer their people freedom to experiment, and label “mis-takes” as learnings rather than failures.
Experimentation is easier said than done when you’re working for a corporate with tightly-wound processes. So what can you do to take control? Make it a habit to be curious. When you’re curious you’re more likely to step outside your comfort zone. You’re more likely to push the boundaries and collaborate with others in new ways. Be open to ideas and changes. When you cherish other people’s ideas as much as your own, you absorb a bank of information like osmosis that can be recombined in novel ways. Think about stress in terms of excitement and challenges, rather than anxiety and threats. Research shows that mentally framing change as a chance to try something new rather than a chance to spectacularly fail reaps better results.
3. They explore playfully
We are set up to seek through evolution. Searching for information and resources is our basic fight for survival. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp was an authority on the science of emotions, and he focused on affective neuroscience: the neural mechanisms of emotion. He labelled the part of the brain that is responsible for mammal’s insatiable curiosity the “seeking system”. It creates our natural impulse to explore. When we follow these urges, our seeking system rewards us with a hit of dopamine – a neurotransmitter linked to motivation and pleasure – that makes us want to explore more and more.
Unless you’re experiencing threat and anxiety, that is. Exploration and playfulness is inhibited by negative emotions such as fear in all species. What’s more, the fear system is much harder to switch off than it is to switch on.
In order to encourage employees to be more curious, leaders need to create “sandboxes” – experimental safe zones – where employees can explore without anxiety. This releases dopamine, activates positive emotions and creates intrinsic motivations, which are much more powerful than extrinsic motivations because they unleash creativity. As an employee, instead of working hard, say, for fear of losing your job (extrinsic), think about being fuelled by your own enthusiasm and curiosity (intrinsic). Instead of being sceptical at the start, lean into exploration and push experiments further.
Unfortunately, millions of dissatisfied employees show up to work each day and leave their best ideas at home. Remember, they don’t do this by choice. It’s a rare university grad that signs up to a boring workplace where curiosity and playfulness are punished.
Curiosity leads to experiments, and experiments create action. Our brains like action. Dan Gilbert makes a salient point, garnered from robust research in his book Stumbling on Happiness. Broadly, we can learn from our mistakes, but we almost always regret inaction. Our brains are wired to make things look better in hindsight. Which would you regret more: going on holiday to a campsite with broken showers and a mosquito problem, or not going on holiday to the hostel on the beach that upgraded all their guests to a private chalet for the month of July? Gilbert tells us it’s the latter. We’re very good at explaining away unpleasant experiences to feel better. We tell ourselves that it didn’t matter about washing every day with baby wipes, the experience added to the fun. But our brains have a hard time finding the positives from inaction. While most people believe that they will regret bad actions much more than bad inactions, the reverse is true. Many people are hesitant to try things we’re unsure about, but when we do them, we usually see them positively, even if it didn’t work out. Seize the day and remember how much you’ve learned from your mistakes.