Fresh Ideas: Those who are optimistic feel successful

Several years ago, employees in a large hospital participated in a research study measuring employees happiness. The CEO of the hospital, administrators and accountants, doctors and nurses, and janitors, all participated. Once each employee’s level of happiness was assessed, researchers interviewed employees with really low, and really high, happiness.

The CEO, whose salary was nearly $1 million a year, had low levels of happiness. A janitor, who had a low salary in comparison, had one of the highest levels of happiness. The researchers found it wasn’t employee income, status within the organization, or years at the job that predicted happiness. Instead, it was the amount of optimism, social support, and management of stress, that predicted how happy employees were.

In the past decade, 225 well-designed studies have shown the same basic results: it isn’t how successful you are that determines how happy you are. In fact, it’s the opposite: being happy leads to success.

In America we tend to believe if we work hard, we’ll be successful. And, if successful, we’ll be happy. This basic theme underlies much of how we raise our children, and is a guiding principle for most of us in our careers. The problem with this philosophy is “success” is a moving target, and the target keeps increasing: “Once I get a promotion, I’ll be happy,” or, “Once I meet my sales target, I’ll be happy.” The problem is, we tend to keep increasing the goals; once we meet our sales target, we increase the sales target range. If our child gets a B in class, we encourage them to get an A next time. So, success, and therefore happiness, is always over the horizon when we think like this.

Research shows when we focus on being happy in the moment, our productivity, creativity, and engagement in our work or studies increases. This is why when we are happy, the neurotransmitter dopamine floods into our body and brain. Dopamine not only creates the feeling of being happy, but it also turns on the learning centers of the brain. When a brain is happy (rather than stressed, neutral or negative), creativity, drive and productivity rise about 30 percent.

This is the good news: even if you are “blah” or unhappy, there are simple things you can do to increase your positive mindset and this increases your happiness (and therefore success) at work. Our well-being is changeable and the more we practice the behaviors described below the more the brain is “re-wired” for optimism.

Dr. Shaun Achor, Harvard Psychologist, is one of the leading researchers on happiness. In one of his studies, Dr. Achor had one group of workers do one of the following activities, every day, for at least 2 minutes, for 21 days: jot down 3 new things in your life you feel grateful for, write a positive message to a coworker, meditate at your desk for 2 minutes, exercise for 10 minutes, or take 2 minutes to describe in a journal the most meaningful experience you have had in the last 24 hours. Another group of employees didn’t change any of their behaviors. At the end of 21 days the group who had performed “optimistic activities,” just two minutes per day, reported a higher overall sense of well-being, felt more engaged at work, increased optimism and life satisfaction, and, were more productive at work. Even after four months, their optimism remained: they had re-wired their brains to look for positive things and to focus on the present.

Social support is the greatest predictor of happiness at work. Surprisingly, those who give others support at work are even happier than those who receive support at work. So, to increase your happiness at work, help your co-workers when they feel overwhelmed, organize workplace activities, smile at and chat with co-workers, invite co-workers to lunch or to go for a walk. Studies show workers who do these behaviors regularly are 10 times more likely to feel engaged at work, and 4 times more likely to get a promotion in following years.

Stress, and how we handle it, dramatically affects our overall sense of well-being. Employees who think of stress as a challenge, and believe they grow more in their work when challenged, have higher levels of overall well-being. One study had stressed employees make a list of everything that was causing stress and then had employees place stressors into one of two groups: stressors they had control over (project outcomes) versus those they didn’t (stock market, management). Next, they had employees outline at least one concrete step they could take toward reducing the stress they had control over. Employees who did this reported fewer physical symptoms of stress and increased happiness. Research indicates employees who only think negatively about stress, and feel no control over it, have lower levels of productivity and call in sick 1.25 more days per month.

Studies suggest our intelligence predicts about 25 percent of our work success. Our levels of social support, optimistic thinking, and how we handle stress, predict about 75 percent of our success. Happiness doesn’t just feel great, it leads to great things. Consider trying out some of these skills. You deserve to be happy now.

Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.


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