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Why Does Happiness Matter?

Matt Driver
September 8, 2021

Matt Driver looks at this and what we can do as coaches and leaders to ensure our people are happy - particularly as we begin to return to the workplace.

I was working with a dentist last week and, perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves talking about toothache.

Toothache is an interesting phenomenon because when we get it, it is all-encompassing, it takes up our entire consciousness and it needs urgent attention. But when we don't have toothache, we don't go around saying "wow I have no toothache today" or call the dentist to tell them that everything is fine. In fact we just don't notice our teeth.

This can be problematic, because an absence of toothache does not necessarily mean our teeth are as healthy as they could be.

Happiness is a bit like toothache. When people are unhappy they often look for ways to reduce their unhappiness, to fix their troubles. But they don't always look for ways to be actively happy to search for happiness when things are just OK.

Just over 20 years ago, a world expert on depression, Martin Seligman, realised that most psychology focused on the mental equivalent of toothache. It studied anxiety, depression, brain injury and looked for ways to alleviate these. But relatively little attention had been given to helping people to look actively for psychological health and wellbeing which would then lead to flourishing.

We could imagine a base line where there is no actual illness or problem and the main focus then was on studying phenomena which took people below that line and sought to bring them back up to the line. What Seligman began a search for was how to get people above the line: from a lack of unwellness to active wellbeing, happiness and thriving.

Sonya Lyubomirsky is a world expert on happiness. Her research found that there are three main determinants of happiness: biology, life circumstances and intentional activity. She stresses that all three impact happiness significantly and the relative percentages will vary depending on the person and the situation. She also accepts that some of these factors are overlapping -  so for example being in a happy marriage can be the result of intentional activity but is also a life circumstance. She also says that a fixed belief that anybody can easily act to improve their own happiness is fallacious if you think of people who are suffering starvation or living in war-torn regions of the world. However, for people in broadly free and peaceful situations, her results suggest that people can have a significant impact on their own happiness.

Why does happiness matter? So often I meet people who are unfulfilled, bored, held down or bullied in their work. In none of these cases are they fulfilling their potential and there is thus a human, financial and performance loss.

So what is going on? In my coaching and leadership work, one mistake I have seen people make is consciously or unconsciously seeing interventions as 'problem solving' or fixing situations. So for example:

‘I don't have a job I need to find a job'

‘I have a difficult member of staff I need to get them to perform better'

‘I am disorganised in my work and I need to be more organised’

The danger here is that the interventions (coaching, mentoring, appraisals, etc) focus on making up for a negative, on fixing a problem – in other words, getting back to the base line. And very often the conversations do not move into territory which would ensure a more lasting level of accomplishment or wellbeing for the person.

So for example a more fulfilling, above-the-line agenda might be:

  • Not only finding a job, but what are my character strengths and what kinds of jobs would work best for me?
  • Not only how do I get this person to perform better, but how am I contributing to this problem, what kind of leader do I aspire to be?
  • Not only how can I be more organised, but what is important for me and what do I want to have achieved over the coming five years?

So much for the workplace, but what about the whole person we so often talk about? Building on previous research, Lyubomirsky looked at what kinds of things give people increased happiness in a more sustainable way. That previous research had suggested for example that doing acts of kindness was related to increased happiness for the giver. Lyubomirsky compared the impact of doing acts of kindness for the world (for example subscribing to charity), doing acts of kindness to yourself (for example having a spa day), and doing acts of kindness for others (small incidental acts like helping someone across the road). She found that of these, only doing acts of kindness for others had a significant impact on happiness. She also found that this had a significant impact physiologically at a genetic level which actually increases protection against illness and contributes to longevity.

Another well established contribution to happiness is having positive relationships with other people. Lyubomirsky compared different ways of engaging with others and found that people were significantly more connected with others when conversations were in person rather than via social media or other electronic means. Face to face was top, video chats (Zoom, Teams, etc) were also high.  

So what does all this mean for us as coaches or leaders of others? There are some powerful messages for us as we return to face to face working and are wondering what we can keep from the Zoom age.

  • It suggests that just solving problems and making good deficits is not enough to promote full wellbeing and happiness. Where these are ‘sub optimal’, so is performance. There is a need to look above the line and promote happiness and wellbeing just as some organisations encourage excellence rather than adequacy in the work done.
  • It suggests that we need to create space for and encourage initiatives in supporting colleagues and others: social initiatives may be even more important than we thought.
  • Finally it suggests that whatever configuration of work we move into in the post-Zoom age, time and space need to be given to face to face interactions.

Many of us might see these as ‘nice to haves’ but the research connects them with performance. So they require investment and support but they may be key to getting workplaces flourishing again.

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