The Science of Happiness: 5 Ways to Improve

Are the happiest people blessed with luck that bestows a better life and fewer worries? Or, should we attribute their emotional fulfillment to character strengths and mind power?
Happiness research, a field known as “positive psychology,” is chockfull of relevant findings. Some of the latest research suggests that people who focus on purposeful living are more likely to enjoy good mental health and longevity, as compared with those whose primary goal is achieving happiness.
If you’re highly satisfied with your life, you’re less likely to suffer from psychological or social problems, physical illnesses, stress and work issues.
Everyone, at one time or another, experiences bad luck and the problems life throws at us. But is it possible that some individuals are genetically wired to be happier? And if you’re not among them, what can you do to improve your level of satisfaction?

Hardwired for Happiness

It turns out that mood and temperament do, indeed, have a significant genetic component. In a 1996 study, University of Minnesota psychologists David Lykken and Auke Tellegen surveyed 732 pairs of identical twins and found them to be closely matched for levels of adult happiness, regardless of whether they’d grown up together or apart.
While everyone experiences ups and downs, your mood revolves around innate emotional baselines, or “set points.” Current research suggests that 50% of our capacity for happiness is genetically predisposed.
Still, more than 40% of how we experience satisfaction and well-being depends on our motivations, goals and behaviors. Even with an inherited range of happiness, we can do a lot to become more satisfied with life.
Surprisingly, only about 10% of the variance in happiness levels is explained by differences in life circumstances (rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, beautiful or plain, married or divorced, etc.).
The richest Americans – those earning more than $10 million a year – report levels of personal happiness only slightly higher than those of the office workers they employ.
As we attempt to understand and quantify our happiness quotient, a new question emerges: How many positive vs. negative experiences must we have before we can consider ourselves genuinely “happy”?

We Are Poor Forecasters

What we think will make us happy is usually off-base. While we may work hard to achieve pleasure and fulfillment, we often misunderstand the factors that influence our positive experiences. We assume certain events and milestones will do the trick:

  1. A promotion at work
  2. A clean bill of health
  3. A hot date
  4. Victories by our favorite political candidates or sports teams

We routinely overestimate the degree to which material goods will bring us happiness. Money may contribute to happiness (at least a little bit), but the feeling won’t last.
Meanwhile, as we pursue a variety of dead ends, we ignore the more fruitful ways to increase happiness.

The Little Things Count

Researchers generally agree that we’re happiest when we combine frequent good experiences with a few very intense ones. To feel happy, we must focus on the frequency – not the intensity – of positive life events.
Learning how to take pleasure in little victories, recognizing their importance in our lives and working hard to minimize negative events will accomplish more than waiting around for a single uber-happy experience.

5 Character Strengths

Attaining happiness also requires you to believe that you contribute to events and play a major role in their outcomes. A sense of mastery over both positive and negative events in your life is essential to your overall sense of well-being.
Positive-psychology researchers Nansook Park, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman have been studying 24 character strengths to determine their role in creating subjective feelings of happiness. One key study, with more than 4,000 participants, revealed that five of these strengths are most closely related to life satisfaction:

  1. Gratitude
  2. Optimism
  3. Zest
  4. Curiosity
  5. The ability to love and be loved

It’s important to note that each of these strengths can be learned. You can become more grateful, optimistic, zestful, curious and loving if you’re willing to make the effort.

5 Ways to Boost Your Happiness

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, provides five scientifically validated keys to increasing happiness in The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want (Penguin Books, 2007):

  1. Positive Emotions. Frequent positive feelings – joy, delight, contentment, serenity, curiosity, vitality, enthusiasm, pride – are the hallmarks of happiness. Moments of pleasure broaden your horizons, stimulate creativity, and help build social, physical and intellectual skills.
  2. Optimal Timing and Variety. Pay attention to timing and variety. Otherwise, keeping a gratitude list gets stale and becomes ineffective. Perform five acts of kindness in one day instead of spreading them out.
  3. Social Support. It’s easier to break habits (drinking, overeating) with others’ help, which explains the success of organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers. The same rule applies to happiness. Get the support you need from an accountability partner or coach.
  4. Motivation, Effort and Commitment. You won’t automatically become happier by stating your goals. As with anything worth pursuing, you have to be motivated, engage in efforts and commit to repeated behaviors.
  5. Habit. Positive thinking and happiness exercises can help you form habitual patterns of thinking, acting and speaking. Happiness levels will rise with established routines.

Online happiness surveys can help you develop greater self-awareness and enhance your ability to experience satisfaction. Consider working with a professional coach to learn how to harness your strengths.

Put Positive Leadership into Action

Executive coaches and leadership consultants who encourage positive thinking often encounter cynical, hard-driving executives with a close eye on the bottom line.
But positivity coaches have come a long way since author Norman Vincent Peale preached his positive philosophy of faith and miracles. Today’s positive-psychology movement is founded on empirical evidence. Social scientists have documented the benefits of optimism, emotional intelligence and happiness in multiple work settings, including the executive suite and diverse corporate departments.
Positive leadership is no longer seen as a feel-good ideal with little bearing on business results. Mounting evidence reveals that leaders who focus on their people’s positive contributions, while concomitantly achieving tough goals through measurable tasks, enjoy higher performance outcomes.
While positive leadership is gaining traction among CEOs and executive teams, it’s often poorly understood and implemented. University of Michigan management professor Kim S. Cameron, PhD, offers a cogent definition of the term in his new book, Practicing Positive Leadership: Tools and Techniques That Create Extraordinary Results (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013):

“Positive leadership refers to the implementation of multiple positive practices that help individuals and organizations achieve their highest potential, flourish at work, experience elevating energy and achieve levels of effectiveness difficult to attain otherwise.”

As you’ll soon see, positive leadership is a bit more complex than expressing a positive attitude, celebrating progress, encouraging team spirit, fostering positive relationships and espousing inspirational values.

The Problem-Focused Outlook

Unfortunately, positive practices are truly rare in today’s businesses and organizations. Two key factors explain our natural resistance to them:
1. Physiologically speaking, our brains have a built-in negativity bias. We’re hardwired to pay more attention to issues that threaten our survival (negative trumps positive). Crises and problems dominate work agendas. Managers’ daily tasks necessitate solving problems.
2. Leadership pressures steal attention from positive practices, in spite of our best intentions. Successful leaders must override the tendency to focus on problems. Only then can they experience the high performance that positivity can unleash.
While positive executives are perceived to be better leaders, they’re nonetheless in the minority in today’s competitive business environment.

Finding the Right Feedback Ratio

A wave of research reveals that “soft”-sounding positive management practices – including conversations focused on dreams, strengths and possibilities – motivate people to achieve higher performance levels. In fact, the more positive the message, the better the outcome.
But managers are charged with pointing out what’s not working and solving real problems – a mandate that presents a potentially frustrating leadership dilemma: How can you focus on the positive when continually forced to make corrections?
Richard Boyatzis, PhD, a professor of organizational behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, offers a pragmatic solution: “You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive. You need both, but in the right ratio.”
Let’s quantify this ratio. Effective leaders should provide 3 – 5 positive messages for every negative message they deliver. Your communication must skew heavily toward the positive, without sounding incongruent or inauthentic.
If you fail to “accentuate the positive” (to borrow a World War II-era song title), you remain stuck in negative feedback patterns that demotivate your staff.

Positive Benefits

Barbara L. Frederickson, PhD, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has found that positive feelings expand our awareness of a wider range of possibilities. Instead of looking at what needs to be fixed, we learn to focus on what’s right and needs to be reinforced. When we emphasize positive deeds, using positive language, achievement builds upon itself.
From a neurological standpoint, positivity activates reward centers in the brain, triggering the release of mood-elevating neurotransmitters like dopamine. As we experience positive feelings, we begin to crave even more of them. This cascade propels us to chip away at the small steps needed to achieve our larger goals and ultimately sets the stage for success.
Indeed, Dr. Frederickson’s psychology research shows that a positive focus bestows greater attentiveness, more flexible problem-solving, enhanced creativity and improved teamwork.

Two Opposing Brain Functions

When we’re involved in technical conversations or analytical tasks, the brain’s frontal lobe is engaged. When conversations shift to people, feelings and social considerations, the inner brain – which controls emotions and memories – is activated.
Neurological imaging confirms that results-focused leaders give their frontal lobes a greater workout, while socially minded leaders exercise their inner brains more diligently.
In general, organizations tend to promote leaders for their technical prowess – not their social skills. Surveys show that goal-oriented bosses have a 14% chance of being perceived as great leaders by their employees. The number drops to 12% for socially skilled bosses.
But when bosses are both socially and technically adept, they have a 72% chance of being viewed as great leaders. The bad news? Only 1% of bosses excel at both skills in the real world.

A Trickle-Down Process

Positivity is a principle, not a concrete process like Six Sigma or TQM. Successful implementation therefore requires clearly defined action steps.
Think of positive leadership as a funnel. It starts with the organization and its overarching mission and values; permeates leadership teams through the expression of positive values and goals; helps managers implement and track progress; and ensures individuals know what needs to be done to ensure rewards.

Organizational Positivity

You can identify companies that have implemented positive practices throughout history and compare their mission statements with those of their less successful counterparts.
Positivity clearly appears in mission statements that value societal contributions over the desire to be No. 1:

  • Ford Motor Company: democratize the auto (1900s)
  • Boeing: bring the world into the jet age (1950s)
  • Sony: obliterate the image of poor-quality Japanese goods (1960s)
  • Apple: one person, one computer (1980s)

Compare those mission statements with the following:

  • GE: be No. 1 or 2 in every market we serve
  • Walmart: become the first trillion-dollar company
  • Philip Morris: knock off R.J. Reynolds as the No. 1 tobacco company
  • Nike: crush Adidas
  • Honda: destroy Yamaha

Improving your leadership positivity starts with your organization’s mission statement. Ask “why” you and your organization are here; then, ask yourself and your colleagues what you/they want on a deeper level:

  • Which values merit coming to work each day to give your best?
  • How will you inspire staff and customers to make contributions that benefit the world?

The Language of Positive Conversations

Begin to transform your team by attaching everything you say and do to higher goals and values. Leaders, managers and staff become more positive when they pay attention to the language they use. Rephrase statements in a more positive way, without sacrificing honesty or reality.
If you’re in a management position, everything you say – or don’t say – is magnified, making it even more important to boost your positive/negative ratio. Aim for a least a 3:1 (ideally, a 5:1) ratio of positive to negative statements. When you adopt this approach, others will follow suit.

Show Frequent Appreciation

Instead of seizing on what your people do wrong, start to verbally acknowledge what they’re doing right. Track and recognize progress. Most people perform better when they know they’re appreciated.
This doesn’t mean you should suppress bad news. Instead, learn to deliver it in ways that are less likely to provoke defensiveness. Your execution will improve with practice. You’ll gain respect and better performance outcomes – whether you’re participating in official performance reviews or simply engaging in casual conversations with employees.

In Search of Best Practices

If we want to staff our organizations with executives who can deliver results and demonstrate superior social skills, we need to start identifying them during the hiring and promotion processes.
Hard-driving, results-oriented executives can learn to improve their social skills by retaining an experienced executive coach. Additionally, organizations can improve their effectiveness by:

  1. Hiring for both technical and social skills
  2. Training equally for social skills and technical savvy
  3. Rewarding goal attainment and displays of social skill
  4. Promoting those who demonstrate social prowess

CEOs and upper management must realize that rewarding achievement alone has its limits. Organizations must provide incentives for behaviors, even when people take risks and “fail up.”
Leaders are most effective when they demonstrate social intelligence. Luckily, they can be trained, coached and rewarded for improving their facility in this arena. Specific areas of emphasis should include:

  1. Day-to-day conversations
  2. Performance reviews and feedback
  3. Incentives, rewards and pay
  4. Connecting mission to values

Identify and implement action steps on multiple fronts – from the seemingly simple communication efforts to the more complex ones. Changes at the individual level will begin to transform your working environment into a finely oiled machine that values both results and social relationships.
Employing positive leadership practices will allow employees at all levels to flourish at work, sustain energy and reach peak performance. Conversations that highlight people’s strengths, desires and dreams generate emotions and energy that drive us to work harder. The more positive the discussion, the more positive the outcome.