Better working, Health, Leadership, Organizational advancement, People Place Performance

I have good and bad news. The bad news is: we can learn to be unhappy. The good news: we can also learn to be happy!

When psychologist Martin Seligman introduced the term “learned helplessness”, he proved the principle: if you experience that you cannot change what happens to yourself, you are paralyzed, leading to a downward spiral, no success stories, no motivation, no success. This was a substantial insight into the psychotherapy of depression. However, during his further studies as a psychologist and researcher, Seligman realised that not all individuals react to adverse circumstances in the same way – some tend to give up sooner, whereas others seem to have resources that prevent them from getting frustrated. In the meantime, a movement called “Positive Psychology” evolved, focusing on exactly these resources. Instead of looking for ways to cure mental illness, Positive Psychologists began to focus on ways to improve the quality of life.

We can transfer the core idea of Positive Psychology to the workplace. There is a simple recipe. Barbara Fredrickson, a distinguished expert in the field of positive emotions, suggests that optimistic thinking can lead to “flourishment”. This might sound a little esoteric, but it is a valuable concept in everyday life, describing a state of entire life satisfaction, comprising “feeling good” and “doing good”. Fredrickson posits that this state is enabled by the Positivity Ratio of 3:1 – that, on average, people who experience three times more positive than negative emotions are healthier, more optimistic, have happier marriages, better relationships and are more creative (try testing your own positivity ratio here!).

Bringing this theory into the workplace, a study found out that in successful meetings, the number of positive interactions clearly exceeds the number of negative interactions. Negative emotions are often experienced as more intense than positive emotions but luckily, for most individuals, the number of positive emotions experienced throughout their usual day exceeds the number of negative ones. And if the ratio is 3:1 or higher, we “flourish” (depressive individuals usually have a ratio of 1:1 or lower). This lead to an “upward spiral”, with motivation for new activities growing with positive experiences, and better motivation creating more positive experiences.

In summary, the recipe for fostering positivity and thus productivity in the workplace is: make sure we all have three times as many positive emotions as negative emotions.

How can we do this? Consider trying out the following ideas:

  • Start a meeting by reporting reasons to celebrate and success stories. This allows participants to start off in a positive state of mind. It could help more difficult and tricky issues to be solved throughout the meeting. Research has also shown that individuals can enhance their awareness for positive events by keeping note of at least one good thing that has happened every day – this could be translated into a meeting by making sure to recap any positive outcomes as the meeting finishes.
  • Allow “flow” by activity-based working. Doing something you’re really good at and confident in, but with a sense of challenge, can be an extremely positive experience. When these conditions are met, researchers discovered a state of timelessness and sense of total mastery, known as “flow”. Leaders can help enable this in the workplace by assigning the right tasks to the right people, but another important factor is the environment: a space can be ideal for one task (concentrated working in a quiet library), but detrimental to another (the same library to conduct a creative and exciting meeting). If it is possible to choose a suitable space for an activity, it is easier to experience “flow”, which has been shown to be a great enabler for creativity in the workplace.
  • Surprise your colleagues. The tiniest positive experiences have been proven to significantly enhance our mood and change the way we approach things. Think about how you might cheer up others at work. A joke on the noticeboard? An unplanned break to have cake? Some flowers?

There are thousands of ways to bring more positivity into the workplace. What else can you think of?


KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAJennifer Gunkel is a consultant with AECOM’s Strategy Plus practice in Munich.

Originally published Nov 13, 2014

Author: Jennifer Gunkel