he daily news is crushingly bad. Newspapers read like obituary pages. The official surveys tell us what we already know - we are anxious as hell about our jobs, our mortgages, our futures. The trillions of government dollars thrown at the financial crisis do not soothe us.
And there is nothing we can do about it, right?
Some leading companies are taking a new tack on managing the excruciating economic times: They are calling in the happiness experts.
These proponents of positive psychology, a movement fathered by United States researcher Martin Seligman in the early 1990s, claim two decades of research show that the mysterious state of happiness can be cultivated.
They say a range of practices - such as fostering a culture of appreciation, taking a positive approach to problem solving, making daily lists of successes, having fun activities such as laughter classes, and creating brighter offices (among others) - help build morale, make staff resilient, create profits and foster the faster, more creative thinking needed to deal with the hard stuff - retrenchments, salary and staff freezes, and faltering sales.
A partner at law firm Freehills, Rebecca Maslen-Stannage, believes companies that promote optimism and happiness will have an edge in the downturn. "In this environment, if leaders are negative they foster fear and negativity," she says. "If you are positive, in a measured way, it helps people cope better."
Maslen-Stannage is not alone. In May this year, two-thirds of the anticipated 2000 participants at an annual conference, Happiness and its Causes, will be from business or government. Last year's attendants included companies such as ANZ Banking Group, IBM Australia, law firm Freehills and accounting firm Ernst & Young.
It is a substantial investment - tickets range from $695 to $1725 (including workshops before and after the conference). Scores of scientists, authors and consultants, from Australia and beyond, will present the latest findings on how to promote happiness in ourselves, our children, staff and co-workers, and examine its relationship with creativity, work, leadership, age, intelligence, money and the environment.
The conference is in its fourth year and attendances have grown from 600 in 2005 to 2200 in 2008. Tony Steel is a director of an international Buddhist organisation, Vajrayana Institute, which conceived the conference idea and owns its logo, and chairman of consulting firm Terrapin that runs it on behalf of the institute.
"Initially, it was health-care people who came, but increasingly it is corporates," Steel says.
Belinda Winter is convinced company leaders can learn techniques to create a greater sense of happiness in their workplaces, and apply them to get a competitive edge. Winter is director of people and corporate relations at Novo Nordisk Pharmaceuticals. She says her company's self-image took a dive in February 2007 when it was forced to retrench five staff.
"It is a Danish company that is very socially orientated and decent,"
Winter says. "We had never had to [retrench staff] before. We had lost our halo. We needed to get people to say, 'how can we see good in that?'"
She engaged Professor Tim Sharp, chief executive of the Happiness Institute and author of 100 ways to Happiness: A Guide for Busy People (Penguin, 2008, $22.95), to speak at the annual sales conference in March last year. He spoke about the CHOOSE model of happiness, the acronym for his approach.
Every staff member was given a copy of an earlier iteration of Sharp's book. They then worked through exercises from it in teams or completed them at home.
Winter introduced changes to her weekly team meetings. "We began to look at the quick wins, and ask each other, 'What you did today that was good?'."
Sharp came back and ran a further two-hour workshop for 30 or so Novo managers and directors, asking them to apply some of the CHOOSE techniques to their teams.
Critics say that such techniques are stilted and superficial. Winter disagrees. She attributes a pick-up in sales in 2008 to the fact that 80 per cent of staff say they are using the techniques Sharp describes in his books.
While happiness is a tantalising catchcry for attracting media attention, Sharp says - the Happiness Institute has recorded 312 press mentions since Sharp started it in 2003 - the word does not really capture what Sharp is on about. "I do believe in fun, smiling and laughing," he says. "But happiness in the workplace is much more about building resilience in individuals, finding meaning and purpose in the work we do, and building on strengths."
The crux of the methods used by happiness coaches is to shift the focus from the negative to the positive, even in the worst of moments.
Winter illustrates: "In the redundancy situation, the director involved was very nervous and negative about it. I said if you go into the meeting prepared and planned with a good outcome in mind, then that is how it will be. This director took that on board and said it was amazing, that everyone was well behaved and accepting. It was a complete 360 of how this person thought this was going to be."
The director of strategy for IBM Australia and New Zealand, Megan Dalla Camina, says in 23 years of corporate life the focus of corporate effort has always been on problem solving. "You start to look at a problem, conduct root-cause analysis, dig up the problem and analyse it till you go grey," she says.
Attending the happiness conference last year made her try a new
approach: appreciative enquiry. "We look at the positive aspects, what we are doing well and how can we enhance that rather than focus on everything we do wrong."
For a sales team facing a 20 per cent fall in sales, Sharp illustrates a more positive approach. "You might say, 'Sales have fallen from 80 per cent to 60 per cent, so let's look at the 60 per cent. Who is still buying, why, and can we sell them more?'" Sharp says. "Or you might look at which sales staff are making their budget and say, 'You are doing well, so tell us what you are doing right'."
When the whistle blows, staff at the charity for kids with cancer, Camp Quality, down tools. It is time for a fun-therapy activity. It might be a short "laughter class", a game or a quiz, led by the FTA champion at each office. It is one of several tactics chief executive Simon Rountree uses to keep his staff feeling positive.
Here's another. As staff leave the office each day, Rountree asks them to write on a whiteboard three good things that have happened. "It doesn't have to be about work," he says. "It is about leaving in a positive frame of mind." On their desk pads, staff are reminded to ask themselves daily questions, such as who they can help to laugh that day or what they are optimistic about that day? All staff have photos of themselves laughing for annual reports. The offices are brightly painted.
Rountree says introducing programs and activities to make his 75 staff and 4000 volunteers happier has translated into tangible financial benefits. He has been measuring the results over the past four years and attributes the following results to his program:
• Revenue increase from $6 million (2004) to $11.8 million (2008).
• 25 per cent reduction in sick leave over past four years.
• 89 per cent of staff believe they have learned tools to help them become more resilient, a 2008 staff satisfaction survey shows.
The idea of cultivating happiness emerges from a revolutionary field of brain science - neuroscience - and its spawn, positive psychology.
There is growing evidence that when people are happy, ideas flow, relationships bloom, decisions come easily and they are more resilient in times of difficulty. Cynicism, distrust, worry, fear and disappointment, however, kill creativity, innovation and inspiration, says psychology researcher, Martin Seligman, leader of the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania.
Seligman's book expounding the research, Learned Optimism (Knopf, 1990), spurred many research projects on happiness and its causes and affects on work and productivity. Seligman found a direct link between the economic success of companies and the number of positive statements their leaders made compared with negative ones (at least 3:1). Research conducted in 2005 and led by Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California concludes that happy people are more successful in life, rather than the more accepted corollary that successful people are happier.
Positive-psychology theories are not entirely new; they build on stress management and work-life-balance strategies, but they apply directly to problem solving.
Not everyone is convinced. Among the doubters is philosopher-in-residence at Melbourne Business School, Professor John Armstrong. "Happiness is our name for the life we want. But the 'inner glow' of feeling truly happy is the hardest standard to achieve. It is rare and fleeting," Armstrong says, confessing to being not all that happy himself.
"My view on positive thinking is that it suits some people but for others it is just nauseating. You think, 'Oh, for God's sake'."
What should leaders do with people performing badly or who have personal problems - financial or marital, for example - that are dragging them down at work.
The managing director of Haritos Hotels, Dean Haritos, says the answer is to be direct. "You have to tell people what you want them to do, not just what you don't want them to do." Haritos engaged Sharp for 12 months of coaching when he found himself becoming increasingly frustrated with his managers and staff. In recent performance appraisals of his managers, he was frank.
"I said, 'You are performing well in these areas, and not in these'. I asked, 'In what areas do you think you could provide the biggest benefit to our company?' " Two staff left the company and three moved to new roles, he says.
Doubters and naysayer are allowed at Camp Quality. No one has to join in on the happiness-promoting activities, Rountree says. "At any stage, staff can opt in or opt out of fun-therapy activities or photos, and voice any concerns," he says. For those suffering deeper problems, Camp Quality offers a free counselling service.
Maslen-Stannage, who attended last year's happiness conference, takes a more positive focus with clients too. "A lot of clients have problems right now so I focus on the solutions and on the future - the last things they need is another voice of doom and gloom."
Lawyers are particularly prone to depression, especially in the high-pressure corporate field. Maslen-Stannage, who leads the corporate mergers, acquisitions and capital-raising division of Freehills, like Rountree and Winter, uses the list of three good things at her team's weekly meeting. "You tend to do deals fast, work long hours and fall into the trap of feeling you are not getting anywhere," she says. "Now we reflect on getting a deal done, taking a step forward, overcoming a problem. Just celebrating the good things you do."
For success, leaders usually need to look at changing themselves and change over the long term, executive coach Amanda Horne says. "A lot of organisations want a quick fix. They want a one-day workshop for staff on the 10 steps to creating a positive workplace."
Horne says negative thinking is more culturally accepted than positive thinking, and practised more widely in workplaces and wider society.
"That has not been helped by psychology taking the same approach [of focusing on problems]," she says. "Of course, negative emotions are important - we wouldn't be alive without fear, for example. We need to look at problems, and fix them. But we need to redress the balance, to look at the positive to build health and wellbeing."
Leaders can foster happiness but employees need some self-knowledge of their likes, dislikes and talents to benefit, says Arun Abey, founder of Ipac Securities and author of How Much is Enough (A&B Publishers), a study of the relationship between happiness and money.
"As an employer, I can facilitate your self-discovery, but you need to give me feedback," he says.
The founder of Laughter Works, Cris Popp, offers clients a direct way to boost morale - he leads laughter workshops in the office and at conferences.
Popp got 220 truckies laughing at the national conference last year, the chief executive of the industry body NatRoad, Bernard Belacic, says. "We had brekkie on the beach and Mr Popp got 220 truckies waving their arms around and looking at the funny side of life."
Following Popp's session, there was more laughter at every session of the conference, Belacic says, with the truckies picking up on the jokes and referring back to the session.
"The work itself is serious, and it is so easy to get wound up, frustrated and depressed in our industry," Belacic says. "You can still have fun in the workplace and do serious work."
Staff will become more playful if leaders encourage a bit of "appropriate" fun, Sharp says.
"It is not all about cracking jokes, although you will have some staff who are very funny," he says. "It is about bringing humour to work and not being criticised or frowned upon for it."
THE HOW OF HAPPINESS
• Clarity. Be clear about life goals.
• Healthy living. Exercise, sleep and eat well.
• Optimism. Take a positive view of yourself and the world.
• Others. Make sure you have relationships outside work in your life.
• Strength. Look more at your strengths and less at your weaknesses.
• Enjoy the moment.
Source: Professor Tim Sharp
For company leaders:
• Commit to creating a happier workplace at the leadership level, resource the change, and make it a priority.
• Recognise the benefits to the business, as well as personal benefits.
• Build optimism and resilience by being positive and realistic.
• Express appreciation and gratitude to individuals and teams.
• Build teams based on their strengths.
• Communicate positively - deal with problems by exploring solutions.
• Encourage some fun, play and humour in the workplace.
Source: The Happiness Institute
A SHORT HISTORY OF HAPPINESS
Martin Seligman is considered the father of the modern positive-psychology movement and theories as to the causes of happiness, although he acknowledges the influence of Greek philosopher Aristotle.
Proponents of positive psychology say a psychologist's role is not just to treat mental illness - helping a depressed patient to recover - but to promote wellbeing in helping everyone feel truly happy and fulfilled.
Seligman developed theories of "learned helplessness" by studying dogs at Cornell University in 1967. He published the highly influential Learned Optimism in 1990. He is currently a director of the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman and a team from the University established a positive-psychology course at Geelong Grammar School in 2007-08.
Decades of evidence have proved that money does not create happiness.
Quality-of-life surveys of Americans conducted since World War II show that, on their own rating, the participants' happiness has flatlined since the 1950s, while incomes have skyrocketed.
Today, positive psychologists claim there are three pillars of
happiness: pleasure, engagement and meaning. Happiness is often solely interpreted as hedonism: seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. But this is one pillar. As most parents will attest, although changing nappies and losing sleep is not much fun, having children brings happiness because it brings the other elements of happiness: meaning, purpose, and engagement with their children and with other parents.
Happiness economics - the attempt to study quality of life using economics and psychology - has entered the business lexicon. In 1972, Bhutan's king coined the term "gross national happiness" to expand the notion of gross national product to include a measure of wellbeing.
The business of teaching how to sustain a happy life is a part of a much bigger "wellness" industry, worth $US1100 billion ($1525 billion) a year, according to one of its fans, Professor Marc Cohen, head of the health sciences unit of Melbourne's RMIT University and founder of Australia's first postgraduate masters of wellness program.
Wellness products and services are an odd convergence of health, beauty, fitness, nutrition and complementary medicine and cater to a healthy, wealthy consumer who wants more, and who is ready to divest themselves of the bank balance that has disappointed them.
Seligman's work is part of a wider body of research into how the brain works, neuroscience. Its findings suggest the brain is capable of greater change and development throughout a lifetime than previously thought, and it correlates brain activity with the thoughts and behaviours of research subjects. Critics dispute the correlation, but are increasingly in the minority.
Lists of countries ranked according to life satisfaction and their gross domestic product (based on purchasing power parity) per hour worked, are shown below. The second table discloses the value of all final goods and services produced within a nation in a given year, divided by the total annual hours worked. GDP (PPP) per hour worked is one measure of a country's productivity.
SATISFACTION WITH LIFE INDEX
Rank Country SWL
1 Denmark 273.40
2 Switzerland 273.33
3 Austria 260.00
4 Iceland 260.00
5 The Bahamas 256.67
6 Finland 256.67
7 Sweden 256.67
8 Bhutan 253.33
9 Brunei 253.33
10 Canada 253.33
11 Ireland 253.33
12 Luxembourg 253.33
13 Costa Rica 250.00
14 Malta 250.00
15 Netherlands 250.00
16 Antigua and Barbuda 246.67
17 Malaysia 246.67
18 New Zealand 246.67
19 Norway 246.67
20 Seychelles 246.67
21 Saint Kitts and Nevis 246.67
22 United Arab Emirates 246.67
23 United States 246.67
24 Vanuatu 246.67
25 Venezuela 246.67
26 Australia 243.33
27 Barbados 243.33
28 Belgium 243.33
29 Dominica 243.33
30 Oman 243.33
Source: Satisfaction with Life Index, Adrian G White, University of Leicester
NATIONAL PRODUCTIVITY BY THE HOUR
Rank Country GDP/hr 2007
1 Norway 37.44
2 United States 35.90
3 Luxembourg 35.72
4 France 35.09
5 Belgium 34.39
6 The Netherlands 32.71
7 Trinidad and Tobago 31.76
8 Austria 31.59
9 United Kingdom 31.27
10 Denmark 30.73
11 Sweden 30.69
12 Ireland 30.63
13 Finland 29.77
14 Germany 29.69
15 Italy 29.22
16 Australia 28.77
17 Canada 28.06
18 Switzerland 26.78
19 Japan 25.61
20 Iceland 24.67
21 Hong Kong 24.31
22 Estonia 22.97
23 Spain 22.90
24 Republic of China (Taiwan) 21.91
25 Slovenia 21.24
26 New Zealand 21.15
27 Singapore 20.93
28 Greece 19.49
29 Cyprus 18.52
30 Malta 18.22
Source: University of Groningen
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