It’s natural to believe that success will bring you happiness, but a variety of psychologists, including Harvard’s Shawn Achor, have argued that this common-sense understanding is actually backward. Success doesn’t make you happy so much as happiness makes you more successful.
But how much more successful exactly, and how can you ever rigorously, scientifically test something like that?
A team of economists out of the University of Warwick in the U.K. and a German university recently attempted to find out. Their results are soon to be published in the Journal of Labour Economics.
The economists first tested the relationship between happiness and productivity in a lab by randomly assigning volunteers to one of two groups. One set of subjects was treated to a funny video of a stand-up comedian in action as well as some free fruit and chocolate. The others watched a neutral video and got exactly nothing. Needless to say, the participants scarfing the free chocolate were the “happy” group.
So how did the two groups perform? Those who had enjoyed a sweet and laugh before being asked to complete a series of timed math problems, correctly completed between 10-12 percent more problems. To check the findings, the researchers also conducted a second experiment where they first asked participants to complete the math challenge and then interviewed them about their real-life stressors. They found that those who had a solid reason to be unhappy, such as a recent bereavement, were again less productive than their happier counterparts.
All It Takes Is a Bag of Hershey’s Kisses?
These results confirm earlier research, including, for example, a study that showed higher reported happiness among teenagers correlates with higher earnings as an adult. And that’s only one study among many.
“Working with big, longitudinal data sets, numerous studies have established the association between stress and lower productivity and reduced job satisfaction,” Cary Cooper, an organizational psychologist at Lancaster University, commented.
The science on the connection between happiness and productivity may be solid, but, alas, applying it isn’t as straightforward. Given the complexities of human psychology, bringing in a bag of Hershey’s kisses to the office probably won’t guarantee you a 10 percent productivity bump among your employees (though it certainly can’t hurt).
But according to Eugenio Proto, a member of the team who worked on the new study, managers shouldn’t shy away from attempts to boost employee happiness. “The key lesson for managers from our research is that more happiness will not result in more distraction,” he said.
According to Harvard’s Achor, “something as simple as writing down three things you’re grateful for every day for 21 days in a row” significantly increases your level of optimism and happiness. So there are plenty of ways to try to boost happiness even if you’re not a big fan of comedy or chocolate (Though really, who isn’t?). There’s even an app to help.
See also: When Passion for Work Is a Bad Thing