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How Important Is Happiness On and Off the Job?

By Kim Marshall, TIE Columnist

The article: “The science behind the smile,” an interview with Daniel Gilbert by Gardiner Morse in Harvard Business Review, January-February 2012 (90 1-2, pp. 84-90); no e-link available.
In this Harvard Business Review interview, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert talks with Gardiner Morse about his research on happiness. Some key points:
• Most people do better work when they are happy. Some managers think their employees will work better if they are a little uncomfortable, a bit anxious about their jobs, and point to cranky artists and geniuses who do amazing work. For the vast majority of people, that is baloney, says Gilbert. “I know of no data showing that anxious, fearful employees are more creative or productive.” Contented people do not sit around staring at a wall, he says. People hate being bored. They are happiest when they are working toward goals that are challenging but attainable.
• Rewards work better than threats and punishments. One boss might say, “If you do not get this to me by Friday, you are fired.” The employee will get it done, but after that, will never do more than what is required and may even sabotage the organization. A smarter boss would say, “I do not think most people could get this done by Friday. But I have full faith and confidence that you can. And it is hugely important to the entire team.”
• People are more resilient than they think. “When bad things happen, we weep and whine for a while and then pick ourselves up and get on with it,” says Gilbert. “One of the most reliable findings of the happiness studies is that we do not have to go running to a therapist every time our shoelaces break. We have a remarkable ability to make the best of things.” We find silver linings, rationalize, and adjust to the new realities. Pete Best, who was replaced by Ringo Starr as the Beatles’ drummer in 1962 just before the band surged to international fame and is now a session musician, said, “I am happier than I would have been with the Beatles.”
• Social contact is central to happiness. “We are by far the most social species on Earth,” says Gilbert. “If I wanted to predict your happiness, and I could know only one thing about you, I would not want to know your gender, religion, health, or income. I would want to know about your social network—about your friends and family and the strength of the bonds with them.”
• The quantity of good experiences is more important than the quality. “Someone who has a dozen mildly nice things happen each day is likely to be happier than somebody who has a single truly amazing thing happen,” says Gilbert. “So wear comfortable shoes, give your wife a big kiss, sneak a French fry. It sounds like small stuff, but the small stuff matters… But you have to do them every day…”
• There are some basics to happiness. “The main thing is to commit to some simple behaviors,” says Gilbert, “meditating, exercising, getting enough sleep—and to practice altruism… And nurture your social connections. Twice a week, write down three things you are grateful for, and tell someone why. I know these sound like homilies from your grandmother. Well, your grandmother was smart.”
• But happiness is complicated. People who have children are typically less happy on a moment-to-moment basis than people without children, but there are rewards. “What kind of happiness should we want?” asks Gilbert. “Do we want lives free of pain and heartache, or is there value in those experiences? Science will soon be able to tell us how to live the lives we want, but it will never tell us what kinds of lives we should want to live. That will be for us to decide.”
• Happiness differs more from moment to moment than it does from person to person. “This suggests that it is not the stable conditions of our lives, such as where we live or whether we are married, that are the principal drivers of happiness,” says researcher Matthew Killingsworth, who has tracked the happiness levels of 15,000 people in 83 countries via an iPhone app that asks them to say what they are doing and rate their happiness at random moments during the week. “It could be the small, everyday things that count the most. It also suggests that happiness on the job may depend more on our moment-to-moment experiences—our routine interactions with coworkers, the projects we are involved in, our daily contributions—than on the stable conditions thought to promote happiness, such as a high salary or a prestigious title.”
Summary reprinted from Marshall Memo 417, 2 January 2012.

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