Happier at work: how positive psychology can help us to create a happy work environment

What do you think when you hear the word “psychologist”? Probably, the first image that comes up in your mind is a person that is called to fix problems. In organizations psychologists come in when something is going wrong: They need to reduce turnover, burnout, resistances to change.

However, 21st century psychology wants to go beyond this paradigm. In the last 20 years professionals were wondering how they can enhance the positive aspects in people’s lives instead of trying to alleviate the negative ones. Thus, a science was born that studies happiness and genius rather than anxiety or depression. This science is called Positive Psychology, and its purpose is to flourish what is good. This science has entered in the world of organizations and the results that are being achieved by  Positive Organizational  Psychology practitioners are extremely promising. In this article, based on a Systematic Review by Meyers, Woerkom and Bakker (2012), the major applications of this discipline will be described. Are you starting to feel the happiness and the curiosity growing inside you?

Positive psychology at work

Positive organizational psychologists have a wide range of techniques to make the workplace flourish. They can be focused on:

  1. The cultivation of subjective experiences
  2. The building of individual traits
  3. The building of civic virtues and positive institutions

In the first group are those interventions that nurture positive experience like hope and happiness.

Gratitude interventions, for example, are techniques made to stop focusing our mind on regretting and complaining and instead shift the focus towards remembering how many good things happen everyday. If you would participate in gratitude interventions you could be asked to write down every day or week the best things that happened and that made you feel thankful toward the world.

Psychological Capital programs work instead on four personal mental states that motivate people to their activity, stimulate creativity and that can be trained and enhanced: self-efficacy, hope, optimism and resilience.

Moreover, the second group includes interventions that promote individual traits. Positive psychology implies a reflection on the moments in which you give the best and are satisfied of yourself. It can be also important to ask the same questions to your colleagues, to identify your major strength, to be able to develop them and to augment your proudness and authenticity.

Finally, the group level of focus includes the most known instrument to improve wellbeing and happiness in the workplace: appreciative inquiry. Running an appreciative inquiry in your organization means collecting success stories, developing ideas for a bright future and setting up  action plans to become your dream organization. It has a great impact on motivation and fosters a collaborative and appreciative climate.

It works so fine!

“Wow!”. you could have a similar thought after reading last paragraph. “Positive Psychology seems so cool! But does it work?”

This is the same question that Meyers and colleagues asked, and their review gives a encouraging, evidence-based answer: Positive Psychology seems to work great, when it is used for the right purposes.

The most consistent finding through all the 15 studies considered in the review is the impact of positive interventions on well-being. 25 out of 29 tests of well-being measures showed an improvement following the interventions on areas like optimism, positive emotions and satisfaction. Moreover, negative emotions and stress were reduced after Positive Psychology interventions, but the results were less striking in this case: Remember, the purpose of Positive Psychology is nurturing what is good!

Other good results were found about leadership, as supervisors were able to generate more solutions after a psychological capital program.

What about creativity? In this case it seems that gender really matters (Look at our amazing article about gender and creativity in teams) and appreciative inquiry fostered creativity among men, but had a detrimental effect for women.

Finally, at a group level, Positive Psychology programs consistently trigger cohesion and group identification.

Takeaways for your practice

If you are interested in promoting happiness and well-being at work, there are good news for you: psychology found its way to the bright side of the human mind.

The over mentioned interventions seem to be particularly useful to deal with “problem children”, employees that have a more negative personality and have difficulties to be happy and motivated at work. As positive psychology techniques have more effect for unhappy people, they can be a useful tool to reduce the gap between this “problem children” and the “model employee”.

Moreover, it is important to underline that the link between happiness at work and individual performance (The happy-productive worker thesis) is well-proved (e.g. Cropanzano & Wright, 2001) as engaged employees go beyond the simple compliance and do their best for a company that make them feel good.

These are all good reasons to consult a positive I/O psychologist in your organization. Be careful and seek the advice of certified professionals: too often appealing, but unproven techniques are promoted with promises of great change in happiness and well-being. Prefer the work that is based on scientific evidence.

Finally, this article could give you a good insight to start looking the management of people from a different angle. Gratitude, optimism, appreciation of strengths, authenticity could all become part of your way of working, relating with colleagues and supervisors and leading. Be positive: it pays off.

If you are interested in learning more about positive psychology, you can find here an ispirational  TED talk from Martin Seligman, the founder of this innovative and promising direction.
Have you been inspired by Positive Psychology? Have you ever used one of these techniques in your workplace? Let us know your opinion in the comment section below!

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Meyers, M.C., van Woerkom, M., Bakker, A.B. (2012). The added value of the positive: A literature review of positive psychology interventions in organizations. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology. 22, (5), 618-32. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1359432X.2012.694689

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