Positively Profitable– Be Happy, Work Better

So, the economy is sputtering and perhaps your business isn’t doing as well as you hoped.   Perhaps you think it’s time to start cracking the whip.  Well, think again.  If you want to increase profits, you might want to check out the field of positive psychology.

Positive psychology is about making the lives of people more productive and fulfilling by identifying and nurturing their highest talents—not about treating mental illness like traditional psychology.  It’s a new branch of study that was championed by Martin Seligman, who is often referred to as the father of positive psychology.

So, why should we business leaders be interested?  Because we can add to the bottom line while creating a company with a culture that is more enjoyable for all, including management.  A study conducted by Alex Edmans of the Wharton School of Business has shown that corporations listed in Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For in America” have equity returns that are 3.5% per year higher than others.  Put simply, employee satisfaction directly correlates with returns to shareholders. Likewise, as a result of decades of clinical trials, we now know that feeling happy reduces workplace errors, increases productivity, and reduces employee turnover and absenteeism—all of which positively impact the bottom line.

“Our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive, ” says Shawn Archor in his book, The Happiness Advantage: the Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work.  Biologically, when we release dopamine and serotonin, the learning centers in the brain perform well, better organize new information, retain new information in the brain longer, and retrieve it faster.

Barbara L. Fredrickson, professor of psychology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, discovered that humans are most creative when our minds are flooded with a stay-and-create chemical—quite possibly dopamine—the opposite of the well-known “fight or flight” response. The “stay-and-create” chemical makes us more receptive to new ideas, more likely to explore, more flexible, and more likely to deepen relationships. This, as one might imagine, results in greater teamwork and mutual respect.  Fredrickson’s theory is that “fight or flight” historically helped us avoid being eaten alive, but that civilizations were created via a more enlightened “broaden-and-build” state of mind.

5 Elements of Well-being

According to Seligman, the goal of positive psychology is well being. Well-being is described as having the following five main elements.

  1. Positive emotion.  This one is self explanatory—It’s simply feeling good.
  2. Engagement. Also called “flow.”  Flow is when you feel one with your work.   It is also called “being in the zone,” and is characterized by losing all track of time. Those who achieve flow will say they have a strong purpose and a love for what they do.  Getting into the flow is best served by using our “Signature Strengths,” explained below.
  3. Meaning.  Having a purpose in life—this happens when we belong to or serve something that we think is bigger than ourselves.
  4. Accomplishment.  The mastery and achieving of goals for the sake of the accomplishment.  It involves grit, or stick-to-it-ness, which has been found to guide accomplishment even more than intelligence.  According to Seligman, studies show “self-discipline counts for twice as much variance as IQ” in accomplishment.
  5. Relationships.  Relationships bring a sense of community and a sense of connectedness to others.


What are Signature Strengths?  In the workplace, studies have shown that human strength—not the absence of weaknesses—are the keys to productivity, increased job satisfaction, and reduced turnover.  Signature strengths are our top innate strengths, and are likely the signature by which we are known. Examples of signature strengths are: perseverance, integrity, critical thinking, kindness, and ingenuity.  Feelings that might signify we are using a signature strength might include feeling like “this is the real me,” having a feeling of excitement when using that strength, or experiencing a sense of inevitability while using it.  When people capitalize on their signature strengths, they tend to be happier and more satisfied.  Gallup Studies have shown that companies whose employees are encouraged to use their strongest skills are the most successful.

The Growth of Positive Psychology:  Positive psychology is now making its way into many different fields, such as the Military, education, law, medicine, politics, engineering, the arts, and business.  Many universities offer courses in positive psychology, and several offer degrees specializing in positive psychology including the University of Pennsylvania, Claremont University, and the University of East London.  The University of Pennsylvania, where Seligman is currently the Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology and Director of the Positive Psychology Center, offers a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP degree).  60% of alumni with MAPP degrees return to their original area of work, spreading positive psychology into different fields.


A great example of positive psychology in the corporation is Zappos, international shoe and apparel eTailer. I am a big fan of Zappos, and according to Business Week and Forbes, they are one of the best places to work.  Tony Hsieh, CEO, used positive psychology to make Zappos such a wonderful place to be employed.

So how is selling shoes online meaningful?  For Hsieh, it’s not about shoes—it’s about delivering happiness to customers and employees. He delivers happiness to his customers in the form of amazing customer service. Zappos employees strive to deliver “Wow!” and are trusted to do the right thing with customers in regard to making decisions to please each customer. Uniquely, if you call Zappos, you will be talking to a person without scripts – they are trusted to use their best judgment to fulfill the charter for best customer service.  Zappos delivers an acclaimed culture and work environment to its employees.  Hsieh integrated elements of positive psychology into his culture and operationally in a way that is enviable.  Here’s a short peek into Zappos:

Working at Zappos feels purposeful. Delivering happiness is big and it’s bold. The company has values that are more than lip service or, as Hsieh puts it, not “just a plaque in the lobby” but values that have been operationally and culturally integrated.  Here are their values:

  1. Deliver WOW through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and a Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships with Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More with Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble


Social interaction is increased in many ways. For example, before employees can log into their computers in the morning, they must identify the “mystery employee” whose photo is displayed on their computer screens. Everyone gets to be that mystery employee at some time. In this way workers get to know the names and the faces other employees whom they may not meet otherwise. In addition, there is only one entrance at headquarters.  The other entrances in the building have been turned into emergency exits.  All employees entering through the same door greatly increases happenstance interactions between employees.
These are just a few of many Zappos examples.  I highly recommend reading, Delivering Happiness, A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, and checking out the The Zappos Family 2010 Culture Book (which you can order for free at from culturebook.org).

With the success of the book, Delivering Happiness has now evolved into its own company, with the sole purpose to grow a global movement to spread and inspire happiness at work, in communities and everyday life.

If you want to learn even more strategies to use for your own business, Zappos recently created a whole new branch of their organization, Zappos Insights and DH@work, which can be found at www.zapposinsights.com and deliveringhappiness.com.  Through these programs, they are sharing with the world the secret sauce that makes Zappos a great place to work, and ways other companies can successfully apply happiness as a business model.  Already, the program has helped many businesses, which report an increase in sales and morale almost immediately.

Happiness Myths

As much as we are learning about ways that we can be happier, we also have many beliefs regarding ways we can be happier that simply aren’t true.  Here are a few widespread myths about achieving happiness.

Getting the best will make me happy.

One of the most persistent myths of happiness is that getting the “best,” will make us happier.  Barry Schwartz, in his book The Paradox of Choice, points out that there are two types of decision makers—Satisficers (someone who attempts to meet a decision criteria for adequacy) and Maximizers.  Maximizers try to make the best decision every time—they look for the best mate, the best job, and so on. Satisficers make a decision once they satisfy their criteria.  They are satisfied if they find a restaurant that has the qualities they want, instead of searching for the #1 restaurant available.  But while Maximizers are paralyzed and can’t make a decision until they have thoroughly examined every option, Satisficers have eaten a delicious meal and are happily moving along to the next big thing.

More money will make me happy.

When we do not have enough money to pay the bills, we know and studies show our sense of well-being decreases.  But once bills are paid and there is a margin of disposable income, people in general (and those who are very wealthy) actually fare about the same on the happiness scale.  Clearly, money plays a serious role to the negative—that is, if we seriously lack money we are less happy—but it’s much less impactful to the positive.  A good example of this can be found in the behavior of lottery winners.  Studies have shown that their happiness spikes when they first win, but months later their happiness levels are similar to where they were prior to winning.  In other words, we tend to return to our usual happiness level in a matter of months regardless of the amount of winnings.

I will be happy as soon as I _________.

You fill in the blank.  I will be happy when I meet Mr. (or Ms.) Wonderful.  I will be happy when I make law partner.  I will be happy when I wear a size 4.  In Arrival Fantasy, Tal Ben-Shahar explains that the “arrival fallacy” is a fallacy because the arriving actually rarely makes you as happy as you expect.

Happiness Tips

Now for the nitty gritty.  How can you bring happiness to our company and to your culture?

  1. Find a larger purpose that your company can rally around.  Zappos isn’t simply selling shoes—they deliver happiness.
  2. Create an environment that inspires, and motivation will follow.  Build your culture and your brand around what stand for, and integrate it into your operations.  Take every opportunity to speak about your culture and brand within—and outside of—your company.  Then live it.  As one worker in an enviable work environment said, “I would have come in as a dishwasher to be in this environment.”  Now that’s inspiration.
  3. Foster a strong sense of community and a deep belief in your people.
  4. Hire for strengths—and screen for strengths during the recruitment process.
  5. Let employees be themselves as much as possible.
  6. Find ways to apply existing strengths in new ways. Move employees if necessary.
  7. Ask employees for ideas about positive changes. What do they want to do?  In what environment do they feel most comfortable and happy?  What ideas do they have for the company?  How can they bring the most value to the company?
  8. Read Tribal Leadership, Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization. Being part of a “tribe” and having a shared purpose—propelled by values across your company and employees—is big.  It helps strengthen relationships and fulfill the need to be part of something important.
  9. Have fun. Southwest Airline’s CEO and cofounder, Herb Kelleher, built a company where celebrations are a normal part of business. Southwest—in the meantime—grew revenue by almost 400% in the last decade.  Celebrations can be small, spontaneous, or all-out affairs.  In another Zappos example, it is commonplace for a department to have impromptu parades.  That may not be appropriate for every company’s culture, but adding more fun to your culture—in your own way—adds to positive feelings and camaraderie.
  10. Look for Positive Deviance. Find pockets of individual successes where a problem is being solved differently and employ more widely.
  11. Start all meetings positively. Ask managers and participants the three things that are going well in their departments.
  12. Use teamwork. In the past decade, business has seen large growth in productivity because of teamwork, which has taken larger hold in business.  This is primarily driven by the technology business that requires teams at every stage of development.  This shift has been followed by many other business sectors, as well. When working in teams, weaknesses do not matter nearly as much as they do when someone is working as an individual because the team can still function effectively.  Also, working in teams makes people happy.
  13. Be more positive than negative. Sure, there are negative things we need to focus on, but change the ratio.  Several recent studies have shown that negative occurrences are more powerful than positive.  You need to outnumber the “bad” with the “good.”  Marcial Losada calculated that the tipping point need for positive feelings and experiences is 2.9013 positive interactions/occurrences for every negative one, coined the “Losada Line.” And, for workgroups, the research shows that a ratio of 6 to 1 is where teams produce their very best work.  You don’t have to ignore the negative, but remembering to note the positive will shift morale.
  14. Give employees chances to succeed and achieve. Consider followings Zappo’s lead on this one.  They used to promote their merchandise assistants to assistant buyers every 18 months, as long as they met all the requirements to qualify.  Currently, after gaining more understanding of human nature, they give smaller promotions every six months with a large promotion occurring at the 18-month mark.  The result is the same in terms of training, certification, and pay, but employees are happier because there have an ongoing sense of progress.

Still Unconvinced?  Here’s More Science.

Happiness can actually be seen—in the form of brain-scanning technology, which has confirmed the effect of positive psychology exercises in studies.

“The adage that we become what we think is more than an expression – it’s a scientific fact,” says Kristi Hedges, leadership coach and author, Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others.  Hedges explains that neuroscience has shown that what we consistently think creates synaptic connections that become a veritable path of least resistance in the brain. This has tremendous implications for people, and deserves to be taken seriously and developed strategically.  There’s even an entire field dubbed neuroleadership that’s emerged.

In Hedges’ book, she discusses that in the corporate world we have tended to delegitimize positive conceptualization or self-talk as a New Age indulgence. But think of athletes. We admire their ability to visualize a successful outcome and to mentally propel themselves to achieve. The reason positive thinking works for them is the reason it works for all of us. If we think we can win, we’ll embody that thought and change our actions. And each time we are actually creating neural pathways and eventually, with repetition, they become the path of least resistance.

The trick for changing your brain, and subsequent behavior, is to approach positive thoughts with focus and deliberation. For most of us, this requires structural changes and systems to keep the ideas top of mind. This can be as simple as scheduling five minutes each morning to reflect on the tone you want to set for your day, or as involved as meeting with a coach or mentor regularly. Feedback can be a valuable catalyst to test and refine a person’s thinking.

Need a Bit of Help to Get Going?

Leadership is critical to a positive work environment and is essential to bringing out the strengths of the workforce.  If you want a jumpstart, you may consider getting some outside expertise.  There are many good coaching and consulting companies that are specifically trained to help you or your employees increase happiness and shift culture. Coaches who are trained in such things can often facilitate change more quickly.

Local Washington DC Coach/Trainer, Shannon Polly, a graduate of the MAPP program at the University of Pennsylvania, offers a suite of workshops for companies to achieve optimal performance using positive psychology techniques.   One workshop Polly led for Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort and Spa incorporated the strengths research of Dr. Martin Seligman and Dr. Chris Peterson, as well as Appreciative Inquiry (AI), which is a change management technique created by Dr. David Cooperrider in the 1980s.  The workshop for the Westin Savannah had 100 employees for a day, and the process guided attendees to discover their strengths so they could leverage them and envision the future they wanted to create.  The hotel manager was amazed at the level of engagement from the part-time employees, especially.

Finding a coach/consultant that can have such an effect on your business is not difficult.  Search online or use the International Coach Federation’s referral service of credentialed coaches at coachfederation.org.  And, Of course, Kristi Hedges and Shannon Polly, mentioned above, are also local DC coaches.   Either way, good luck on your path to delivering happiness and increasing your company’s success.

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