Authentic happiness conributes to business success

One of the best books of the past year is Authentic Happiness by Martin E.P. Seligman. Read it and be happy. In fact, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for every manager to buy it for his or her employees. It will pay off in performance.

When I first began consulting in manufacturing plants in the 1970’s management was dominated by, not just men, but by genuinely tough men – men’s men. To rise through the management ranks from the shop floor to senior management at J.P Stevens & Company, Cannon Mills or Millikan & Company, no wimps need apply.

When I was consulting with Continental Can Company, at which long battles between the company and the Steelworkers and Machinists Union had hardened everyone, to the point that managers glared at each other. Someone pointed out to me that the CCC managers had “gunslinger eyes” and they would sit around a table at lunch with their hands under the table, out of site, and then suddenly draw and point, getting someone by attacking what they had said. This may sound absurd now, but it was the norm of American manufacturing culture and it is one of the reasons for the decline of manufacturing in this country.

These were not happy places to work. I once interviewed a Vice President, the only woman member of a twelve person senior management team, and I asked her about the “glass ceiling” that might prevent women from rising to senior management. She immediately responded, much to my surprise, that there was no glass ceiling. She said women were promoted. But, when they got there, the environment was so anti-social, so unfriendly, that they couldn’t understand why anyone would want to be there, and they left.

In the past, the idea that we had any burden to create “happiness” at work would have been viewed as some socialistic absurdity. But now there is very good evidence, hard data, that suggests that people who are “authentically happy” perform better than those who are not. Authentic happiness is not simple pleasure. Eating ice cream brings pleasure, but sitting around all day eating ice cream does not make you authentically happy. It will soon make you miserable. Similarly, the data shows that an increase in income from $20,000 a year to $40,000 a year will make you happy because you may be able to afford a better home, care for your children, etc. But, does an increase in salary from one million to two million, or ten million, make you any happier? Very unlikely.

Martin Seligman is the founder of what is now called “Positive Psychology”, essentially the study of mental and emotional wellness. He says that there are three domains of happiness, each of which can be measured.

The first is The Pleasant Life: which he says is “Having as much positive emotion as possible and learning the skills to amplify the intensity and duration of your pleasures. But the capacity for positive emotion turns out to have a genetic set range that is hard to push around: lottery winners and paraplegics revert to their usual level of good cheer or grumpiness within a year following the event that changed their lives.” In other words, there isn’t much you can do about your capacity for this type of positive emotion.

The second type is The Engaged Life: “Being “one with the music,” absorbed and immersed in your work, love, friendship and leisure. The central skill to have more engagement is to identify your signature strengths and virtues and re-craft your life to use them more often. By deploying your highest strengths and talents, you can have more intense absorption in more areas of your life.”

Over the years, and this may sound a bit silly, I have believed that the work we have done in setting top-to-bottom systems of team management in which every employee takes ownership of his or her work processes, communicates with customers, plots data, and is empowered to make decisions, has made employees and managers happier. It just felt this way. And, this always went along with improvements in performance. Seligman’s work helps understand this connection between management systems, psychological engagement, and productive workplaces.

And the third is The Meaningful Life: Seligman says that this “Adds one more element, transcending the self, to the engaged life: The central skill is to identify your signature strengths and virtues and using them to belong to and to serve something that you believe is larger than you are.”

There is good data suggesting that people who are religious, who have a strong set of values and beliefs, are happier than those who do not. Meaning matters. Purpose matters. Serving something that you believe is larger than yourself is the essence of all religion and is a cornerstone of the spiritual enterprise.

One of the most useful areas of research (if I were advising you management or psychology students) is how the processes, systems, and culture of organization can be structured to reinforce these three attributes of authentic happiness.

Visit Seligman’s website and take his happiness test. You will find it interesting.