The Happiness Advantage

The Happiness Advantage

In many instances safety articles are aimed at the safety professionals. However, it is important for leaders to take responsibility for the safety of their teams when driving for desired safety cultures and maturity levels

Despite what we may at first expect, well-being is not directly related to socioeconomic status, gender, race, or level of income or education. So, the young administrative assistant cycling to work in their old tennis shoes may be as happy as the business leader driving to the office in her top of the range BMW and Christian Louboutin heels.

The desire to improve our well-being has grown immensely and in recent years the meteoric rise of self-help and personal-improvement books, apps, online forums and blogs certainly serves to underline this and fuel a constant loop of generating interest and providing satisfaction

With the surge in interest, the definition of the term well-being has also become easier, with both the self-development authors and the social sciences moving to define the previously hard-to-classify term of “subjective well-being” with more clarity. Nowadays, well-being is about “feeling good”, or perhaps in one word: “happiness”.

The heritability of happiness

The pursuit of happiness seems to intrigue psychologists as much as it intrigues journalists, Hollywood film makers and society at large. Research suggests that we may be born “happy” – inheriting our cheerfulness and subjective well-being from our parents.

According to recent studies, we are all born with a level of happiness, known as the hedonic set-point. Fortunately, for most of us, our set-points are usually above zero, in other words on the happy side of neutral.

In a study of subjective well-being in more than 2 300 individuals, social psychologists David Lykken and Auke Tellegen at the University of Minnesota, found that almost
90 percent rated themselves to have high levels of subjective well-being and long-term happiness.

It could well be, then, that as we human beings have evolved those of our forebears who were grouchy or miserable fared less well in the “struggle for survival” and had less luck in the mating game, leading the researchers to suggest that mankind has evolved a bias towards positive well-being simply through the process of natural selection.

Even for those in the minority, who didn’t inherit the happiness gene, their personality may have already taken over to generate a higher level of well-being.

Several cross-sectional studies have shown that well-being is strongly related to the Five-Factor Model (FFM) of personality, especially the factors of neuroticism, extraversion, and conscientiousness.

As many pre-hire personality profiling exercises utilise the FFM, this may offer the potential to screen for “happier employees” – but caution is needed as, typically, they offer only a snapshot at a single point in time.

While subjective well-being is not entirely subsumed by personality, the two constructs have been reliably correlated by the research for more than 20 years now. Elements such as coping styles, emotional intelligence, sociability and conflict-resolution skills have all been strongly linked to helping us feel happier for longer.

Satisfaction guaranteed?

A meta-analysis of 99 cross-sectional and longitudinal studies revealed that happy people are more satisfied with their jobs. They perform better on assigned tasks than less happy peers and are more likely to take on extra role tasks such as helping others.

If, from a commercial perspective, the prospect of gaining discretional work activity from employees is not quite enough of a motivator, the study also concluded that happy people are less likely to exhibit withdrawal behaviour such as absenteeism.

The Institute of People and Performance suggests that happier people are:

• forty-seven times more productive than their least-happy colleagues;

•set themselves higher work goals;

•work with 25-percent more efficiency and effectiveness; and

•contribute a day and a quarter more every week than those unhappy workers.

Gallup’s Employee Engagement Index explores employees’ attitudes to work and their well-being and reveals that engaged employees feel more emotionally connected to and involved in their work activities. These employees smile and laugh more, experience more enjoyment in life and experience less negative feelings such as worry and anger.

By contrast, those who are not emotionally connected to their workplace are less likely to invest discretionary effort, and those who are “actively disengaged” are not just emotionally disconnected, but also jeopardise the work of those around them – and, in fact, are less happy and have poorer levels of mental health than those people who are unemployed.

However, that’s not all – disengaged employees have fewer happy days at work, and also suffer worse weekends than their colleagues. This could be due to negative work-related emotions drifting over into leisure time and family life.

It’s feasible to expect that such elongation of negative emotion, coupled with the lack of respite typically afforded by the weekend, may produce harmful effects on long-term health.

Increasing engagement seems to improve the subjective well-being of employees. In turn, improved well-being has been shown by other studies to enhance work performance and play a causal role in the achievement of positive outcomes and goal attainment.

So, by engaging our employees fully in the workplace, we can maximise opportunities to improve their health, happiness and personal success, while at the same time boosting business productivity.

The cause of happiness

Having what the positive psychology movement calls the “Happiness Advantage”, or an optimistic, positive mindset, has also been shown to help doctors improve the speed and accuracy of diagnosis by almost 20 percent, raise the hit-rate of salesmen by over 37 percent, increase the productivity and job satisfaction of office workers by more than 30 percent, boost creativity and build resilience.

Happy feelings occur when the chemical dopamine floods our system, switching on the learning centres in our brain, generating feelings of being alive and outwardly exhibiting signs of happiness.

While it’s not quite as easy as instructing those around us to “get positive”, there are four simple actions that have proved to be highly successful in helping us attain that happiness advantage:

• Being thankful – identifying three things for which to say “thank you”;

• Exercise – the heart rate is raised through short-duration moderate exercise. Ten minutes of activity such as jogging, body weight exercises like press ups or sit ups, or even walking at a fast pace are all sufficient;

• Meditation – cultivating a sense of openness or a “growth mindset” through self-guided or instructor-led meditation;

• Random acts of kindness – simple expressions of altruism, including opening a door for someone, allowing the car ahead to exit the junction, or bringing a colleague a coffee, all count.

Of course, there’s a catch. Just engaging in one of these four actions in itself is not sufficient. The scientists behind this research agree that in order to rewire the brain and gain the advantage, we need to stick with the chosen new actions for a period of least 21 days. At this point, the actions turn into habits and start to elevate the dopamine levels, bring smiles to our faces and happiness to our hearts.

The benefits of happiness don’t just end with improved well-being. A study, conducted by American strategy consultants the Reliability Group in 2010, identified the most common underlying causes of safety accidents. Perhaps surprisingly, cheerfulness of the workplace; levels of stress experienced; and job satisfaction all ranked within the top ten.

The sound of music

Psychologist Dan Gilbert suggests that all humans have a “psychological immune system” that helps us feel better and “synthesise” happiness. Listening to our favourite music has been a popular way to relax and unwind after a hard day, but researchers at Serbia’s University of Nis have found that listening to music releases hormones which causes the synthesis referred to by Gilbert.

The researchers also found that listening to music was effective in improving health, as “when we listen to music that we like, endorphins are released from the brain and this improves our vascular health”.

To test their hypotheses, 74 patients with cardiac disease were split into three groups. Group A was given an exercise routine to follow for three weeks. Group B followed the same exercise routine, but, in addition, were instructed to listen to their favourite music for 30 minutes every day. Group C only listened to music, and did not participate in exercise.

At the end of the programme, participants in Group A were found to have boosted vital measures of heart functionality significantly and increased their capacity for exercise by 29 percent.

The participants in Group B were observed to have increased their exercise capacity by 39 percent. Curiously, even Group C, who did not undertake any exercise, improved their exercise capacity by 19 percent.

While the study was conducted using patients already suffering from heart disease, the research team is confident that the findings are relevant to wider society, based on established knowledge that tells us that regular exercise is good for improving coronary health in healthy adults.

While the conclusions offer an interesting perspective for the enhancement of well-being, their findings are not exactly new. Around 2 800 years ago, simple musical patterns were found to improve the physical performance of Olympic athletes by around 15 percent. Since then, our fascination with the science of music and its benefit to our well-being has continued.

Reactions to music are perhaps considered broadly as subjective, but a multitude of clinical studies reveal that cardiorespiratory variables are strongly influenced by music under a range of circumstances.

Music has been found to have a positive influence on those suffering from depression. It has also been shown to reduce hypertension, improve sleep quality, reduce heart rate and blood pressure and improve respiratory volumes.

So, if adding music to the range of workplace well-being interventions seems like the way forward, what should we be playing? The research team suggests that some genres of music are less effective – such as heavy metal, which is found to raise stress levels – while opera, classical and other kinds of “joyful” sounds were more likely to stimulate endorphins in the brain.

Researchers observed that music without lyrics was the most effective in creating happiness, because music with words “can upset the emotions”, Classical music had proportionately greater positive impact than any other genre, and researches identified specific musical instruments, including the organ, piano, flute, guitar, harp and saxophone, that were all effective at getting the endorphins flowing.

So, it’s time to pop another dime in the jukebox and bring the benefit of the sound of music to the workplace. The top-five tunes that have been scientifically proven to boost happiness and improve our well-being:

1.Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number 3

2.Verdi’s Va Pensiero

3.Puchini’s Turandot

4.Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

5.Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

So, will it be beta-blockers or Bach, pills or Puccini, surveillance or symphonies, counselling or classics? Perhaps it’s time to take a step back and look at alternatives to your well-being interventions.


Sharman on Safety is based on ideas and concepts from Andrew Sharman’s new book: From Accidents to Zero: a practical guide to improving your workplace safety culture. Andrew is an international member of the South African Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (SAIOSH) and the Chief Executive of RMS – consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. More at

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