Can you train people to be happier at work? |

Can you train people to be happier at work?

Main points: 

The conventional thinking on happiness is that if you work hard, you’ll be successful and by being successful, you’ll become happier.
When our brains are primed to be positive, we perform better than when we’re in a negative or neutral state.
It is possible to imprint the brain with a positive pattern by creating a series of habits and mindset changes.

Can employees learn to be happy? Martin Addison says four daily habits can bring about a more positive mindset.


People who are happy and have meaning in their lives are not only more productive and more resilient at work, they take less sick days, they perform better in leadership roles and they receive higher pay. So says Shawn Achor, who lectured on positive psychology for 12 years at Harvard University.

This is great news for those for whom positivity comes naturally. But what about the rest of us? Can we really learn to become happier at work? According to Achor, yes we can, if we change the way we think about work, success and happiness.

"Being happy at work isn’t easy. This is partly because we all have patterns through which we view the world and we get stuck in these."

The conventional thinking on happiness is that if you work hard, you’ll be successful and by being successful, you’ll become happier. The problem with this is that every time we’re successful, we change the goalposts of what success looks like. If we hit our sales target for the last quarter, we change the target for next quarter. If our happiness depends on our success, we’re constantly making it harder to achieve.

Achor’s research shows that our brains actually work the other way around. Happiness fuels success. When our brains are primed to be positive, we perform better than when we’re in a negative or neutral state and our work becomes more enjoyable and rewarding. Achor calls this the Happiness Advantage.

However, being happy at work isn’t easy. This is partly because we all have patterns through which we view the world and we get stuck in these. For example, a tax manager who spends all day looking for mistakes in tax forms is more likely to come home and unwittingly notice what’s wrong in his home life. He’s primed to look for mistakes and he can’t break that pattern.

Habits and mindset changes

The learning point that needs to be delivered in organisations is that it is possible to imprint the brain with a positive pattern by creating a series of habits and mindset changes. By encouraging employees to change the way they think about work, L&D teams can help people to increase their happiness.

For example, you could train people to prime their brains to be happier at work by encouraging them to:

1. Create the habit of gratitude. Get them to write down three new things each day that they are grateful for. Make these things specific. If you spend two minutes a day doing this, your brain becomes slightly happier. Try doing it for 21 consecutive days. The more you think of things you’re grateful for, the less time you have for thinking about hassles and complaints.

2. Exercise. Many people know that exercise releases positive endorphins and that when you exercise, you’re more likely to eat healthier. If you could exercise daily for 21 days in a row, the benefits would cascade into other areas of your life.

3. Reduce multitasking. Our brains like to do one thing at a time. When we attempt to multitask, we decrease our success rate on those tasks. To be happier and more productive at work, people should try to do one thing at a time.

4. Perform conscious acts of kindness. Altruism is a great way to feel good about yourself. Thinking of how you can help someone else changes how you see the world - from how is the world affecting me to how can I affect the world? It may seem a small change but this is very important. Train employees to find positive things that they can do for - or say to - other people.

These are just four suggestions. You can probably think of other habits that would help people to feel more positive if they were introduced on a daily basis.

Ripple effect

Interestingly, when we see someone smile, we smile too. Likewise when we see someone yawn. It’s called the ripple effect and you see it in all facets of life. Shawn Achor claims this is relevant to happiness because emotions get transferred between people in the same way. Put three people into a room and two of them will leave with the emotions of the one who was the most expressive. Feelings of stress, anxiety and uncertainty - or of happiness - can therefore be spread from one person to another.

This is why negativity can spread like wildfire in a company. However, so too can positivity. To create a positive ripple effect, train your managers to be expressive. Non-verbally they should smile and make eye contact with others. Verbally, they should give praise, thanks or positive feedback to others, so that people know when they’ve done a good job.

Expressing positivity will increase the positivity of those around them so that it starts to spread across the organisation. Also, managers should give employees flexibility and control over their work, rather than trying to micro manage each and every task.

The L&D challenge is to encourage people to change their thinking and to start practising positivity. So, spread a little happiness throughout your organisation and create a lasting competitive advantage.



Martin Addison is CEO of Video Arts, the video training, m-learning and e-learning company. He can be contacted via Click here for a free preview of Shawn Achor’s new video-based training resource on the Happiness Advantage.


peterramsden's picture

Loved reading your thoughts on the link between happiness and success.

Also some great suggestions on how to put oneself in the right frame of mind and therefore increase ones chances of being happy and succesful.


Peter Ramsden

Paramount Learning


humandynamics's picture

Great article from Martin - We met in brief a few years back if you recall with Dr Mark Brown of the Dinosaur Strain fame.

Here's my take on the happiness movement for comparison.  It reminds us of some old, forgotten but valid truths about making work an enjoyable experience.  This system does not allow pdfs to be loaded so if you want the chapter on happiness / well bring at work get in touch Martin's picture

Martin highlights 4 excellent points from Shawn Anchor's 'The Happiness Advantage'.

I'm not sure that companies can train their people to be 'happy', nor do I think it is their responsibility.

What is their responsibility - and what is clearly commercially advantageous - is to be aware of the research around the whole 'Happiness phenomena' and the 'Positive Psychology' agenda and build key elements of that into their 'Culture'.

An appreciation of that CAN be included in leadership and management training programmes and be reinforced through appropriate skill and attitude development so that the corporate culture is impacted positively.

If you have not yet seen Shawn Anchor's teasing intro to his book and other resources check out this 3 minute trailer video


Great piece, Martin. Good practical steps to help people be happier - and they work.

Separate but linked is what managers can do to create happier workplaces. By stepping out of micromanagement, and giving people trust and freedom they can transform people's work experience. Indeed those organisations that focus their managmeent on making people feel good and creating great workplaces (and there are some that do) show this is probably the best way to create a more effective organisation - as well as one that people enjoy working for.

My Happy Manifesto on this is about to be published. To download it for free, go to: 




russlater's picture

a very interesting article and timely given that another TZer is just about to publish a book about Martin's #1 habit; gratitude

coming at it from another angle is my own little offering on "Dealing with Negative People"

Part of the problem is that "Work is a four letter word" and too many managers believe that if their people are happy then they aren't working hard enough!


peterahunter's picture

Happiness is an intangible reaction to the environment in which we find ourselves.

We become happy, or not, as a reaction to that environment.

While we cannot train people to be happy or otherwise we can take responsibility for creating the environment in which they work. Their reaction to that environment is either to be happy or not.

If our workforce is unhappy we can choose to try some brainwashing techniques to force them to appear happy when clearly they are not, or we can accept that the environment management have created for them is what is making them unhappy.

If we get rid of the things that make them unhappy then the result is that they will become happy.

When 95% of the people who leave their jobs in the US do so because of the way they have been treated by their managers it is no surprise that the greatest cause of unhappiness is the behaviour of managers.

Stop trying to blame the workforce for being unhappy, it is their perfectly natural reaction to the toxic environment in which they work.

Managers are responsible for creating that environment with their behaviour.

To make people happier, just stop annoying them. 

 Peter A Hunter

For the most part I agree with Peter's sentiments but there is a mix of toxic and non-toxic environments out there and everything in between and for all sorts of reasons.  Within any of them there are some people who won't be happy whatever you do for them and others who will like coming to work purely because they are simply acknowledged as a person.

The salient point is that many "managers" spend too much time managing and not enough time leading, thereby encouraging and empowering people to self-manage and articulate their ideas for improvement.  Just talking with them about why their job is important and how it contributes to success also works wonders, but only if its genuine.

Sandaion's picture

'Happiness training' sounds a bit like parenting courses - it won't necessarily make you a better parent or a happier person, but it can teach you some coping mechanisms.  There is the danger, as Peter commented, that companies end up blaming their employees for not displaying 'happy behaviours', that it becomes just one more box to be ticked or measured against.  Besides, definitions and displays of happiness can vary: a small smile or simply a quiet lunch in the park away from your colleagues can be as indicative of happiness as more exhuberant displays.

martin addison's picture

Thanks for all the comments.

Richard flagged up the Shawn Achor title 'The happiness advantage' which you can see in full on our website:

janem's picture

Thanks for starting a really interesting thread, Martin.  I'm interested to read in your original article and subsequent responses the references to the brain.  There is an interesting angle coming from the neuroscience / neuroleadership camp related to how the brain reacts when social needs are being met or undermined.  David Rock created the SCARF mnemonic to capture these needs which trigger either helpful brain chemicals / reactions or the opposite.  Our ability to be happy, solve problems, be productive, get on well with colleagues and stay healthy depend to a great degree on these needs being met.  You can download a copy of David's article on SCARF here

From conversations I've had with others, it seems that the more that managers/leaders understand the nature and impact of social needs, then the more they can think about how their own behaviour affects human performance.  Similarly, as individuals understand more about their own social needs, the better able they are to take action to find ways to ensure these needs are met - and therefore be happier (and more successful).

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