The Science of Workplace Happiness

Putting science and psychology to use in a lackluster economy.

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Over the past several years, Richard Davidson has peered into the minds of monks, pored over brain scans, analyzed neural proc­esses, and maybe—just maybe—discovered some of the keys to manufacturing happiness.

Davidson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is part of a budding group of researchers who are trying to figure out what makes people happy and how those feelings can be created and sustained. This field of study—which is equal parts science and psychology, with a hint of motivational speaking thrown in—is hardly new, but it has taken on growing importance as the sour job market continues to weigh on the psyches of American workers.

[See Why the Unemployment Rate Refuses to Budge.]

Although the recession is officially over, labor statistics are giving workers very little to be happy about. Specifically, as unemployment rates hover around 10 percent, finding work is perhaps as difficult as ever. Meanwhile, even for Americans with jobs, the lackluster economy has put a damper on upward and even lateral movement, leaving many workers feeling trapped in their current positions.

A disgruntled workforce? Quantifying the emotional toll of the murky employment outlook is a tricky proposition. In fact, by some measures, workers are quite content. A Gallup poll from earlier this year, for instance, showed that 70 percent of employed Americans have what they consider to be their "ideal" job.

[See America's Best Careers for 2010.]

But as is often the case in matters of human emotions, the numbers are anything but consistent. For example, a recent study by the Conference Board, a business research group, indicated that just 45 percent of American workers are "satisfied" with their jobs. For its part, Gallup has found that disengaged employees cost the U.S. economy somewhere in the neighborhood of $416 billion last year, primarily through lost productivity.

It's because of numbers like these that some experts think the American workforce could benefit from a trip to Freud's couch. "We can develop [happiness] in people, and that's what they need right now," says Fred Luthans, a professor of management at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

But how? That's a question that philosophers have been struggling with for centuries. Still, contemporary research suggests that boosting happiness levels is not as hard as it may seem. Notably, experts suggest that dissatisfied workers should make a number of minor changes.

Examples include finding quiet time at the office, creating a list of good things that have happened, and thinking about work as a "calling" rather than merely a "job."

"What's interesting is that people in all kinds of jobs can see them as a calling. So it's not just for artists and neurosurgeons," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California–Riverside.

Workers can also get results by setting goals, building better relationships with coworkers, or taking small breaks for coffee or to listen to music. "Very small changes at work can lead to significant consequences. In other words, we don't need to reprogram our entire day," says Tal Ben-Shahar, a lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center, an Israeli college located in the city of Herzliya.

The premise behind these tips is that the human brain can be trained to feel happy. In one experiment, Davidson compared brain scans of Buddhist monks with those of novice meditators. At the time of the scans, both groups were engaged in compassion meditation, and yet the monks registered greater activity in the left prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with happiness, than did the novices. This finding, like others in the field, suggests that certain practices can, through repetition, nurture positive emotions. "These are plastic brain functions," says Davidson.

Unsurprisingly, researchers have also linked increased levels of happiness to better-functioning immune systems and to decreased amounts of stress. "Positive emotions can serve as antidotes to negative emotions. So learning how to increase the levels of positive emotion in your life can actually make you feel less stressed, more resilient, less angry, less anxious," says Lyubomirsky.