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24th July 2014

Psychology of Happiness

Shelly Rubinstein, Managing Director of Impact Consulting recently gave a talk to The Fed, a health and social care charity based in Manchester, on the Psychology of Happiness and how volunteers can get as much out of the experience as the people they support.

What is Happiness?

Happiness is defined as a mental or emotional state of well-being which is characterised by positive or pleasant emotions. Although happiness is not a stable or static state, there is thought to be a genetic base-rate of happiness which is a range that people seem to consistently return to. Despite there being evidence for a base-rate, which varies between individuals and is not controllable, this only accounts for around 50% of variability in happiness and research has shown that personal happiness and feelings of contentment can be increased in a number of ways.

What Makes Us Happy?

There are generally considered to be three main things which make people happy;

• Close relationships with family and friends
• A job or past-time which they enjoy
• Helping other people

Research by Diener and Seligman showed that the most salient characteristics of those who reported the highest levels of happiness in their sample were close links to family and friends and a commitment to spending time with them. This highlights the importance of placing emphasis on social skills, forming close interpersonal relationships and having good social support in order to increase happiness.

Helping people has also been shown to increase happiness. ‘Helper’s High’ refers to the euphoric emotions which are released after a person performs a good deed for someone else. This euphoric feeling is caused by a release of dopamine and oxytocin which cause a boost in mood. Research into ‘Helper’s High’ found that, in people who spend a few hours a week doing voluntary work, 96% reported feeling happier and 73% reported feeling less stressed.

The same pattern of results is found in people who engage in a daily act of kindness for someone else. Just by committing to one act of kindness a day for ten days, people reported a significantly higher level of happiness than before the ten days. These results highlight the importance of giving to other people in making us happy.

Ways to Increase Happiness

As well as helping others and spending quality time with family and friends, another important factor which has been seen to be associated with happiness is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the process of focusing attention in the present moment rather than spending time thinking about the past and ruminating or focusing on the future and hypothetical situations which may cause anxiety. Mindfulness is linked to greater psychological well-being and those who score highly on mindfulness scales have been seen to show lower levels of anxiety, depression and negative affect and higher levels of pleasant affect, vitality, life satisfaction, self-esteem and optimism. Importantly, mindfulness can be practised in order to increase psychological well-being and feelings of happiness.

Another way which has been shown to increase levels of happiness is keeping a gratitude journal. By writing things down that they are grateful for and appreciate, people are encouraged to consciously think about everything that they have to be thankful for rather than overlooking everyday reasons to be happy. Gratitude is linked with optimism and keeping gratitude journals has been shown to increase ratings of life satisfaction, when used over a period of a few weeks.

Well-being at Work

Healthy and motivated employees who are happy at work can have a positive effect on the productivity and effectiveness of an organisation. Happy employees have been shown to save the organisation money by being less likely to go off sick and more likely to remain in the organisation. They also show good customer service, go the extra mile and show greater commitment and creativity as well as happiness acting as a buffer to the effects of stress and therefore reducing the risk of burnout. Happy employees are also good for productivity due to being more engaged, motivated, innovative and working better in teams.

Studies have shown that work itself is generally good for health and happiness due to increasing self-esteem, companionship and status. However, there are other factors which increase happiness and wellbeing at work and these include;

• Leaders who help employees to see where they fit the bigger picture of the organisation
• Line managers who respect, develop and reward staff
• Employees feeling that the organisation listens to their views and concerns
• A feeling of trust and shared values.

Environmental factors also impact on employee happiness and well-being such as noise levels, equipment design and seating comfort and also office setups which allow for face-to-face communication.

Employee happiness has important implications for absenteeism, turnover and productivity, as well as the health and wellbeing of employees and should therefore be an issue that organisations take seriously.