“Reality isn’t a particularly good guide to happiness…”
I have lifted the title for this week’s post from Rory Sutherland’s TedTalk (below) in which he makes an eloquent and persuasive case for how we need to recognise that the way we choose to see and think about things – and then what we say about them – matters far more than the things themselves.
Here are the key principles that Sutherland wants us to accept and work from:
More and more studies are reiterating this same principle that how we frame things fundamentally affects what we make happen, as much as it does what ‘actually’ happens to us. This is now core to the intelligence coming from a growing agreement across the combined research fields including neuroscience, positive psychology, genetics, psycholinguistics and behavioural economics.
For example, new research in psychology and neuroscience shows that we become more successful when we are happier and more positive. Doctors put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis show almost 3 times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state, and they make accurate diagnoses 19% faster. Optimistic salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56%. Students primed to feel happy before taking a maths exam far outperform their neutral peers. It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are in positive.
The old formula is broken and waiting to happy actually limits our brain’s potential for success – whereas cultivating positive brains makes us more resilient, creative and productive…
A leading expert in this research is psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, who has found that positive emotions broaden our visual focus, our thoughts and our behaviour. This makes our thinking more creative, inclusive, flexible and integrative. Experiments have shown that inducing a positive mood (e.g. by showing participants a funny movie or reading them a funny story) increases our scope of attention, our abilities to solve problems accurately, and our interest in socialising and in strenuous and leisurely activities. By feeling more positive we change the way we perceive things, broadening our focus and beneficially affecting our physical health, our relationships, our creativity, our ability to acquire new knowledge and our psychological resilience.
Making our best mental maps
We see the world through the mental maps we make of it and most of what we see depends less on what is there and far more on what we expect to see.
On every mental map after crisis or adversity we always have a choice of three possible mental paths:
One that circles us around and around where we are now and keeps us stuck, seeing only the narrowest view on the problem: “Nothing will ever change – there’s nothing I can do and I will never get out of this”
A second path expects to see even worse things and greater disaster still to come: “It’s just going to get worse and worse no matter what I do.”
The third path is the one that will start to lead us away from our problems to a better place: “This moment will pass, it will get better eventually, and there will be things that I can do to improve things if I look for them.” In its best form, we go further still to look for what we might need or be able to learn as a result of getting ourselves back up again: “There must be a way I can use this to learn and grow from somehow…”
Our perspective on what happens to us has also been studied by psychologists like Martin Seligman, who have found that pessimists and optimists have very different explanatory styles (the ways they explain bad and good events to themselves and to others.) Optimists tend to respond to adverse events by viewing the consequences as temporary and limited in scope – “It could be worse and it will get better” – and they favour words such as “sometimes” or “lately.” Optimists tend to have an internal locus of control – the belief that they can influence events in their lives and what happens to them is largely done to what they, themselves, do or don’t do, unlike pessimists who tend to be much more fatalistic, seeing control as largely outside themselves and their own influence. And studies are now showing repeatedly that optimists get much better outcomes: by expecting to get good results we get more of them.
A famously extreme test of the power of how we choose to perceive things is told by holocaust survivor and neuroscientist, Viktor Frankl In his classic book, Man’s Search For Meaning. He was able to deliberately shift the way his awful reality seemed by shifting his ways of thinking about it, including using his humour as…
“another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humour, more than anything else in the human makeup can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if for just a few seconds.”
For Frankl, humour provided a life-saving means to gain perspective. And with perspective comes the capacity to reappraise and generate alternative approaches and solutions to problems. Like other positive emotions, humour tends to broaden our focus of attention and thereby foster more exploration, creativity and flexibility in our thinking.
Humour manages to present positive and negative wrapped together into one package, combining “optimism with a realistic look at the tragic.” Consider director and screenwriter Woody Allen musing on mortality:
“I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Or the classic exchange:
“Does it hurt?”
“Only when I laugh.”
“What one person expects of another can come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Take, too, The Pygmalion Effect, the phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform, named after the myth that tells of the sculptor, Pygmalion, who came to so love the sculpture he was carving, that he was able to breathe her into becoming the living breathing Galatea, a real woman who lived with him for the rest of his life.
Social psychologist Robert Rosenthal and his co-author, school principal Lenore Jacobson coined the term ‘The Pygmalion Effect’ to describe the striking results of an experiment they carried out in a California school in 1965. Students took a test and then teachers were given the names of those identified as “growth spurters” – students who were poised to make great strides academically. And sure enough, these students showed a significantly greater gain in performance over their classmates when tested again at the end of the year.
But here’s the thing: the “growth spurters” were actually chosen at random. The only difference between them and their peers, Rosenthal writes, “was in the mind of the teacher.” And yet the expectations held in the mind of the teacher — or the parent, or the manager, or the colleague — were everything needed to make an enormous difference.
Research conducted since Rosenthal and Jacobson’s original study has determined that the Pygmalion Effect applies to all kinds of settings, from sports teams to the military to the corporate workplace. Here are four different behaviours we can each draw from to create our own Pygmalion Effect…
- We give more warmth to people we regard as high-potential, through non-verbal signals: a nod, an encouraging smile, a “tell me more…” interest.
- We communicate more, and more complex ideas, to people we see as especially promising.
- To people we see as up-and-coming, we give more opportunities to contribute, including additional time to respond to questions.
- With people we see as “special” we offer more personalised feedback and more detailed information than just a generic “Well done.”
It can be difficult to deliberately change our expectations of others. But we can consciously change our behaviour, and, as great teachers know, by incorporating these approaches into more of our interactions, we act as if the people we are with have great potential — potential that they will then more than likely live up to.
“The circumstances of our lives matter less than the sense of control we feel we have over our circumstances…”
Several studies have now found that our IQ – what you know – predicts – at most – only 25% of our success at work. The remaining 75% of our job success is predicted by our level of optimism, the social support we have, and our ability see stress as a challenge rather than a threat.
In other words the way we think about things and the ways we respond to the situations and circumstances we find ourselves in is what makes the largest amount of difference.
The circumstances of our lives may matter less than how we see them, says Rory Sutherland. At TEDxAthens, he makes a compelling case for how reframing is the key to happiness.
In this talk, Rory Sutherland, ‘advertising guru’ and Vice Chairman of the Ogilvy Group, argues that we need to rebalance our previously asymmetrical precedents and make many more solutions from what he calls ‘the sweet spot’ that lies in the intersection between our economic, technological and psychological thinking. Why are we not given the chance to solve problems psycholocally rather than just from an economic and/or engineering perspective? he asks, citing several examples including the provocation that 0.01% of the £6million spent reducing the travel time from London to Paris on Eurostar would have installed WiFi into all of the trains, substantially improving the travel experience and negating against the need to make it shorter far beyond the perceived benefit of getting there 40 minutes faster.
Other things he says in this talk that stand out for me:
Before Kahneman we didn’t have a good psychological model to give a lattice on which to hang things.
Behavioural economist, Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel Prize winning ‘Prospect theory’ emphasises the value we give to our perceived sense of potential gains and losses when we make decisions, over and above the actual value of the final outcome in and for itself.
One of the great mistakes that economics makes is that it fails to understand that what something is, whether its unemployment, retirement, cost, is a function not only of its amount but also its meaning…
I think the danger we have today is that the study of economics considers itself to be a prior to the study of human psychology, but …’if economics isn’t behavioural I don’t what the hell is’…
We all tend to look at value in two ways: there is the real value when you make something or provide a service, and then there is what is perceived to be the more dubious value which you create by changing the way people look at things. But Austrian economist and praxeologist Ludwig von Mises refutes this completely, giving this analogy: if you run a restaurant there is no greater value from the person who cooks the food than from the person who sweeps the floor – one creates the primary product and the other creates the context in which it can be enjoyed…
“If your perception is worse than your reality then why are working on trying to change the reality?”
Sutherland’s example here is when the UK Post Office made great efforts to raise their next-day delivery performance from 98% to 99% it almost broke the organisation, despite the fact the most people scored their next-day delivery at 50-60%. Any achievement they made here was doomed to fail until our perception of what they were achieving was radically improved, and this calls for completely different strategies. Leveraging up the psychological value, Sutherland suggests that telling the us that more mail arrives the next day in Britain than it does in Germany would have a much better guarantee of making us happy.
“Choose your frame of reference and the perceived value and the actual value is transformed.”
He cites Google as a company whose success is grounded in the understanding that psychological impact is as critical as their technological prowess. Taking and exploiting the insight that ‘people who do only one thing have got to be better at doing that thing than anyone who is trying to do that thing and something else too,’ make Google seen to be ‘only search engine’ worth using.
“Our perception is leaking…”
Another illustration Sutherland notices is when we have our car washed it always seems to go that much better. Of course this is logically unlikely to be really happening, but try this for yourself and see if you can stop yourself from believing that your car is running better when you drive it away after a thorough wash and polish…
One proposal Sutherland makes to leverage the benefits of perspective is, rather than making a course of antibiotics into 24 white pills, making them 18 white pills and 6 blue pills and telling people to take the white ones first. The likelihood of people completing their whole course is increased by an innate desire to get to the blue pills and then to finish them off. This is based on the idea that ‘chunking’ what we have to do down into smaller more manageable goals with a milestone somewhere in the middle dramatically increases our likelihood of getting us to the end.
And this tallies with insights presented in this week’s BBC Two Horizon programme about the latest research into why and how the Placebo Effect works – as it now is fairly universally accepted that it does. There are limits to what a placebo can do – it won’t fix a broken leg or shrink a tumour. But here are just some of the attention-grabbing findings this programme highlights about what can be achieved, simply through harnessing the power of our own expectations:
- Olympic cyclists, asked to race a second time in the same day despite this never normally happening, were randomly selected to take either a nutrient supplement pill or a caffeine pill to test which made a positive impact on their performance. Even though they expected to race slower than their earlier times, most of the athletes made a faster time, with one even making a new personal best record. And all of the pills were placebos, containing nothing more than a little cornflour.
- In a more controversial trial a surgeon tested the actual benefits of a kind of ‘cement injection’ that was seeming to bring significant relief to particular kinds of back injuries. As is usual, patients who opted on to the trial didn’t know whether they would were getting the actual treatment or not, and conditions were scrupulously simulated to keep the suggestion that they were high. All patients were prepped and anaesthetised the same, and only then did the medical team discover that patient’s draw. Those who got the fake treatment still got the nail polishey smell as the cement was opened and the apparent pressure sensation of the injections. And many of these patients achieved the same benefit they could have expected, despite getting a placebo treatment. One woman, who had previously benefited from the actual treatment, was on the golf course and returned to most of her usual physical activities within days of her spinal fracture being treated with nothing more than an elaborate hoax and the incredible power of her own self-belief.
- In another trial a man with Parkinson’s Disease, which affects the part of our brain responsible for making our movement, told how he was able to get most of his mobility back within half an hour of taking his first pill of what he supposed was his prescribed drug but was really a placebo.
- Most surprisingly of all, an American doctor ran a trial where the patients knew they are taking nothing more than a placebo, and still managed to experience significant improvements to their condition. Despite having knowledge of both her condition and the drug treatments available and knowing she was only taking a sugar pill twice a day, one woman said she got complete relief from all of her Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) symptoms for the weeks she was taking them.
- And in another trial IBS patients were given placebo acupuncture treatment with fake needles that only seemed to be piercing the skin within one of two contrasting setups: some patients were given the fake acupuncture with the absolute minimum interaction from their physician, and the other group of patients were treated to the highest quality time from their physician before their fake acupuncture, who listened with their fullest interest and attention to how their condition was affecting them. Most of the trial patients across both groups showed some improvement in their symptoms from the placebo treatment. And – I am very happy a perhaps a nit relieved too -to be able to report that the patients who received the high quality interaction experienced about 20% greater benefit, leaning up the case for how the power of good communications and relating well with people will amplify the benefits we can get from our own positive expectations.
They are the miracle pills that shouldn’t really work at all. Placebos come in all shapes and sizes, but they contain no active ingredient. Now they are being shown to help treat pain, depression and even alleviate some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Horizon explores why they work, and how we could all benefit from the hidden power of the placebo.
Here are some more top picks linked to this theme from this week’s new collection of stories about happiness, resilience, creativity and making great relationships in our 21st century work and lives…
Even on a molecular level, the human body is able to distinguish between a sense of well-being derived from a profound, “noble” purpose versus simple self-gratification, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports.
Led by Barbara L. Fredrickson, Kenan Distinguished Professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina, the researchers looked at the biological influence of the two forms of happiness through the human genome.
“Philosophers have long distinguished two basic forms of well-being: a ‘hedonic’ form representing an individual’s pleasurable experiences, and a deeper ‘eudaimonic,’ form that results from striving toward meaning and a noble purpose beyond simple self-gratification,” wrote Fredrickson and her colleagues.
It’s the difference, they explained, between enjoying a good meal and feeling connected to a larger community through a service project.
While both offer a sense of satisfaction, each is experienced very differently in the body’s cells.
“We know from many studies that both forms of well-being are associated with improved physical and mental health, beyond the effects of reduced stress and depression,” Fredrickson said. “But we have had less information on the biological bases for these relationships.” …
While eudaimonic well-being was associated with a significant decrease in the stress-related CTRA gene expression profile, hedonic well-being was associated with a significant increase in the CTRA profile.
Fredrickson said she found the results initially surprising since study participants themselves reported overall feelings of well-being.
One possibility for the discrepancy, she suggested, is that people who experience more hedonic than eudaimonic well-being consume the emotional equivalent of empty calories.
“We can make ourselves happy through simple pleasures, but those ’empty calories’ don’t help us broaden our awareness or build our capacity in ways that benefit us physically,” she said. “At the cellular level, our bodies appear to respond better to a different kind of well-being, one based on a sense of connectedness and purpose.”
By Nicole Alvino, Co-Founder and SVP at SocialChorus
When you look at the companies pioneering advocate marketing and other social media strategies, you’ll notice a common theme: women are leading the charge. Although women are underrepresented in C-level and VP-level roles, they are disproportionately creating entire marketing, sales, human resources and customer service strategies grounded in social connectivity. As powerful women translate company values, goals and brand identity into actions, social media has become their medium of choice. By championing advocacy within their organisations — by making their customers and employees the motors of company participation, inspiration and appreciation — I believe women are transforming corporate culture on an unprecedented scale. The results will redefine our notions of leadership for years to come and recreate brands as a source of community and inspiration, not just profit, products and employment.
Women, I would argue, are strongly attracted to businesses that foster a sense of community through open sharing and transparent leadership. The rise of advocacy is in large part a rejection of corporate cultures that elevated achievement and competition above these values. This is what I discovered in my own journey to advocate marketing, and I believe many women have shared in this experience….
When I started, Enron had a culture of people who wanted to change the world responsibly. But success became a cloud of hubris. We thought highly of ourselves, and we began to lose sight of our customer. Instead of delighting customers, Enron began to take advantage of them. Torn between vision and vanity, Enron corporate culture became a moral time bomb. The thought process became: “We’re changing the world. And, we’re the smartest people in the room. Therefore, we can do what others don’t.” The extent of the company’s ethical decay was hidden behind a thick wall of secrecy…
After my Enron experience, I vowed to only get involved with companies where I could guide company values and culture, lead by example and inspire others…
Advocacy—both customer and employee forms— … works when customers and employees love a brand and are encouraged and empowered to advocate to their network of friends, family and social media followers. The women pioneering advocacy at Dell, Virgin America, IBM, Oracle and Stella &Dot strive to make their customers, employees and partners into thought leaders, networkers, connectors and relationship builders—the type of people who can build community, inspire their network and win appreciation from anyone who interacts with the brand. These women are helping the business world transcend the Enron culture that ultimately led to criminal behavior and bankruptcy. While we once thought of leadership as an accomplishment within a business or team, the women driving advocacy are putting their customers, employees, bloggers, new social media influencers and even partners into a bigger game. By turning the natural ethic of social sharing into business strategies, women are asking their colleagues to become leaders in their industries and networks. As women turn entire organizations into groups of leaders through advocacy, they certainly will transform our expectations of corporate culture and forever change how brands build respect, loyalty and community among people.
by Lisa Evans
Despite the fact that many of us spend 40 hours or more a week in offices, it’s likely not the place where you’re most productive.
Jason Fried, author of Remote: Office Not Required says the majority of office workers don’t actually get their work done at the office. “Offices have become places where interruptions happen,” he says. Fried claims offices, and especially those with open floor plans, offer chunks of work time – 15 minutes here, a half hour there – between meetings, conference calls and other interruptions, but the real creative work, the type that requires concentration, happens during non-peak times or when employees are away from the office in an interruption-free zone.
“If you ask people where they go when they really need to get something done, very few people will ever say the office and if they do, they’ll say really early in the mornings or really late at night or on the weekends when no one’s around,” says Fried. This, of course, cuts into people’s family and personal time.
Although it seems we’re working more, Fried says we’re putting in longer hours but accomplishing less because we’re not actually getting anything done at the office. Stepping away from the office, says Fried, is the best way to get meaningful work done. While for some, that place may be a coffee shop, for others it may be a library or a home office.
But a coffee shop can be noisy too, so why would it be better than working in an office?
Fried says the reason some people can work more effectively in a coffee shop than their office is because the type of noise is different. “If you’re in an office working on a project and other people around you are talking about the project, it’s very difficult to block that out, but if you’re in a coffee shop and there’s white noise and people are having conversations that don’t involve you at all and have nothing to do with the work you’re doing, it’s easy to block them out,” he says.
The anonymity the coffee shop creates is also a draw. The constant buzz of activity generates a productivity-inducing energy, but since the activity has nothing to do with your own work and you aren’t concerned someone is going to come up to you and ask you to do something or pull you into a meeting, you’re better able to feed off that energy and get work done.
This doesn’t mean we should do away with the office entirely. Fried admits face-to-face time is still valuable. “There are benefits to social interaction at work, but most work is ultimately solo work,” says Fried. While it makes sense to have a gathering place to brainstorm ideas every once and a while, once tasks have been delegated, everyone disperses to their own areas to do the real work.
Enlightened managers can help turn their office into productive work space in three stages:
1. Provide private areas for individuals to retreat to when they need the space to be creative and time to think.
2. Schedule silent time: an afternoon without meetings, conversations, knocking on doors, or emails, just employees working in a quiet environment on the tasks they’ve been assigned.
3. Offer the option to take work outside the office. Fried suggests starting slow, providing the option to work away from the office one day per month, advancing to twice a month, then once a week. “It may not work for everybody but most people will probably find they got a lot more work done the day they were away from the office,” says Fried.
As companies gear up for millennials in the workforce, middle managers are removing their beer goggles and realizing that their layer of the organizational chart may no longer be needed. The biggest complaint read on Glassdoor.com? Middle management is pretty useless, even at companies known for having great corporate culture. Most middle managers aren’t natural-born leaders; they are typically the rock stars of their position who got a promotion into management. Great companies realize that more emphasis should be placed on who you work with, not who you work for. Furthermore, as terms like agile become more popular it can be determined that bottlenecks occur at the middle management level, slowing companies from innovation. When monitoring clock punches, lunch breaks, and bathroom breaks was a necessity on the job, middle managers were absolutely necessary. Most companies with great cultures have come to realize that it’s not about where you work or how long you work, it’s about the quality of work you produce. The middle management position is becoming about as popular as MySpace.
Employee is another term that is starting to be redefined as millennials don’t flock to Wall Street, but nerd out over startups and the appeal of startup culture. Younger generations aren’t sprinting to jobs that scream stability as studies show most will forgo a fat paycheck in lieu of other cultural perks. How does this trend affect the term employee? The appeal of hiring contract employees is becoming more prevalent and can be beneficial to both the company and the person under contract, depending on the situation. Intrapreneurship (corporate entrepreneurship) is on the rise as more companies are setting aside funding for fresh ideas from their employees combined with giving employees creative time to generate ideas. Companies understand the value of serving as an incubator for their employee’s startup ideas, as it could benefit their bottom line. Company hackathons are increasing in popularity and are essentially becoming internal startup competitions. Taking this a step further, most millennials graduate college with a side business, such as a blog, a college project that launches a new product, or another creative way of making money like becoming a Tasker on TaskRabbit. As millennials are bringing in income from other sources, they are becoming more like [TV reality show] contestants; they will use your company to get their 5 minutes of experience, but they probably won’t be around for the final rose ceremony.
Diminishing bureaucracy by overthrowing middle management and redefining the term ’employee’ will create big shifts in the structure of companies in the next few years as more millennials enter the job market. Couple this with other cultural trends like eliminating or never having job titles and posting everyone’s pay and it will be quite a different corporate cultural landscape in the not so distant future.
by Derek Irvine
It must be nearing annual performance review season. My reader is filling up with news articles and blog posts on the topic – all of them reiterating just how broken the traditional process is. Why is the traditional annual performance appraisal broken? There’s several reasons, including too much emphasis on feedback from just one person (the manager) and far too infrequent giving of needed feedback (both praise and constructive refocussing).
The good news is these “breaks” can be fixed – add in the “wisdom of the crowd” through positive feedback from peers and colleagues and you to overcome the single point of failure of manager-only feedback. Make this ongoing peer feedback specific, timely and, critically, frequent, and you help employees refocus and stay focussed on your most critical priorities…
There are many leadership programs available today, from one-day workshops to corporate training programs. But chances are, these won’t really help. In this clear, candid talk, Roselinde Torres describes 25 years observing truly great leaders at work, and shares the three simple but crucial questions would-be company chiefs need to ask to thrive in the future.
“Many of us carry the image of the superhero leader who carries his (sic) followers. But that’s an image from another time…
“In a 21st century world, which is more global, digitally enabled and transparent, with faster speeds of information flow and innovation, and where nothing big gets done without some kind of complex matrix, relying on traditionally development practices will stunt your growth as a leader. In fact traditional assessments ,like narrow 360 degrees or outdated performance criteria will give you false positives lulling you into thinking that you are more prepared than you really are.
“Leadership in the 21st century is defined and evidenced by three questions:
1. Where are you looking to anticipate the next change to your business model or your life?
The answer to this question is on your calendar. Who are you spending time with on what topics? Where are you travelling? What are you reading? And then how are you distilling this into understanding potential discontinuities? And then making a decision to do something right now so that you’re prepared and ready.
Great leaders are not head down. They see around corners, shaping their future not just reacting to it.
2. What is the diversity measure of your personal and professional network?
This question is about your ability to develop relationships with people who are very different from you.
Great leaders understand that having a more diverse network is greater source of pattern recognition and also of solutions because you have people who are thinking differently than you are.
3. Are you courageous enough to abandon a practice that has made you successful in the past?
Great leaders dare to be different. They don’t just talk about risk-taking, they actually do it.
The development that has the greatest impact comes when you are able to withstand people telling you that your new idea is naive or reckless to just plain stupid
These stories are collected with many more in Happiness At Work Edition #85