A meditation on what Hope means in these hard times – and how to cultivate it

Hope in hard times – what it means, what it doesn’t mean, and what helps to cultivate it

In these times we all know that no one of us has a monopoly on struggle and feelings of loss, fear, uncertainty and pessimism. Many of us are being forced to find hope in order to keep on keeping on through the ruins of deep trauma caused by colossal disruption and uncertainties, both structural, in our lives and the way we are having to live them, and temporal, how we have been forced to think about the future.

As well as what this means for us in our here-and-now, Hope is a future-oriented energy, and many of us are finding the impossibility of being able to predict or plan with any modicum of certainty is shutting down our capacity to lift our minds out to imagine with any enthusiasm any likely future.  There are just too many if’s, but’s and maybe’s – and this must be especially savage for people who are unable to do what they do in any form at the moment.

And yet we know, too, that our future, and probably even our survival, depends upon us being able to manufacture enough hope each day to get up and do what we need to do, solve what we have to solve, and to live, love and laugh as much as we possibly can in the doing of it.

Like everyone on the planet at the moment, I am having to find ways to live inside our universally shared experience of COVID, trying to learn to overcome bigotries, and the emergencies of climate change that are forcibly prescribing what we do and how we relate with each other in more ways than at any other time in our lives.

And for me personally, within this, I am living through the recent death of my husband, Martyn Duffy, the love of my life, my co-director through work and life and the person who made me possible.

Like so many, hope for me at the moment is not a nice idea but an absolute necessity.

So when I recently retook my VIA Character Strengths survey to see what I might most easily and advantageously lean towards to help me continue to stay possible, and even, at some future time, learn to flourish again, I was greatly strengthened to find I had significantly increased my Hope score to draw it up into my top signature set of strengths – those qualities that I was giving greatest value and energy to. 

You can find out your own VIA Character Strength preferences by taking the free online survey at: https://www.viacharacter.org

Values in Action Character Strengths definition of Hope

Drawn and developed from Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson’s original taxonomy, VIA define Hope as ‘expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it; believing that a good future is something that can be brought about’.

I know from my studies that Hope, as a character strength, is an action-oriented strength that involves our will or motivation. Its importance is that, despite adversity, challenges, and negatives, with hope we are also able to see the positive and the good, giving us the way to bring a hopeful perspective that is based in a solid, realistic foundation. 

Hope is highly connected with wellbeing and the relationship between hope and zest is the strongest of any two character strengths. Where zest is an application of positivity to the present, hope has its application to the future. Hope is also related to the warmth-based strengths of gratitude and love and the achievement-oriented strengths of perseverance and perspective. 

So for me to uncover that, at this time, along with my pre-existing top strengths that I was grateful to see are still in my signature widowed portrait, it is Hope that I am intuitively reaching for to help me.

But I know, too, that having Hope or any strength in your signature doesn’t automatically give you everything you need to use it fully and to its best advantage. 

And while hope is a very powerful forward- looking strength, when it is overused it becomes unrealistic and is no longer based on actions that are achievable. It becomes an “it will all work out in the end” wish rather than a grounded view of the future and how to get there. 

This overamplified version of hope is what I grieve at hearing too much in the rhetoric and policy decisions of our political leaders at the moment, an almost messianic determination and demand to us to stay upbeat and positive despite any evidence to justify this and causing a seemingly completely empty drawer of contingency plans.

There is a virus that is killing thousands of us, but it will all be okay if you just trust in each other’s common sense.

The planet is dying but it’ll all come right in time if we just stay positive and recycle our shopping bags.

Human beings are killing other human beings for no reason except what they look like, but we’ll learn to stop doing this if we just let people be themselves.

We have to use Hope skilfully, calibrating and tempering it for the realities of our situations. In particular, we have to use our judgment to evaluate where we really are now, and our curiosity to seek out and explore realistic future possibilities.  Judgment gives Hope rationality and logic, while Curiosity keeps Hope alive and active, helping to keep our Hope anchored and strong. 

A VIA exercise to build and cultivate hope as a strength

Take a moment to think about the upcoming year and imagine your best possible self coming forward. Imagine that you are engaging in activities that are pleasing you and working towards goals that are important to you. Once you have a clear image write out the details, what you see, hear, feel, maybe even smell and taste. Consider and describe how you can use your different character strengths to get there. And then find one thing, however small, you can do today to move towards the future you visualised.

Writing about your best possible self helps to create a logical structure for the future and can help you move from the realm of stuck uncertainties and anxieties to concrete, real possibilities that you want and feel able to try and make happen. 

Hopefully strong people tend to be realistic optimists — they have the hopefulness of optimists and the clarity of pessimists — which gives them both the motivation and the critical thinking required to come up with creative solutions.

Armed forces people are now trained, as part of their resilience preparation for going into traumatic situations, to first think out three possible scenarios that could happen. It doesn’t matter so much what these are, or even how bad they are. The active energy required by our brains to simultaneously hold three different outcomes automatically increases our sense of agency over the situation and thus our hopefulness about it. It has the additional benefit of freeing us from toxic ‘this’ versus ‘that’ binary thinking that is stalling so much of our public conversations at the moment.

“Every time realistic optimists face an issue or a challenge or a problem, they won’t say ‘I have no choice and this is the only thing I can do’.  They will be creative, they will have a plan A, plan B and plan C” Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle Is The Way, tells us.  These are his eight recommendations for cultivating optimism:

  1. Develop a morning routine
  2. Become more intentional
  3. Surround yourself with positive people
  4. Decrease or even avoid negative conversation, news or gossip
  5. Focus on the journey and progress you’re making, however small, rather than the destination
  6. Practice gratitude – for example, use a Gratitude Journal, or try Maria Sirois’ technique of, just before going to sleep, asking yourself “what was my best moment today?”
  7. Assume the best in others
  8. Practice skilled hopefulness every day

Skilled Hope as a resilience capability

Stephen Southwark & Dennis Charney looked deeply at what some of the most resilient people did, including prisoners of war and civilian survivors trauma including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to successfully navigate through extreme difficulty and ultimately influence a better outcome. 

They, too, define optimism as ‘belief in a brighter future’ and identify Realistic Optimism as the first of their ten resilience capabilities, defined as ‘maintaining a realistic and optimistic outlook’. 

Optimism serves as fuel that ignites resilience and provides energy to power all of the other resilience factors. It facilitates an active and creative approach to coping with stressful situations.

Optimism is a future-oriented attitude, involving hope and confidence that things will turn out well. Optimists believe that the future will be bright, that good things will happen to them, and that, with enough hard work, they will succeed. Pessimists, in contrast, see the future as dark and determined. They believe that bad things will happen to them and doubt that they have the skills and stamina to make much difference. 

BUT blind optimism doesn’t work 

Realistic optimists pay close attention to negative information that is relevant to the problems they face. However, unlike pessimists, they do not remain focused on the negative. They tend to disengage rapidly from problems that appear to be unsolvable. That is, they know when to cut their losses and turn their attention to problems that they believe that they can solve. We are reminded here of Stephen Covey’s three circles of influence (Direct, Indirect and No Controls), also expressed in the Serenity Prayer: Give me the strength to change the things I can change, the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to kn ow the difference.

Ways to become more optimistic 

Cultivating optimism involves learning a set of cognitive skills that are part of what Martin Seligman has termed ‘learned optimism.’ Social scientists and cognitive behaviourists describe two basic approaches for learning and enhancing optimism: increasing positive thinking; and refuting negative thinking. With practice we can teach ourselves to think or insert positive thoughts. We can also teach ourselves not to dwell on negative thoughts. To do this we must learn to distinguish negative thoughts and then to challenge their accuracy. 

Counteract negative beliefs

In his book, Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman recommends responding to negative thoughts “as if they were uttered by an external person whose mission is to make your life miserable.” Sometimes it is helpful to ask yourself specific questions in order to refute negative beliefs. These may include: 

  • What is the evidence for this negative belief? 
  • Is there a less destructive way to look at this belief?
  • What are the implications of this belief? 
  • Am I catastrophising or exaggerating the potential negative impact of the situation? 
  • Am I over-generalising, falsely assuming that this particular situation has broad implications? 
  • How useful is my pessimistic approach to the problem at hand? 

In his practical guide, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor offers us these questions to challenge and dispute our limiting negative self-beliefs to foster a greater sense of grounded hope for what he calls ‘Falling Up’

  • What assumptions am I making about my situation?
  • How do I know what I think I know?
  • What else might be true about my situation?
  • What would I ideally like to be saying about my situation?
  • What is the simplest most helpful thing I could say about my situation?
  • What is the funniest thing about my situation?
  • If I were advising someone else facing this same situation, what would I say to help them to progress things?

What’s the status of your Psychological Capital?

Psychological capital is composed of four key “psychological resources” that we access to cope with the challenges of our work and lives and can be remembered through the acronym: HERO

Hope here is a belief in the ability to persevere toward goals and find the methods or paths to reach them.

Efficacy is the confidence that you can successfully achieve desired or intended outcomes (etymologically from the early 16th century Latin efficere meaning ’ability to accomplish’)

Resilience here is the ability to bounce back in the face of setbacks, adversity or failure.

And Optimism here is defined as a generally positive view of things and the potential of being successful.

In a 2007 research project Fred Luthans from the Gallup Leadership Institute and his collaborators carried out two studies to analyse how hope, resilience, optimism, and efficacy individually and as a composite higher-order factor predicted work performance and satisfaction.  Their results indicated a significant positive relationship regarding the composite of these four facets to performance and satisfaction. and that the composite factor from exercising all four seemed to be a better predictor of increased performance and satisfaction than any individual facets. 

Self-care is the number one resilience practice at the moment because we’re in a marathon. 

Clinical psychologist, Maria Sirois draws her practice from years working with families and children facing terminal illness and her own experience of loss. Much of the following text are her words drawn and adapted from two of her recent presentations with the VIA Institute of Character Strengths and Action for Happiness, both referenced below.

“In these times”, Maria Sirois tells us, “self-care is not an option, it’s mandatory.”

We each have to understand and exercise whatever nourishes us, strengthens us, and inspires us.  These questions drive our self-care.

Begin from the place you are at and, each day ask…

  • What could nourish me today/ right now? and/or
  • What could strengthen me right now? and/or
  • What could inspire me right now?

Choose one of these – it’s not necessary to consider all three every day.  And perhaps link this reflection to an everyday ritual like brushing your teeth.

Hope and Zest are both essential

One way of seeing the journey of transformation is as a smile – with the bottom being where we are between what is no longer and what is not yet true.

Hope and courage in the form of Zest are both essential to help us to move up from the bottom.  We need to face reality as it is and make the choice to consciously deliberately move to make things a little bit better somehow.

Hope, to be helpful, has to be grounded in realistic optimism – the ability to face reality and then choose a thought, an action, a practice that takes us to a slightly better place. 

Hope is not a delusional fantasy that everything is just going to work out fine. It’s a very embodied understanding that we can co-create with life every day.  So if you see yourself at the bottom of the smile looking up at the better future, hope by itself is not enough. We need some energy to make the climb and that’s where zest comes in.  Zest is enthusiasm, bringing your whole heart to the moment, and lives under courage. And in the bringing of our heart is the capacity to stay brave. 

The importance of acceptance and meaning

Acceptance is step one foundation for resilience. 

Resilient people take in what’s happening – the data as well as what they’re feeling – and then they make healthier choices about what to do. 

Meaning in the harshest moments doesn’t emerge immediately. Some meaning can come from finding the meaning in the everyday, but the bigger meaning needs time to emerge, and so we may not know the meaning of what’s happening for many months or even years, but we can invest in the smaller meanings every day to keep us going and hopeful. 

We can also bring our creativity to reframe and shift our perspective on what is happening, opening us up to more hopeful feelings, as UK poet, Tomos Roberts, has done to inhabit the dark and the light and take action to cultivate hope in what has become a viral YouTube exchange of his performance of his poem: The Great Realisation

Ways to cultivate Zest

Zest is a driver for the personal leadership we need to build resilient capacity. We can do this if you think of Zest as bringing your whole heart to something more than as excitement or jubilation and look to do this even for five minutes a day: perhaps how you wake your children or how you make and eat your breakfast or how you start a conversation with someone… When we do this, this greater energy imprints into your whole day with a shimmer of greater energy and your experience of your day, which mitigates, for example, the sense of COVID fatigue we’re all feeling. It’s a way we can each authentically step into the moment and shape it each day, whatever else we are having to do and deal with.

Breathe.  Breathe.  Breathe.  Take the next step…

This is my mantra for the really tough moments, and chimes with what Maria Sirois tells us: “In the worst moments the game has to be step by step, moment by moment, and breath by breath.”

Even when we have no control over so much, we have control over the one thing we always have control over, which is how we show up: who we are and how we respond and what we choose to bring to the day. 

Hope is cultivated through action.

Reminding us of the negative thinking traps that lie waiting in all our brains, Maria Sirois asks us: in the last five months have you ever…

  • Jumped to a conclusion?
  • Taken something personally?
  • Catastrophised?

These are the three most common negative thinking we do, and we each have different magnetic pulls around them. However resilient people stay hopeful by doing their best to challenge and shift these thoughts, knowing that in hard times they can quickly escalate and lock us down.

Maria Sirois’ fix to overcome negative thinking traps – use the genius of the AND

  1. Name out loud the negative thought
  2. Write ‘and’
  3. Write statements that are positive and true to us

I’m not doing enough and every day I’m doing my best and I am chipping away and making progress and I believe my intentions are good 

This brings our mind to a more flexible and more hopeful place that remains grounded in our tough realities. 

Track what you love

To help keep ourselves going, look for stories that exemplify what we want and care about. When we give attention to the things we love, our vitality naturally increases and our sense of connectiveness increases. And that enables us to have more hope. 

Even in the darkest moments there are also moments of real happiness. I know personally at the moment that, even in the terrible loss I am feeling without my husband, I am still able to choose and find moments of real joy from the fresh flowers I keep treating myself to and the delicious food I keep challenging myself to cook and the moments I make myself stop and give my whole attention to and the extra care I am giving to noticing and appreciating the many things that are good in my life.

We can continue to cultivate this capability by learning to soften our gaze to find the good, perhaps tucked out of sight behind the noise of the hard and difficult.  “I’m bored and anxious and exhausted and I don’t know it’s going to be any better two or three months from now.”  

This is Maria Sirois’ gratitude technique for rewiring our brains to filter and find more of the real positives we have: just before going to sleep ask yourself “what was my best moment today?

And we can take what Theresa Amabile tells us about noticing the small gains and progress we have made, however tiny.  This helps us to feel we are moving forward, not so stuck.  And this increases our sense of agency, our self-efficacy, which, in turn, increases our strength of hope.

And to help someone who is suffering, Maria Sirois says the best we can do is to be with them wholeheartedly and then to ask: “Do you want me to sit with you in the swamp or do you want me to try and help you build a bridge out of it? What can I do that’s best for you?”

Lastly, even though no mindfulness expert, I have learned from my intermittent practice that any mindfulness exercise always gives me something good. Here is the one from the VIA United in Strengths webinar…

Maria Sirois’ mindfulness exercise for cultivating Hope and Zest 

from Meta – loving kindness 

Place your hand on your heart and repeat this four-phrase cycle three times, using ‘I’ the first time, then ‘you’, then ‘we’ (people we know right out to the whole world). Give a little more (5%) energy each to each new cycle

May I, you, we 

…be happy 

…be healthy 

…ride the wave of my/your/our life

…find peace no matter what 


United in Strengths: Maria Sirois on Optimizing Hope & Zest, VIAStrengths, 11 May 2020

Happiness in Dark Times – with Maria Sirois, Action for Happiness, 30 July 2020

The Great Resilience, Tomos Roberts, September 2020 – book and YouTube performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nw5KQMXDiM4

VIA Institute of Character Strengths –  free questionnaire and resources at https://www.viacharacter.org and webinar recordings on their YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/VIAStrengths

Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, Steven M. Southwick & Dennis S. Charney, 2012

Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, Shawn Achor, 2010 (cf. also his TEDTalk)

Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman, 2002

The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holliday, 2014

Happiness At Work edition #133 – we are what we think


dreamstime_l_22898332Here is a guide to some the ideas and articles we’ve collected in the latest Happiness At Work edition #133.

Our theme this time is inspired by the excellent Get Happy Neuroscience for Business series of articles, including The 5 Neuroscience Lessons for Leaders and The 7 C’s of Change Management – making change easier with neuroscience.

What these ideas, and the stories that follow, all have in common is the growing understanding we are getting from contemporary research about how much the way we choose to think about things affects the experienced reality of the things themselves.

Never has the need for personal mastery been more vital or more richly informed, and I hope this collection will give you new approaches and techniques to try out and talk about with the people who matter to you.  Enjoy.

How Your Thoughts Change Your Brain, Cells and Genes

by Debbie Hampton Writer, blogger, hot yoga enthusiast, brain injury survivor

Every thought you have causes neurochemical changes, some temporary and some lasting. For instance, when people consciously practice gratitude, they get a surge of rewarding neurotransmitters, like dopamine, and experience a general alerting and brightening of the mind, probably correlated with more of the neurochemical norepinephrine…

Every cell in your body is replaced about every two months. So, the good news is, you can reprogram your pessimistic cells to be more optimistic by adopting positive thinking practices, like mindfulness and gratitude, for permanent results…

Your biology doesn’t spell your destiny, and you aren’t controlled by your genetic makeup. Instead, your genetic activity is largely determined by your thoughts, attitudes, and perceptions. Epigenetics is showing that your perceptions and thoughts control your biology, which places you in the driver’s seat. By changing your thoughts, you can influence and shape your own genetic readout.

The Surprising Scientific Link Between Happiness And Decision Making


How do you make decisions? Some people want to find the absolute best option (“maximizers”). Others, known as “satisficers,” have a set of criteria, and go for the first option that clears the bar.

While wanting the best seems like a good thing, research from Swarthmore College finds that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers.

This is true for two reasons. First, people who want the best tend to be prone to regret. “If you’re out to find the best possible job, no matter how good it is, if you have a bad day, you think there’s got to be something better out there,” saysBarry Schwartz, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and author of The Paradox of Choice

This happiness gap raises the question: Can maximizers learn to become satisficers? Can you learn to settle for good enough?

Possibly, but it takes some work. “What I believe is that it’s changeable and that it’s not easy to change,” says Schwartz. Here are some ways to make the shift…

Beyond Brain Basics: 5 Neuroscience Lessons for Leaders

In Brain Basics, we looked at many of the structures in the brain and how they function. In this section we will look more specifically at how they impact leadership and the workplace. Since these are complex issues, especially for people who are just learning about neuroscience, we’ve put together 5 neuroscience lessons for leaders, that will shed some light on the practicality of these notions.

1. The Brain is Plastic

…The brain continues to reform and rewire itself based on how much or how little the pathways are used. That means that we can always learn new things.

The way neurons share information is through sending and receiving neurotransmitters across the small gap. The neurotransmitters trigger a chemical process, which creates an electrical charge that travels through the neuron. This process of electrical charge, neurotransmitters, electrical charge, and so on is what creates the pathway of neurons. There is a saying “Cells that fire together, wire together.” That means that when learning a new task or about a new person, the best way to learn it is to do it multiple times, so that the neurons “fire together” and eventually “wire together”.

It is never too late for a leader or an employee to learn a new skill or a new way of doing things. Change is hard sometimes, but research tells us it is possible.

2. Our Brains Like Rewards

Emotions are an important aspect of how the brain changes and how we learn. Positive feelings activated through the reward system of the brain enhance the pathways and improve learning. The reward system is very complex and has pathways in many areas of the brain, but often it is regulated by the neurotransmitter dopamine.

There are two main reward systems in the brain that are related to attention and motivation: primary and secondary. Primary rewards are related to primary needs like food, water, and shelter. We feel good when we have those needs met. Secondary rewards help our survival but are not vital to it. They include things like information, power, trust, touch, appreciation, and community.

For leaders, rewards are often an effective way to motivate employees. Based on neuroscience, there are some rewards that seem to release more dopamine than others. You will see that money, or material goods, are not on the list. Many of the rewards are related to social interaction in some way.

Following the science, leaders can review their system of motivation and rewards to consider ideas that are proven to be rewarding to the brain. While each employee is different, there are many categories or rewards that would be useful to implement in order to truly activate an employee’s reward pathway. More dopamine means employees who are happier, more focused, and more motivated.

3. The Power of Mirror Neurons

In the early 1990s scientists discovered mirror neurons. They found that when one person watches another do some kind of action, the neurons of the first person fire as if they were actually doing it. There is a common example that has to do with yawning. Research has shown that yawning can be contagious. Why? Mirror neurons. When one person yawns and another observes, the neuronal pathways for yawning in the observer’s brain are activated, causing them to yawn too.

While this may explain why a yawn can seem to travel around an office, mirror neurons are really important for learning, emotional awareness, and empathy. When we watch someone do something, our brain is actually learning how to do it. When we see someone experiencing an emotion, our brain processes that emotion as well, increasing empathy.

Mirror neurons can be important aspects of leadership as we can see how our emotional and physical states as leaders are actually teaching our employees how to act and how to respond emotionally to us. When mirroring is connected to a certain need and when it is understood from a familiar viewpoint, the effect is stronger. Mirror neurons, again, prove how much humans are social animals. People are highly connected to the people and the environments around them.

Because of this connection, leaders can create environments where people can mirror others who create collaborative and cooperative learning and working atmospheres. Individuals are important to the team and the team is important to the individuals through the power or mirror neurons.

4. Emotions are Everything

Many people want to believe that they can make decisions based exclusively on free will and their rational minds. That is not often backed by science, as research has shown that there are many unconscious processes that influence and dictate why we behave in the ways we do.

Those processes follow brain pathways that were put into place when we were very young. In most cases we have already made a decision before we have actually thought about it. This happens in the limbic system. Our cerebral cortex then has to rationalize the decision through language and planning, leading to, what some may call, the illusion of free will. That is not to say that the cerebral cortex cannot influence the limbic system. This can be seen in people who practice meditation and mindfulness.

As a leader, it is particularly useful to know that when we are faced with stress or a threat, the executive functions of the brain shut down, leaving the unconscious processes of the limbic system in charge of decision making. These parts of the brain react on emotion and survival instincts.

Leaders also need to be aware that in terms of learning and team building, change happens not from the cerebral context but from the limbic system. With effective company rewards and interventions, the slow process of changing the limbic system can start to take place.

5. Creating a Brain-Based Work Environment

The information presented is a starting point for creating a work environment that is based around what is healthy for the brain. Leaders who ignore how the brain functions are leaving a lot to chance. Sometimes things might be great, but then something can happen and they might worsen. Having a brain-based work environment can help leaders effectively navigate the rises and falls in the economic climate.

Be a brain-based leader by helping the people improve the work environment, and the environment improve the people. Both influence the other and, in a working system, there will be an upward spiral of motivation, growth, and productivity. Overtime, this environment will actually change the brains of the people in it, making the team and the organization better able to adapt to change.

see also these articles in the series:

The Basis of Leadership Is Born in the Brain: Why Leaders Should Care about Neuroscience

The 7 C’s of Change Management: Making Change Easier With Neuroscience

11 Ways to Run Your Business with Neuroscience

Your Brain on Hormones: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Leader

Improve Employee Engagement Using Neuroscience

Brain Basics: Neuroscience in Business

Google’s Scientific Approach to Work-Life Balance (and Much More)

…Inspired by the Framingham Heart Study research, our People Innovation Lab developed gDNA, Google’s first major long-term study aimed at understanding work. Under the leadership of PhD Googlers Brian Welle and Jennifer Kurkoski, we’re two years into what we hope will be a century-long study. We’re already getting glimpses of the smart decisions today that can have profound impact on our future selves, and the future of work overall…

…The fact that such a large percentage of Google’s employees wish they could separate from work but aren’t able to is troubling, but also speaks to the potential for this kind of research. The existence of this group suggests that it is not enough to wish yourself into being a Segmentor. But by identifying where employees fall on this spectrum, we hope that Google can design environments that make it easier for employees to disconnect. Our Dublin office, for example, ran a program called “Dublin Goes Dark” which asked people to drop off their devices at the front desk before going home for the night. Googlers reported blissful, stressless evenings. Similarly, nudging Segmentors to ignore off-hour emails and use all their vacation days might improve well-being over time. The long-term nature of these questions suggests that the real value of gDNA will take years to realize.

…We have great luxuries at Google in our supportive leadership, curious employees who trust our efforts, and the resources to have our People Innovation Lab. But for any organization, there are four steps you can take to start your own exploration and move from hunches to science:

1. Ask yourself what your most pressing people issues are.  Retention?  Innovation? Efficiency?  Or better yet, ask your people what those issues are.

2. Survey your people about how they think they are doing on those most pressing issues, and what they would do to improve.

3. Tell your people what you learned. If it’s about the company, they’ll have ideas to improve it. If it’s about themselves – like our gDNA work – they’ll be grateful.

4. Run experiments based on what your people tell you. Take two groups with the same problem, and try to fix it for just one. Most companies roll out change after change, and never really know why something worked, or if it did at all. By comparing between the groups, you’ll be able to learn what works and what doesn’t.

And in 100 years we can all compare notes.

How to Reset Your Happiness Set Point

by Alex Lickerman M.D. author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self

The set-point theory of happiness suggests that our level of subjective well-being is determined primarily by heredity and by personality traits ingrained in us early in life and as a result remains relatively constant throughout our lives. Our level of happiness may change transiently in response to life events, but then almost always returns to its baseline level as we habituate to those events and their consequences over time. Habituation, a growing body of evidence now tells us, occurs even to things like career advancement, money, and marriage.

On the other hand, other research (link is external) suggests a few events—chief among them the unexpected death of a child and repeated bouts of unemployment—seem to reduce our ability to be happy permanently. Yet some studies also suggest that we can also fix our happiness set point permanentlyhigher—by helping others.

According to one such study (link is external) that analyzed data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Survey, a collection of statistics representing the largest and longest-standing series of observations on happiness in the world, the trait most strongly associated with long-term increases in life satisfaction is, in fact, a persistent commitment to pursuing altruistic goals. That is, the more we focus on compassionate action, on helping others, the happier we seem to become in the long run…

…just as exercise can actually provide us with energy by forcing us to summon it when we’re feeling tired (link is external), helping others can provide us with enthusiasm, encouragement, and even joy by forcing us to summon them when we’re feeling discouraged. “If one lights a fire for others,” wrote Nichiren Daishonin, “one will brighten one’s own way.” Thus, the moments in which we feel happiest aren’t just moments to be enjoyed. They’re also opportunities to increase the frequency and intensity with which we feel them in the future.

5 Beneficial Side Effects of Kindness

by David R. Hamilton, Ph.D. Author, ‘I HEART ME: The Science of Self-Love’ and ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’

When we think of side effects, the first thing that springs to mind are the side effects of drugs. But who’d have thought that kindness could have side effects, too?

Well, it does! And positive ones at that.

…when we are kind, the following are some side effects that come with it:

1) Kindness makes us happier.

When we do something kind for someone else, we feel good. On a spiritual level, … we’re tapping into something deep and profound inside us that says, “This is who I am.”

On a biochemical level, it is believed that the good feeling we get is due to elevated levels of the brain’s natural versions of morphine and heroin, which we know as endogenous opioids. They cause elevated levels of dopamine in the brain, so we get a natural high, often referred to as “Helper’s High.”

2) Kindness gives us healthier hearts.

Acts of kindness are often accompanied by emotional warmth. Emotional warmth produces the hormone oxytocin in the brain and throughout the body. Of much recent interest is its significant role in the cardiovascular system.

Oxytocin causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide in blood vessels, which dilates (expands) the blood vessels. This reduces blood pressure, and therefore oxytocin is known as a “cardio-protective” hormone because it protects the heart (by lowering blood pressure). The key is that acts kindness can produce oxytocin, and therefore kindness can be said to be cardio-protective.

3) Kindness slows aging.

Aging on a biochemical level is a combination of many things, but two culprits that speed the process are free radicals and inflammation, both of which result from making unhealthy lifestyle choices.

But remarkable research now shows that oxytocin (which we produce through emotional warmth) reduces levels of free radicals and inflammation in the cardiovascular system and thus slows aging at its source. Incidentally these two culprits also play a major role in heart disease, so this is also another reason why kindness is good for the heart.

There have also been suggestions in the scientific journals of the strong link between compassion and the activity of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve, in addition to regulating heart rate, also controls inflammation levels in the body in what is known as the inflammatory reflex. One study that used the Tibetan Buddhist lovingkindness meditation found that kindness and compassion did, in fact, reduce inflammation in the body, mostly likely due to its effects on the vagus nerve.

4) Kindness makes for better relationships.

This is one of the most obvious points. We all know that we like people who show us kindness. This is because kindness reduces the emotional distance between two people, so we feel more “bonded.” It’s something that is so strong in us that it’s actually a genetic thing. We are wired for kindness.

Our evolutionary ancestors had to learn to cooperate with one another. The stronger the emotional bonds within groups, the greater the chances of survival, so “kindness genes” were etched into the human genome.

Today, when we are kind to each other, we feel a connection, and new relationships are forged, or existing ones strengthened.

5) Kindness is contagious.

When we’re kind, we inspire others to be kind, and it actually creates a ripple effect that spreads outwards to our friends’ friends’ friends — to three degrees of separation. Just as a pebble creates waves when it is dropped in a pond, so acts of kindness ripple outwards, touching others’ lives and inspiring kindness everywhere the wave goes.

A recent scientific study reported than an anonymous 28-year-old person walked into a clinic and donated a kidney. It set off a “pay it forward” type ripple effect where the spouses or other family members of recipients of a kidney donated one of theirs to someone else in need. The “domino effect,” as it was called in the New England Journal of Medicine report, spanned the length and breadth of the United States of America, where 10 people received a new kidney as a consequence of that anonymous donor.

The Happiest Part Of Your Vacation Isn’t What You Think

by Carla Herreria

According to a 2010 study published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, just planning or anticipating your trip can make you happier than actually taking it.

While all vacationers enjoyed pre-trip happiness, the study’s authors found that people only experienced a boost in happiness post-vacation if their trip was relaxing. If their vacation was deemed “stressful” or “neutral,” their post-trip happiness levels were comparable to those who hadn’t taken a vacation at all.

Pre-trip happiness, however, is a different story entirely. The study found that all vacationers experienced a significant boost in happiness during the planning stages of the trip because, as the researchers suggest, the vacationers were looking forward to the good times ahead…

Is Artistic Inspiration Contagious?

by Scott Barry Kaufman

In a recent study, Todd Thrash and colleagues conducted the first ever test of “inspiration contagion,” using poetry as the vehicle. They looked at specific qualities of a text and the qualities of the reader. It’s a rich study, with 36,020 interactions between all of the variables! Here are the essential findings…

…The more writers privately reported that they felt inspired while writing, the more the average reader reported being inspired. This is despite the fact that there was no actual contact between the reader and the writer other than the text itself!

…Readers higher in openness to new experiences were more tolerant of the new and sublime. The more that the reader was open to new experiences, the more they experienced inspiration transmission, and the less the originality and sublimity of the text hindered transmission.

Reader inspiration was not the only outcome of writer inspiration. Writer inspiration also brought out feelings of awe and chills in the average reader. These feelings of enthrallment were transmitted particularly through the insightfulness and sublimity of the text.

…However, these findings suggest that good writing is more like talking, an expression of one’s inner state of being. Perhaps the most helpful way for aspiring writers to view writing is as a natural vehicle for capturing personal insights and expressing them.

New data science research shows how we manage our long-term happiness

by Colin Smith

Most theories of motivation have championed the pleasure principle, where our choices of daily activities aim to maximize our short-term happiness. However, it was not clear to researchers how to reconcile this idea with the fact that we all have to engage routinely in unpleasant, yet necessary activities.

To address this question a team of researchers, including an Imperial academic, developed a smartphone application to monitor in real-time the activities and moods of approximately 30,000 people.

The team found that, rather than following the pleasure or hedonic principle, people’s choices of activities instead consistently followed a hedonic flexibility principle, which shows how people regulate their mood. Specifically, the model shows that people were more likely to engage in mood-increasing activities such as playing sport when they felt bad. When they felt good they engaged in useful, but mood-decreasing activities such as doing housework…

The model revealed that firstly, people’s future decisions to engage in one activity rather than another are related to how they currently feel. Secondly, the interplay between mood and choices of activity followed a very specific pattern.

When participants were in a bad mood, they were more likely to later engage in activities that tended to subsequently boost their mood. For example, if people’s current mood decreased by 10 points, they were more likely to later engage in things like sport, going out into nature, and chatting. All of these activities were associated with a subsequent increase in mood.

see also:

Finding Happiness: Your Mood Decides Whether You Live In The Moment Or Focus On Future


…More or less, we can all be split into two groups; Those motivated by the pursuit of pleasure and those who prefer to secure their long-term welfare. A new study has attempted to understand the motivation between these two conflicting philosophies.

Our likeliness to live in the moment or prepare for the future is not a permanent feature of our personality and changes according to our mood at the moment. The study revealed that when a person is in a good mood, they are more likely to do housework and other unpleasant yet useful activities over the next few hours than when they are in a bad mood. When feeling bad, people tend to choose activities later that day that are more pleasurable, such as playing sports and spending time with friends, apparently in an effort to feel better…

25 Freelancers (Re)Define Success

Profundity by Col Skinner, a UK based Digital Marketing Consultant and Strategist

…if we all take some time to review what success actually means to us and what we want from our working lives then we might find it doesn’t (have to) match the archetypal clichés in society. The archetypal perception is that success is something status led that is achieved through sacrificing your personal life in order to commit hundreds of hours to earning tons of cash in a ‘kill or be killed’ business environment. All very 1980’s Wall Street if you ask me. I think shows like The Apprentice / Dragons Den, along with business dinosaurs like Donald Trump, also have a lot to answer for.

I thought it would be interesting to hear how people who have quit the rat race, define success.  So I went and sourced a range of Freelancers who very kindly gave their personal definitions of SUCCESS. This may help give clarity to those who currently struggle to define their own goals…

You, and no one else, are the one that sets or defines what success looks like. Don’t fall for the cliché trappings of a successful life. Aim for goals that matter and make a difference to you or those around you. I will leave you with this great quote by Anne Sweeney:

“Define success by your own terms, achieve it by your own rules, and build a life you’re proud to live.”

Happiness At Work edition #133

All of these articles and more can found together in this collection.

Seligman’s PERMA+1 Essentials for Flourishing


Positive psychology is not yet twenty years old.  In the short time since Martin Seligman’s 1998 call to turn on a scientific inquiry into what helps human beings to flourish, rather than merely survive, we have discovered an enormous amount about what we can all learn to do and practice and ultimately master to grow and sustain our own and each other’s happiness.

And doing this is much more than a luxury.  Research is showing that our happiness is integral to our individual success, in terms of our performance and productivity, our creativity and learning, and our resilience and positive responsiveness to change and uncertainty.  And it is an equally vital aspect of making strong trusting relationships in our families and friendships, our teams and wider networks, as much as in our societies and increasingly interconnected, interdependent global systems.

Martin Seligman

Human beings want much more in life than not to be miserable” Prof. Martin Seligman pictured with Prof Ian Robertson.   Photo source: Can you teach wellbeing? Martin Seligman thinks so Irish Times

Seligman is speaking across the UK at the moment and I am looking forward enormously to hearing him on 9th May at the Action for Happiness event in London.

In his Irish Times article, Can you teach wellbeing? Martin Seligman thinks soRonan McGreevy writes:

Introducing Seligman in Dublin, TCD professor of psychology Ian Robertson described him as a “polymath” engaged in nothing less than “a movement which is creating a paradigm change in how humanity thinks about itself”.

Seligman described himself as a self-confessed pessimist and depressive who tries out his own techniques first on himself before expanding them to his own family and then his students.

He was a relatively late convert to the concept of wellbeing and happiness. As a psychologist, he recalls, happiness was regarded as the “froth on the cappuccino”, immeasurable and irrelevant to his profession.

“Thirty years ago there was no theory of wellbeing which distinguished it from suffering and no interventions that built wellbeing. That has changed over the past thirty years.”

It might seem obvious given the recent emphasis on wellbeing and happiness, but the focus of psychology and psychiatry was, for so long, on alleviating suffering and examining mental illness rather than the pursuit of happiness.

He defines wellbeing as what “non-suffering, non-oppressed people choose to do”. It pertains not only to individuals but also to corporations and even nation states.

Seligman’s  understanding of wellbeing includes the notion of “flourishing”, where human beings create the conditions for making the best of themselves and their circumstances.

Seligman’s model for wellbeing is made up of five building blocks summed up in the acronym PERMA: Positive emotion, Engagement, strong Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. These five concepts together represent a definition of wellbeing.

We add one more – Resilience – and use this framework in our training and coaching programmes as a springboard to help people explore what they feel most and least satisfied about in their work and lives, and what they can do to keep strong their highest elements and build up their lowest scoring elements.

Here then are the five+1 essential elements for flourishing:


Positive emotion is feeling happy or comfortable in a situation, what we think of when we think of happiness.


ways to find greater positive emotion

  • Use your Signature Strengths every day
  • Experience ~ do what you know makes you happiest
  • Gratitude ~ keep a Gratitude Journal for at least 21 days
  • Exercise ~ even 20minutes a day is better than none
  • Music ~ listen to music to lift or change your mood
  • Mindfulness exercises: focus in on your breathing – even 2minutes a day makes a very big difference
  • B A L A N C E ~ explore what this means to you and how you can get better balance in different aspects of your life

Engagement is when we are completely absorbed by something, whether it is our work, pastimes, making the dinner, or any activity that we find just the right level of challenge and interest to take our fullest and finest attention. This totally engaged state is known as “flow”, occurring when we are totally absorbed in what we are doing. Greater “flow” brings greater happiness.



Having strong Relationships relates to those that bring us benefit. Human beings are “hive creatures”, Seligman says, not just selfish individuals.


Strong Relationships come from feeling respected and valued, loved and loving, and involves: love, compassion, kindness, gratitude, giving, teamwork and easy self-sacrifice.


ways to build stronger relationships

The more you feel that you have made someone else happier the more ~ and the longer ~ you will feel happier yourself.


  • Really listen. Try to listen even more fully and openly.
  • Give ~ your time, your attention, your interest, yourself…
  • Appreciate ~ others, yourself, beauty and excellence
  • Share successes
  • Make moments to enjoy being with people who matter to you

Meaning is the extent to which you feel that what you doing adds up to something beyond and unrelated to your own self-interest and ego.  It is the idea making a positive difference to something you care about, of belonging to and serving something that you believe to be bigger than yourself, such as a cause or activity linked to your deepest values. “The more meaning people have at work, the more productive they are,” Seligman says.


ways to increase your sense of meaning

Ask…  By doing this work what do I help to achieve?  What else?  What else? And what do these things help to achieve? …

4 Ways to Find Meaning in Any Job

  • Know what fuels you. Our personal values are hard-wired to our sense of purpose. When you know what you value right down in your bones, you’re able to anchor any activity or behaviour to a sense of something that genuinely matters, bringing your work alive with meaning and purpose. Discover what your values are and then look for how they can connect to what you do.
  • Turn up the texture of experience. Your sense of meaning can be found in the simple moments of life. Find ways to increase the intensity of what you bring by looking out for ways to be help, or show your warmth, or give your attention, or even by taking a deep breath of fresh air not because you’re stressed out, but because you love how it feels in your chest.
  • Leave a room better than when you found it. Decide never to leave a room until you’ve done something to contribute, make a difference, or leave it better than when you entered. Offer your insight or expertise, appreciate someone for something they’ve said or done, or simply give someone your fullest hearing.
  • Leave a little legacy as often as you can.  Look at your legacy as something you possess that you can gift to others by your own free will. Your time, consideration, skill, empathy, hospitality, experience — all of these things and more are things you can gift to others.

Accomplishment would appear to be self-evident, he states, but it is startling how self-discipline trumps talent. It is twice as important as IQ for predicting academic success, Seligman says.


Accomplishment comes from a combination of our own internal source of pride in what we have done and achieved along with sufficient recognition and appreciation from others.  One of the top reasons people give for feeling unhappy at work is insufficient recognition and appreciation from their manager.  And Gallup’s research into strengths based leadership concluded that if every manager were to spend 3-5 times as much of their conversations with their people talking about their strengths and achievements as they do about their weaknesses and failings, this one change alone would triple people’s productivity, engagement and commitment to their work and the organisation.



Resilience means making the best of – even becoming stronger as a result of – setbacks, failure, hardship or trauma.  It involves elasticity, bouncing back, flexibility and is grown from the capabilities of optimism, courage, buoyancy, self-determination, and perseverance.

Resilience is “the capacity to mobilise personal features that enable individuals, groups and communities (including controlled communities such as a workforce) to prevent, tolerate, overcome and be enhanced by adverse events and experiences” (Mowbray, 2010).


Seligman advocates simple techniques that will enhance one’s sense of wellbeing – one of which is to write down “three good things” that occur during the day.

“It turns out that when people do this, six months later they are less depressed and have higher positive emotion compared with a placebo.”

What works for the individual also works for larger organisations. Seligman pointed to research in the United States that showed a startling correlation between the type of language used on Twitter and incidences of fatal heart attacks.

One would seem ostensibly to have nothing to do with the other, but there was an unerring correlation between negative language used on the social media platform and increased risk of heart attacks.

“I think this is causal,” he says. “If you change the way people think and talk about the world, you can change things like the heart attack and death rates.”

The critical question, Seligman says, is whether PERMA can be taught. Can happiness be improved? Do these techniques work? Can the success or otherwise of such techniques be measured? He maintains the answer to all these questions is yes.

Studies in Bhutan have shown marked differences in schoolchildren to whom wellbeing was taught against a placebo group that was not taught wellbeing.

Bhutan has made national wellbeing – gross national happiness – a goal as distinct simply from gross national product. Children who were taught the techniques of positive psychology experience half the rate of depression and anxiety as adolescences, Seligman says.

Similarly, Seligman was employed by US army chief of staff George Casey to teach positive psychology to drill sergeants. Casey wanted an army that was mentally as well as physically fit and strong, and has spent €150 million teaching resilience psychology to soldiers.

The result has been a notable decrease in incidences of suicide, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. Governments should follow suit, Seligman says.

Happiness At Work - BMA

Post Script:

Here is one more quote from Martin Seligman, from when I heard him speak the Action for Happiness event in 2016:

I believe it is within our capacity that by the year 2051 that 51% of the human population will be flourishing. That is my charge.”  Martin Seligman

See also

Second Wave Positive Psychology: An Introduction

Learning to find light in the darkness…

Plus many more stories and articles in our eclectic collection:

Happiness At Work

Quality of Working Life 2012 – people are less happy at work than in 2007 and need training and new support


from ‘white man’s burden’ – an workshop exploring 21st leadership (info@bridgebuilders.co.uk)

This week’s Quality of Working Life 2012 report of the research taken in May this year into how UK people are at work provides a vivid snapshot of the human effects the years of economic difficulty, organisational change and uncertainty have brought – especially for people working in the public sector.

“The scale and impact of change over the last five years has been staggering as all of our key measures from the survey have deteriorated markedly since 2007. What is more worrying is that there seems to be no sign of economic conditions getting better – we are in for a worrying time if these trends persist into the future.” – Report author, Les Worrall FCMI, professor of strategic analysis in the faculty of business, environment and society at Coventry University.

Post-recession authoritarian management style depresses job satisfaction, finds CMI/Simplyhealth study

The dominance of negative management styles in UK workplaces is having a serious impact on managers’ job satisfaction, wellbeing and working relationships, according to the report comparing the mental and physical health of managers in 2012 with those in 2007 by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and Simplyhealth.

CMI chief executive, Ann Francke, said: “It’s official: especially in a recession, authoritarian is out and empowering is in. It’s more than just words – if you’re a trusting manager and are good to your people you can reap big business rewards. If you’re not, you’re causing stress that is damaging the health of your people and the business.”

Stressed Workplaces Need to Control Wellbeing

Employee wellbeing is at risk under the increasing dominance of negative management styles.  The Quality of Working Life 2012 reported that compared with 2007, managers have been working longer hours, increasingly suffering from ill health and more likely to work despite sickness.  It showed negative management styles were prevailing; 45% reported bureaucratic methods; 33% reactive; and 30% authoritarian.

Management style was closely linked to job satisfaction. Where the prevailing management style was seen as authoritarian, only 28% of respondents were satisfied with their job, compared to 67% of organisations where it wasn’t.

However this Report also states…

In spite of this, there are some hopeful signs that UK managers are ready to build organisations that are ready for the challenges of the next 10 years. There are examples of good organisations out there. These are characterised by more people orientated management styles and behaviours, by high levels of reciprocal trust, by openness, by empowerment and by more consensual approaches to decision making.

What stands out from this research is the crucial need for organisations to find some ways to provide and resource space and time for people to get learning, refection, and training.  The more difficult the things we are facing, the more critically we need the time and space to think creatively through the fullest spectrum of perspectives to find the best ways to progress forward, and new techniques and approaches to increase our repertoire of responses for the new demands and situations facing us…

Training boosts the effectiveness of policies – evidence shows that it is insufficient just to have health policies in place without also having training policies, communications policies and having set clear accountability for the delivery of policy.


While reports about this research, such as are rightly highlighting the high incidence and damages of bad management practice it reveals, too, the conditions in which managers are currently working in…

After analysing the 2012 data we can identify a number of themes that pose serious questions about how UK organisations are being managed:

  • Managers are being put under more pressure as cost cutting, redundancy and deteriorating terms and conditions take their physical and psychological toll.
  • Managers have become less positive about their organisation as a place to work and measures of job satisfaction have declined.
  • Working hours have increased and managers are having to work even longer hours to cope with the volume of work and to meet deadlines.
  • Illness levels have increased but managers seem less likely to take time off work when they are genuinely ill – presenteeism has increased.
  • The types of negative symptons that have increased most – such as feeling unable to cope, difficulty making decisions and avoiding people – are the ones which tend to undermine managerial effectiveness.
  • Managers have lost trust in senior managers’ ability to have their best interests at heart – possibly because senior managers and directors are those charged with putting difficult cost reduction exercises into place.
  • The difference in perceptions between managers at different levels in the hierarchy is wider than ever and we are left feeling that many directors are out of touch with the reality of their organisation as most staff experience it.

The final conclusion of the report is…

Health and wellbeing initiatives – at a time when cost reduction is a major driver of change in many organisations, it is particularly important for employers to understand the potential benefits of investing in health initiatives in the workplace. There may be a clear business case for health improvement initiatives in order to cut the costs of absence levels, but investment decisions should also be driven by the understanding that improved health and wellbeing can generate significant employee productivity benefits as a result of higher levels of engagement.

The research highlights how especially difficult things are for people working in the public sector, and what the knock-on effects of this are in their organisations.  Despite the severe resource shortages, in terms of money and people, this picture demands attention and new strategic thinking and action…

Change is the norm – 92% of managers had experienced organisational change in the last year. The scale and variety of change was highest in the public sector, with 98% experiencing change.

More Organisations are in decline – 46% of public sector managers said their organisation was in decline, compared with 18% in the not for profit sector, and 19 per cent in the private sector.

Wellbeing is worse in declining organisations – the number of managers affected by symptoms of ill-health was markedly worse in declining businesses, compared to growing ones.

Job satisfaction declined significantly – dropping from 62% in 2007 to 55% in 2012. Job satisfaction and many other measures were at their lowest in the public sector.

The clear evidence here is that organisations can not afford to wait to resume their training and learning programmes until things have got better, but rather must find ways to invest in developing leaders whose style and behaviours are open, collaborative, listening, trusting and empowering…

Managers are losing faith in senior managers – in 2012, only 30% thought senior managers were managing change well, compared with 45% in 2007. The percentage that thought senior managers were committed to promoting employee wellbeing also declined from 55 to 39.

Directors have  a much rosier view than other managers – the perceptions of those at the top of the organisation were far more positive than those of junior managers, and this gap has widened since 2007.

Junior managers are the least committed to their organisations – 47% of junior managers said they would leave their present organisation if they could find another job.

Management style, wellbeing, motivation and organisational growth – the most common management styles reported were bureaucratic (45 per cent – up from 40 per cent); reactive (33 per cent – down from 37 per cent) and authoritarian (30 per cent – up from 29 per cent). All these styles have a negative impact on motivation, health, wellbeing and productivity levels.

Leadership style affects job satisfaction – the prevailing leadership style in an organisation was found to be one of the strongest determinants of job satisfaction. The sense of achievement managers got from their job, the extent to which they felt trusted to make decisions, their potential career prospects, the “achievability” of objectives, and whether they felt part of a team were other strong determinants of job satisfaction.

Respect, autonomy, trust and achievement motivate managers – four features emerged as very strong motivational drivers for managers: having the respect of your peers; having the ability to decide how to get jobs done yourself (role autonomy); feeling trusted to make decisions; and, the sense of achievement managers got from their job.

Growth firms have more positive management styles – the prevailing management styles were found to be radically different in growing and declining private sector firms with growth firms far more likely to have accessible, empowering, trusting and consensual senior managers.

Highly motivated managers had higher levels of wellbeing – the highly motivated had taken only 1.3 days absence in the last year compared to 11.3 days for those not motivated at all.


The report also paints a vivd picture of the extra difficulties of the conditions in which people are having to work in, and some of the consequences of these…

Managers are working longer hours – in 2007, 38% of managers worked two hours per day over contract – by 2012, this had increased to 46%. The average manager worked around 1.5 hours per day over contract, which equates to roughly 46 working days per year.

Managers were concerned about adverse effects of long hours – 59 per cent were concerned about effects on their stress levels; 56 per cent were concerned about psychological health; and 63 per cent of parents worried that their hours were affecting their relationship with their children.

Most managers do not feel they have good health – only 42% of managers reported being in ‘good’ health, 37% thought their health was satisfactory and 21% felt their health was poor.

Psychological wellbeing has declined – the likelihood of managers reporting ill-health increased on 12 of our 13 measures with stress showing the largest percentage increase. 42% reported suffering from symptoms of stress (up from 35% in 2007) and 18% reported suffering from depression (up from 15% in 2007).

While this report shows a picture of how things were in May 2012, it recognises that it is essential for leaders and organisations to be able to look ahead and begin to make better solutions that can pull them away from these escalating problems and their costs toward a more possible and successful future, and the report lays out a series of recommendations…

Managing Your Own Wellbeing 

Develop better self-awarenessmany managers need to become more aware of the consequences of their actions and inaction. The style in which you manage can have a real impact on the morale, motivation and productivity of those around you. Managers also need to be more aware of the limits of their own resilience and actively manage their health accordingly. Even relatively minor symptoms can affect your performance at work.

Analyse your own value systems– managers need to critically analyse and question their own value systems. Make time to reflect on your work: ask yourself why you take certain actions and be more explicit about the consequences of the choices you make at work on your health, your family and your long-term wellbeing. 

Balance work and home commitments – it is important to recognise that both home life and working life carry with them distinct rewards and responsibilities, and that individuals must create an environment that enables them to balance these demands. Neglecting one over the other will lead to poorer performance across the board, so be flexible and work smart to meet competing demands.

Manage your wellbeing – managers often need to change habits, responses and thought processes that create anxiety, stress and overwork. The evidence of this research suggests that this area is often neglected, but managing yourself – including your wellbeing – is an important foundation for sustaining high levels of performance in your work. 

Managing Team Wellbeing 

 Listen to your people – a particular challenge for Directors is to understand that things can look and feel very different to those outside the senior executive team. Directors need to escape the bubble and move out into their organisations, getting a sense of the working reality in different functions, locations, and levels. Share and communicate your motivations and your commitment to the organisation’s future – but be prepared to recognise the real factors which mean others feel differently.

Aim to become a high-trust organisation – the research identifies the benefits of creating high-trust working relationships. Some managers are expert in building trust and consensus, but this can be particularly difficult for those working in declining organisations where managers are often competing for scarce resources and opportunities. Explore how you can build trust with your staff – but recognise that it takes time and may not be easy in the wake of severe cost-cutting or restructuring.

Motivate your managers – create the conditions which provide strong motivation and engagement for your managers. Give your managers autonomy in their jobs, set clear objectives and offer warm recognition when success is achieved. Presenteeism is still rife in too many organisations: look to provide greater flexibility in working patterns by measuring outcomes rather than inputs.

Reassess the organisation’s dominant management style – do you fully understand the pros and cons of your management style? There may be sound reasons for existing styles – for example, bureaucracies are protective, but they can be wasteful and demotivating. Can your organisation reinvent itself as a high-trust organisation? Examine how you might move from procedural systems to more holistic systems that take greater account of your people.

Managing Change

Understand the implications of change – change has become the norm for many organisations.  All managers, but especially directors and senior managers, need to become more aware of the costs and consequences of their actions, particularly in the implementation of change. It is important to recognise that change is inherently unsettling but the challenge is to understand the potential effects, identify who will be affected – including those indirectly affected – and look to limit any negative effects.

Communication and participation in change – key challenges in the delivery of change include creating a climate of open communication. Senior managers need to be sure that they are regularly connected to what is actually happening at the frontline. Look for real participation, sharing problem-solving and decision-making with those who are responsible for implementing the change.

Developing the skills to manage change – managers at all levels need to be effectively trained in the planning and implementation of change. This demands a greater focus on people skills as well as the technical aspects of change management. 

 Promoting Health

Measure employee engagement and wellbeing in the organisationa more holistic view of how organisations are managed is needed, especially in periods of change. This can be developed by building in more effective employee engagement and wellbeing metrics into management information systems. This will counter the primacy of “monochrome” financial measures and key performance measures in many organisations. Employee metrics can provide a far better indicator of an organisation’s longer-term health and growth potential.

Health and wellbeing initiatives – at a time when cost reduction is a major driver of change in many organisations, it is particularly important for employers to understand the potential benefits of investing in health initiatives in the workplace. There may be a clear business case for health improvement initiatives in order to cut the costs of absence levels, but investment decisions should also be driven by the understanding that improved health and wellbeing can generate significant employee productivity benefits as a result of higher levels of engagement.

You can download for free the Full Report to the Executive Summary at Quality of Working Life 2012

The full findings are published in a 68-page page report, available free of charge online, or priced at just £30 for a hard copy. Visit the CMI website and you can also access a range of free resources aimed at helping you improve the quality of working life in your organisation, including CMI checklists – normally available exclusively to CMI members – plus expert advice from Simplyhealth.