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Lessons in Happiness. By Dawn Smith


Once relegated to the self-help bookshelf, the subject of happiness is becoming a respectable theme for scientific research and business thinking. The rise of positive psychology and the discovery of happiness circuits in the brain have gone hand in hand with a growing realisation that employee well being can affect the bottom line. Dawn Smith asks how training can help someone to be happier, and whether increasing employees’ happiness levels can have business benefits.

“A few years ago if we had gone into an organisation and started talking about happiness they would have called security to throw us out; but now it’s completely different,” says Ian Lynch, business manager at The Happiness Project - the organisation founded by Dr Robert Holden, who featured in the 1996 QED programme, “How to Be Happy”. That programme showed how three people on an eight-week happiness training course dramatically and demonstrably increased their happiness levels.

Now, Holden’s Happiness Project offers business training and coaching as well as public courses. “With businesses, we used to sneak in the idea of happiness under the cover of success,” says Lynch, “but now we can be more open.” Having said that, the Project still provides its business workshops and master classes under the brand of “Success Intelligence” - also the title of a book by Holden.

“When you go into a business you have to use different language” says Dr Ilona Boniwell, who leads the recently launched MSc course in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of East London - thought to be the UK’s only degree in happiness. “You have to use terms like engagement, strength and resilience, which is correlated with happiness.” (Dr Boniwell will speak on the subject of resilience at two ICAS well being business seminars this autumn).

Is a happy workforce a better one?

Some wariness about “happiness training” is understandable. Even before considering how, and how far, you can increase a person’s happiness, there is some controversy over whether it’s worth trying in the first place.

Ilona Boniwell notes some business benefits: “People who are happier generally are happier at work - in their dealings with people, and their approach to teamwork,” she says. “They are also healthier, so don’t take as much time off sick. When employees are happier, morale is higher, and there is a lower staff turnover.”

However, there is conflicting research on whether a happy worker is more productive. For example, as reported previously on TrainingZONE, a study at the University of Alberta showed that happy people made twice as many errors as sad people when completing circuit boards. The study suggested that sad people may devote more energy to a task in order to distract themselves from feeling bad. On the other hand, the same researcher found that when a person believes a task will make them feel good, they devote more energy to it.

“There hasn’t been a really big study done on the correlation between happiness and productivity,” says Boniwell. “Martin Seligman [positive psychology author, professor and researcher] is currently trying to find a large organisation to cooperate on a study.”

At The Happiness Project, Ian Lynch makes a distinction between the productivity of “sad” employees, who may focus more closely on tasks to keep their minds off their misery, and happy employees, who he says are more likely to be creative, use their talents at work, get on well with colleagues, be pleasant to customers, and thereby enhance the brand and the business in significant ways. “A lot of businesses are waking up to the fact that having a workforce of automatons and complainers doesn’t work,” he says. “If you have a happy workforce that is creative, your business will be more successful.”

Can you teach happiness - and what is it anyway?

Various techniques can apparently help people to be happier, though psychologist and author Peter Honey is careful to make the distinction between teaching and learning. “I think it is entirely possible to help people to learn how to be happier,” he says. “I don't think it is possible to 'teach' people to be happy since teaching and learning are different processes. Teaching is something you do to people, learning is something people have to do for themselves.”

Some of the techniques used to help increase happiness involve positive thinking, but happiness is more than just looking on the bright side, adds Honey . “Positive thinking is a means, and happiness can be a consequence,” he says. Ilona Boniwell agrees that positive thinking is not the same thing as happiness, which she says is “about changing your deeper attitudes.”

Fortunately, since there are many differing opinions about happiness, it seems that helping someone to be happy doesn’t depend on having a mutually agreed definition ‘on the whiteboard’. “I don't think it is necessary to have a precise definition,” says Peter Honey. “Happiness is one of those things that falls into the category of 'I'll know it when I see (i.e. feel) it'.” In her MSc course, Ilona Boniwell does define happiness, but says that when working with someone it doesn’t matter what their own definition is, since it is still possible to ask them how they feel.

However, there is a real barrier to helping someone be happier: a person’s happiness can only be increased to a certain degree, says Boniwell. Identical twins studies have shown that around 50% of a person’s happiness and life satisfaction is influenced by their genes. Around 10% is influenced by their life circumstances, and around 40% is determined by their deep attitudes - and is therefore open to influence. “In reality, though, only around 20% could be influenced,” she says.

Tested techniques

For those who feel it’s worthwhile trying to increase someone’s happiness (or their own) by 20%, there are many changes in thinking and behaviour that could be helpful - such as increasing the amount of pleasure somone allows themselves (which could be as simple as consciously laughing more often), exercising more, making more time for friends and relationships… But since there isn’t space to look at all the potential ingredients of a happiness course, here are just a few tips provided by the people we spoke to:

A gratitude diary:
Being grateful was the number one technique advised by Annie Lawler of Breathing Space for Business, in her TrainingZONE article about Positive Attitude Training last September. It is also high on the list at The Happiness Project. “Most people get busy and don’t pay attention to what’s good - only what’s gone wrong,” says Ian Lynch. “A gratitude journal is one of the techniques that has a greatest effect on our courses.” Ilona Boniwell suggests thinking of ‘three good things’ each night, that have happened during the day. “There is empirical evidence that this technique works,” she says. “It gets obsessive after a while, and people go through the day trying to find good things.”

Practicing self acceptance:
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to happiness is the idea that ‘I’m not good enough’, says Ian Lynch. “Most people have this idea, in some form, to some extent. Learning to accept yourself really is key”. Archie Mundegar, MD at you:unlimited, agrees: “Personal happiness depends on the attitude you have decided to have towards life, towards others and especially towards yourself,” he says. On the eight-week courses offered by The Happiness Project, various exercises, including meditation and positive declarations, are used to encourage participants to give up self judgement, dump guilt and be happy with themselves. But unlearning the habit of self judgement takes persistence. One tip is to place visual reminders in various places (coloured dots for instance), so that if thoughts wander into the self judgement zone, people are reminded to stay on course.

Internalising your locus of control:
This technique also works in stress management training: it is based on the premise that a person’s reaction to events, not the events themselves, create feelings of unhappiness (and stress). Once a person realises that they are not controlled by outside forces - whether the government or the boss - and that they themselves control their reactions, they can become happier. Peter Honey calls this type of technique “showing people how to choose their thoughts”. He says: “It isn't situations that inevitably make you unhappy, but what you are thinking about the situation.”

Activities which are completely absorbing (where everything flows effortlessly) promote happiness. The type of activities which fit the bill require a challenge, says Ilona Boniwell, which the person has the skills to meet. At The Happiness Project, they talk about “staying in the moment”.

Using your signature strength:
Everyone has certain strengths which characterise their best. (A self test on Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness website can identify them). Finding out what these are and using them in new ways increases happiness, says Boniwell.

Goals and meaning

Happiness is also correlated with achieving goals, adds Boniwell, but it’s important that the goals are meaningful - something you really believe in. Unfortunately, many people chase the wrong goals. Only a small proportion of a person’s happiness is determined by their circumstances, but many people still believe that achieving material goals, such as wealth and fame, will make them happy. “Achievement of intrinsic goals makes you happier than achieving extrinsic goals, so goals to do with money and material success are not very good ones to bat for.” she says.

Archie Mundegar at you:unlimited - which has devised a 7-point goal-getting plan - says that when coaching, he starts out by asking “What do you want?”, but follows up with “Ok, now what do you really want?” and “What would that do for you?” This helps people connect what they are doing with their reasons for doing it, he says. “If your actions and your intentions are misaligned then you will never be happy.”

Of course, money matters - but only up to a certainly level, so that your basic needs are satisfied. After that, it’s not so important. “In terms of happiness, the difference between those who are very rich and those who are just OK is very small,” says Boniwell. This is borne out by research - including a poll conducted for the BBC last year, in connection with its series, ‘The Happiness Formula’. The poll by GfK NOP found that the proportion of people saying they are "very happy" has fallen from 52% in 1957 to 36% today, despite a threefold increase in wealth. This accords with other research cited in the series, showing that in most developed nations, happiness levels have stayed almost level over the past half century, despite increases in income.

At The Happiness Project, Ian Lynch suggests an intriguing reason why people might continue to chase material goals, even though they fail to make them happier. “A lot of people chase success and money because they feel they are not good enough,” he says. “They need to realise that happiness comes from the inside.”

Measuring results

In the 1996 BBC programme “How to be Happy’”, the change in the subjects’ happiness levels was measured through questionnaires, and also objectively verified by measuring increased activity in an area of the brain associated with happiness. However, organisations that don’t have access to laboratory equipment could measure the results of any happiness training by using the tried and tested questionnaires on the Authentic Happiness website, says Ilona Boniwell.

Of course, this begs the question of whether you should try to measure results, when the theme is so subjective. The Happiness Project places a high emphasis on feedback and measurement, using questionnaires to assess the effectiveness of its training. But psychologist Peter Honey, for one, is a sceptic when it comes to measuring the impact of training generally. “Organisations don't measure lots of other things that cost money and are assumed to be necessary even though they are far more questionable,” he says. “For example, management meetings, having designated parking spaces, and working all hours.”

More information:

  • Authentic Happiness:

  • Breathing Space for Busines:

  • The Happiness Formula:

  • The Happiness Project / Success Intelligence:

  • MSc in Applied Positive Psychology:

  • Peter Honey Publications:

  • Positive Psychology website:

  • you:unlimited:
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