How do we build happiness at work?

Over the last year, it’s been my mission to better understand how workplaces, managers, and employees themselves are impacting a person’s ability to be “happy.” To me, happiness is a state without fear and anger, where calmness and fulfillment is present.

I recently completed Martin Seligman’s introductory Positive Psychology course which covers broadly how we build more resiliency into our lives to achieve wellbeing. One of the most impactful realizations of this course for me was that Seligman classifies depression as a disorder of the future.

I also study mindfulness. I try to meditate daily. In that training I also know that to have calm, peace and clarity of thought we must focus only on the present.

What I find interesting about these two different areas of study is that, while Seligman does mention mindfulness as a life skill that leads to positive wellbeing and resiliency there is still a dissonance between these ideas of the past and the future, while we are all working in the present.


So how does this apply to work?

Organizations that don’t correctly understand the role of past, present and future in the lives of their employees can create damaging work environments that lead to poor productivity and even employee health problems. If we stay only in the past or only in the future we risk the “flow” and productivity we can achieve today.

I believe organizations that dwell on the past chronically put their employees in a depressive state akin to swimming in an endless barrel of sewage of which one can never seem to climb out. We train our employees into a permanent state of learned helplessness where they can neither be the employee we need nor the skilled professional they know they are.

My tips for managers struggling with this problem:

  • Teach mindfulness: Encourage your employees to understand mindfulness so they can built their awareness skills to understand how they feel. When you face a workplace conflict, likely it is something about the past or about the future. If your employees can learn breathing exercises and how to meditate for at least 2 minutes when they face an explosive situation, you can reduce the number of conflicts on your team and promote more positive cooperation.
  • Stop taking things personally: Everyone should read The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. As a manager, you also have to understand that things aren’t personal and emotions are not reality. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t allowed to get angry or happy about things at work. But it does mean that we need to help our employees understand their underlying attachment to their emotions that drive their performance.
  • Listen for emotion: Have 1:1 weekly meetings with your employees and listen for both emotions and attachments to the past or the future. Sometimes it can be a positive that they recall a learning experience from the past or want to plan for a future event. However, if your employee dwells there (i.e.: “we have tried to do this same project multiple times and it has never worked before…”) you need to hear the underlying emotion of why they are stuck there. If you don’t hear it, then ask why. Maybe they are trying really hard to achieve a goal and, through your actions, you have unknowingly prevented them from accomplishing that goal. Maybe that makes them feel an emotion of anger or worthlessness. It’s then your job as their manager to esteem them so they can let that emotion go and continue to get back to the project at hand.
  • Ask your employees to know what unique value or skills they have: Most of the time when I ask this question (and I do phrase it differently depending on who I’m talking to) I am met with silence. Sometimes it’s a pause and then a long list of “I think….” Most people don’t know their true value and indeed it’s a hard thing to learn about yourself. But as a manager you often see potential in people that they don’t see in themselves. It is perhaps the easiest thing for you to do as a manager to esteem your employee after a project well done. Imagine someone who just naturally has a way of helping make sure everyone on a team works towards the same mission. This is a unique combination of communication, leadership and influence skills which could be wrapped up in personality traits of generosity, sincerity and trustworthiness. By simply having a conversation with them after the team meeting or during your 1:1 saying something like “I am so happy you are on our team. People trust you and you have a calm and patient way of explaining our goals. You have a knack for making sure we can stay on track by helping everyone understand what we are doing” you not only make them feel great but you point out key strength areas attached to who they are, not what they do, that make them a unique individual.

Got any more tips for how to coach your employees out of the past and into the present? I’d love to hear them.

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