The Science of Happiness part 1 – Reality is important

This is a short series of posts where I’m writing about a talk I went to last week on the topic of: The Science of Happiness. It was held by Action for Happiness, and the speaker was Tal Ben-Shahar. In the field of positive psychology, Tal is one of the leading figures of academia, practise and thought leadership.

There is something about someone who understands basic things about audience dynamics before he’s even started the presentation which I enjoy. On this evening, Tal made comment that he doesn’t like to do evening talks because that’s when we should be with our family’s or loved ones and spending time with them. He also said that he was told by the compere that he had to keep the talk short and that the hall was only booked until midnight (the programme was due to end about 8:30 pm).

From there it was just a treat to listen to him talk. He relayed a story about someome asking him what’s the one secret to happiness? He replied, there isn’t one, but three – reality, reality, reality. And this was a repeated theme during his talk.

For me, I loved hearing this. He spoke about the work that’s been done in this field and said that time and again it’s not extraordinary or successful people who are any more happy than anyone else. Instead it’s that there are ordinary people, showing ordinary attributes which help them be happy.

Personal is everything. Perspective is everything. There is no global panacea for happiness. It’s all about you and what sense you make of the world.

He continued by telling us how in children we see the best of what this could be. When faced with hard situations, challenging life options and an unclear future, is when resilience is most important. When people are able to consider the following, they allow themselves to build their resilience and have a better future:
– clear future goals
– being kind to others / volunteering
– an optimistic outlook
– identifiable role models
– physical exercise

There’s a lot to say about that list and to help people understand them better. It’s far from exhaustive but are broad categories that capture a lot of behaviours which are beneficial to individuals.

When he started talking about how our thinking affects our reality, I was agreeing vigorously. If our focus is on what’s not going right, then the solutions and insights we seek are only supportive to that. That only makes sense to me and I’m left saying, of course it does! But it’s one of those obvious statements that sometimes needs stating.

The opposite is also, clearly, true. If our focus is on what’s going well, then the solutions and insights we seek will be in support of that.

Remember, reality is important. If we’re not addressing reality, we’re not giving ourselves the right opportunities to be happy. Answering questions around what’s not working are useful and important. Answering questions around what’s working well help provide optimism and hope.

In part two I’ll talk about appreciation, imperfect people, and psychopaths, all from Tal Ben-Shahar’s talk.

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What makes a happy workplace?

Recently I had the pleasure of carrying out a series of interviews with leaders in their respective fields. With their agreement, I’m going to blog about the talks and share the audio and video content.

My first interview was with the very infectiously positive Henry Stewart. This guy has enthusiasm and passion for what he does in abundance. I love that.

I chose Henry because I enjoyed meeting him at one of the Connecting HR unconferences, subsequently at the inaugural L&D Connect unconference and then reading his book, the Happy Manifesto.

We started talking about how he began his journey into creating a happy workplace. He was part of a group of people who started a campaign publication and in the process raised £6.5 million. Wow, right? What a great way to start a business, and with capital at your disposal. They lost it in six weeks. But why, I asked?

Henry: Because we created a company that was a truly dreadful place to work. It was full of endless meetings, back biting, and blame. We hired some fantastic people and created an environment where it was impossible for them to work. What should have been an ethical and principled company was worse than when I was working at IBM.

As you listen to the playback, you’ll hear a consistent laugh from Henry which is infectious and I couldn’t help getting dragged along by it. Love it!

We moved on to talking about Maverick by Ricardo Semler. Henry swears by it as a text focused on people that he gives everyone a copy who joins Happy.

I asked Henry why he thought the theory behind Semler’s success could work here in the UK.

Henry: Why not? The old way wasn’t working. This made sense. People can be trusted wherever they are, and it seemed to work.

Nice and simples. I’m liking this guy the more and more I talk to him.

I picked his brain about this concept of ‘pre-approval’.

Henry: You have to have clear parameters. The moment I see the detail I want to get involved. It’s no longer Johnny’s project. I have to say – how are we going to measure this? As long as he accepts those are the measures, he needs to understand what I won’t accept. And he’ll create a great site, and if not, he’ll get feedback. There are 8 steps to help make this happen. It’s to avoid me as the manager seeing the detail, which I’ll mess up. Because when we get involved we always get it right, don’t we?! I can’t get involved in everything and I can’t come up with the best ideas.

I’ve been fascinated by his association with Action for Happiness which I enjoy following on Twitter, and wanted to find out more about this.

Henry: They’re simply trying to help people be happier. It’s about helping other people. It’s about staying active. It’s about good relationships. These are simple steps people can take.

Me: Do you see this movement is gaining momentum?

We saw last year (2012) it was on the front page of Harvard Business Review. Research has shown us that the best 100 companies to work for produce better market results than investing in the FTSE 100. If you went back 25 years and invested in them, you’d have made a greater return than traditional investments.

Me: What do you say to the cynics and try to win them over?

Henry: I do a thought exercise – do you agree people work best when they feel good about themselves? Nearly everyone puts their hand up. So what’s the point of management? Maybe it’s to help people feel good about themselves? What would your organisation be like if that’s the focus of management? Most people come up with positives. Not everyone will go away and do this. We can’t always do this, but people agree it’s the right thing to do.

Me: So what’s the challenge behind not doing this?

Henry: The challenge is that this is the best way to help them (people) be productive. Is it the priority for them (organisations), that’s the challenge. There are some companies who are ready to lap it up, and others who are just stuck.

Me: How can HR/L&D get involved with this or influence this?

Henry: They have to be making the links internally. They need to know what they’re expecting as a result in three months time before launching a programme like this. You need to ask questions like, what do you (the organisation) want to achieve? It can’t be about just spending some budget so you don’t lose it the following year. It needs to be about talking the language of the business so they understand the benefit of doing so.

Me: Do you find interest from HR/L&D field? Or is it mainly entrepreneurs and CEOs and MDs?

Henry: I’m pleased that at the Happy Conference we have about a third who are CEOs. With HR I find there are those who enjoy working with people, and those who enjoy working with process. Those about the latter need to get out of the job(!).

We finished the talk by talking about the Happy Workplace Conference which has now since passed. If you want to know more about The Happy Manifesto, visit the website. Henry does regular talks and speaking engagements and can be followed on Twitter here.

And if you’re interested in hearing a very amateur attempt at recording the interview, that’s right here. Unfortunately I’ve not mastered merging MP3 files, so this interview is in five parts – there’s about 40 mins of interview.

Part One.

Part Two.

Part Three.

Part Four.

Part Five.