The science of happiness – Positive Psychology

A few of our clients have started talking to us about how they can create more purpose and meaning for their people at work. I love thinking and talking about this as I’ve always been fascinated by what makes people tick. Earlier this year I was lucky enough to attend the Fifth World Congress on Positive Psychology. It was amazing, so much brain food. When I studied Psychology at University, Positive Psychology didn’t exist – if  it had, I’d have been even more hooked.

At the conference, Steve Cole (professor of medicine at UCLA) delivered a mind-blowing session. For the past ten years, Steve and his team have been studying Genomics – the way genes express themselves. Before the session I thought that my body was separate from my mind and that my thoughts, perceptions and actions had no impact on my health. I was wrong.


We can control our DNA

Steve’s research has shown that our genetic DNA doesn’t determine our physiological destiny. Instead it offers our bodies a menu of opportunities. We have a surprising degree of control over the way our DNA plays out: the way we live our life and perceive the world influences which of our many genes get ‘switched on’.

His initial studies were all about the dark side. What happens if we experience ongoing stress, uncertainty and threat? Or if our life experiences have taught us to perceive the world to be a hostile, unpredictable or threatening place? If you live this sort of toxic lifestyle or have a negative mindset towards the world then the genes associated with cardiovascular and neurodegenerative illnesses are more likely to be ‘switched on’. In fact, there’s a long and depressing list of such illnesses. On top of this, our resilience to viral infections is also likely to be diminished. Grim.

Steve’s research turned a happier corner when he joined forces with Barbara Fredrickson, a leading Positive Psychologist from the University of North Carolina. They set out to understand whether living a happy life has a positive impact. It turns out that it does – but it’s got to be the right type of happiness.




How to be happy

Psychologists call it Eudaimonic well-being, which is quite a mouthful, you get it from:

  • Prosocial behaviour, doing things that contribute to the greater good
  • Being kind towards others.

So, leading a life that is prosocial and having a purpose that is connected to the greater good reduces your likelihood of suffering from things like cardiovascular and neurodegenerative illnesses, as these genes are blocked. Result!

Non-prosocial sources of happiness register in the body in a different way. So, a purely hedonistic life style doesn’t have the same positive physiological impact. That means it’s not just about having a good time. You have to do good as well.


Creating happiness inside the 9 – 5

Imagine a future where people’s work experience gives their lives more meaning and purpose – that tense Sunday evening feeling goes away as Monday mornings are no longer something to dread, but something to look forward to. Steve sees that organisations have a huge opportunity to help their people understand how they can live their life in a way that pulls forth their healthiest genome expression, especially when they are deciding what to do with their life/career and the choices they make day-to-day. Being able to contribute to the greater good has potentially huge implications for the goals companies should be setting themselves – and everything beyond.

We know that organisations that do this well tend to have happier, more fulfilled people who flourish and realise their full potential – creating a virtuous circle of loveliness which in turn is better for the bottom line. So, to unpick how they do this we’ve partnered up with a few of the world’s leading Positive Psychologists. At a practical level we are starting to understand what organisations can do to shape the right sort of employee experiences: experiences that put the humanity back into working life.