Blog Post

Rho’s Book Club: The Happiness Advantage

July 14, 2015

Rho co-CEOs Laura Helms Reece, Dr.P.H. and Russ Helms, Ph.D. have started a book club for Rho featuring books that help employees grow personally and professionally and that support Rho’s company culture.  The book club was recently featured in the Triangle Business Journal.

Late last year, we decided to form a company book club as one of the latest additions to the programs we offer to maintain high employee engagement. Our goals are to select books that help our employees to grow both personally and professionally and books that help reinforce our values and company culture. We hope our employees will gain a fresh perspective on their job at Rho, their relationships with co-workers, and their relationships with clients. The discussion part of the book club gives employees an opportunity to share their ideas with co-workers and to hear from us about why we think the book is important.

For our most recent book, we chose The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor (you can get a sneak peek of the book by watching his TedTalk). Why did we choose it? We want happy employees! Not only do we think generally happy employees are part of the corporate excellence we strive for, but we think happy employees make for happier customers, and that’s good for business. In this book, Shawn Achor presents evidence that happiness leads to success—not the other way around. It’s a virtuous cycle. If we work at it, we can make ourselves happier and more successful. It takes practice, but it’s worth the effort. In addition to providing support for this view, the book provides actionable steps for making ourselves happier. What’s not to love?

Here we will summarize some key points from the book and some key take-away messages from the book club discussion. The book covers a lot of ground, so this article will focus on a few of the most important messages and those that have the most direct application to our workplace and workforce.

Happiness Leads to Success, Not the Other Way Around

The book begins by helping us to understand what happiness is, providing support for the book’s main assertion—happiness leads to success, not the other way around—and demonstrating that this stuff actually works. Happiness can be hard to define, but we’re taking it to mean a positive mood now and a positive outlook. Ten common adjectives associated with happiness are joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love. Three measurable components of happiness are pleasure, engagement, and meaning. The measurement part is important because the basis of the book is not speculation, but rather grounded in scientific study.

Happiness is not just a mood, it is a work ethic. Little doses of positivity can gradually move our “set point” (how we usually feel) higher over time. Some activities that have been proven to work for some individuals are meditation, anticipating something happy, conscious acts of kindness, a more positive environment, exercise, spending money on experiences and other people, and utilizing a personal strength. But perhaps the most valuable intervention is practicing gratitude. Throughout the book, Achor presents a number of specific ways people can practice gratitude. For instance, one method that has been repeatedly linked to a higher level of happiness is keeping a daily gratitude journal.

Leaders, in particular, can improve the happiness of others—and practice gratitude—by providing frequent recognition and encouragement. This works best when the encouragement or recognition are specific and deliberately delivered. Some options for doing this include sending a complimentary email, stopping by to say thanks, making time in meetings to talk about one person who deserves recognition, and asking other leaders or executives to contact an employee who deserves recognition. As a result of this book club, our Leadership Team is experimenting with an idea from the book: dedicating a portion of certain routine meetings to describe employee performances we’ve observed that make us grateful, and picking someone to go say an extra “thank you.”

The Fulcrum and the Lever

The fulcrum and the lever is a metaphor used to describe changing your mindset to increase your happiness. The lever is how much potential we think we have and the fulcrum is the mindset we use to generate change power. Moving the fulcrum towards a negative mindset creates more negativity by enhancing your ability to experience unhappiness. Moving the fulcrum towards a positive mindset does the opposite—it enhances your ability to experience happiness, and makes it easier to be aware of all the reasons to be happy.
One example used to illustrate this principle was a week-long experiment on a group of 75 year old men. The men went on a retreat where they were told to pretend that it was 1959. They were supposed to dress and act as they did at the time, had ID pictures of themselves at that time, and talked about events that occurred in 1959. An amazing thing occurred—their mental construction of their age changed their physiological age. Prior to the retreat, the men were measured on aspects we assume deteriorate with age—physical strength, posture, perception, cognition, and short-term memory. By the end of the retreat, the men had improved in every aspect.

An important conversation we had during the book club session was about our mindset about our work. We discussed job crafting—changing your mindset to make your job a calling. We talked about what potential meaning and pleasure exist in our jobs. Our core purpose—to improve health, extend life, and improve the quality of life via corporate and research excellence—makes it easy for many of our employees to find meaning in our work. Many also find meaning in more specific ways—providing excellent service to our clients, helping make a co-workers day better, or achieving a project milestone with their team. Recognizing the meaning and sources of pleasure in our jobs can make us happier at work.

The Tetris Effect

The Tetris Effect is based on a study where students were paid to play Tetris for hours each day. Following study, some students couldn’t stop dreaming about shapes falling from the sky while some students saw Tetris shapes everywhere they went. This is now used to more broadly describe someone who is stuck in a pattern of thinking or behaving. This can have positive or negative implications depending on what patterns of thinking or behaving you train your brain to follow. The key point is that whatever you practice, you experience everywhere, even in very different contexts.

In the example of playing Tetris each day, it can be negative. There are few practical implications to seeing shapes falling from the sky everywhere you go. This is also true for grumpy people. People who practice spotting things to complain about will find things to complain about everywhere and all the time.
On the other hand, people who practice spotting positive things—say, things that provoke gratitude—will find reasons to experience gratitude everywhere and all the time. Train your brain to look for the positive and you will see more opportunities for growth and more chances to help others grow. Our minds respond strongly to training and practice. One way to make this a practice is to start each day by making a list of three blessings (one form of a gratitude journal). Alternatively, you can make a short journal entry each day about a great experience you’ve had. Make these a habit and you increase your chances to seize on positive opportunities.
Achor reminds us that we can’t ignore reality—we shouldn’t ignore real risks; but, at the same time, we can give more priority, weight, and attention to the positive, and thus experience more of the positive.

Falling Up

The key to Falling Up is learning to use adversity and failure to get ahead. Those who see failure as horrible are traumatized by it. Those who see it as a chance to learn, grow. Whether an experience has a positive outcome isn’t about what happens to you, it’s about how you respond. That’s why we discourage blame here at Rho and encourage lessons.
One way to make this happen is to adopt a positive explanatory style. What does that mean? Look at adversity as something that is temporary and local. Compare your outcome to possible outcomes that are worse. Changing both your inward and outward dialogue about failure and adversity can change how you actually feel about it.

Social Investment

When we encounter an unexpected challenge, the best way to save ourselves is to hold tight to the folks around us. Things get tough for all of us from time to time, yet people tend to respond in one of two distinct ways. One way is to close people out. Final exams are coming, so you lock yourself in a study carrel for weeks without outside contact. Or, you reach out and connect. You intentionally set aside time to go out and have fun with your friends. The group that takes the second direction consistently performs better and is happier. This applies to work settings too.
This principle should change how we as leaders spend our time. Time spent building and reinforcing relationships is almost always time well spent. Make eye contact. Ask interested questions. Schedule face-to-face meetings. Initiate conversations that aren’t always task oriented. When good things happen, actively respond.

This is an important part of why we at Rho emphasize relationships and a team culture. A team culture has always been a Core Value of ours: what we do is mentally demanding and difficult, and we’ve always found we do it better when we enjoy the support of our teammates. As part of that, we have long emphasized that a key expectation of all employees at Rho is to foster good relationships. Results are great, but we expect our employees to create their results in a way that builds relationships. We’ve found that’s good for business—it’s nice to learn that it’s a contributor to happiness, too!

Up Next

For our next book club session we will be reading and discussing Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less