guest post #14 – Lynette Harte – @LynetteHarte

The Scientific Secret of Happiness

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“How can you always be so bloody happy?”…………

This is a question often thrown my way in the staff room and it got me thinking. I’m not sure I am always that ‘bloody’ happy but certainly I do rise with a spring in my step and launch myself into the day and yes, smiling (mainly). But what is it about this happiness, and being happy, dare I whisper it – at work? In this post I want to share with you some of the science and wisdom of cognitive and occupational psychologists and the relatively new field of “Positive Psychology”. These, I add, are simply my own reflections on some brilliant work out there conducted by other people including articles and my main inspiration to share these ideas – a fabulous TED talk by Shawn Achor (@shawnachor). I reference my sources at the end, as I certainly don’t want confusion about the origins of this content. So the Science of Happiness….we can either ignore it, or take a risk and be brave enough to try to apply some of it in our lives. Particularly fitting as we return to school after the long summer hols.

Barbara Fredrickson has spent many years studying positive emotions as an adaptive response in terms of where they fit, if at all in evolutionary terms. From the evolutionary point of view positive emotions such as joy, serenity and gratitude are not nearly as useful as fear, anger or disgust. Indeed, if faced with threat on our lives in our ancestral past – they wouldn’t help us at all to fight off threat and be advantageous traits for us today – or would they? A study by Danner et al (2001) reflected upon biographical sketches from catholic nuns (please stay with me) and noted that those who expressed the most positive emotions lived on average up to 10 years longer than those who expressed the fewest. This increase in life expectancy is larger than the gain achieved by people who quit smoking – so surely this holds some value? The argument is that positive emotions actually serve to have deep and lasting effects ensuring higher levels of altruism to secure communities and strengthen relationships, the emotion of love – strengthening of social ties, and the counteracting of destructive negative thinking and fear which ultimately (through the stress response) can attack your immune system and make you at risk. Several other scientists have also found that those who feel good live longer. Findings such as this has led to the development and growth of a field called “Positive Psychology”. Fed up of Psychology only dealing with mental illness and trying to understand and treat the negatives of mental health, Martin Seligman controversially stated that Psychology does very little to offer a scientific toolkit for helping people to reach their higher ground, to excel, thrive and flourish in their lives. Psychologists in this field are now pursuing human strengths and this scientific source of happiness. So here we go. What is this all about?

Marla Gottschalk in her article “Positive Psychology and happiness at Work” suggests we need to directly examine the “internal lens” through which we view our work and life events and importantly how we strengthen and develop a much-needed resilience and skills set to deal with negative events. Happiness is not solely about the life events we experience, what seems to be more important is how we view these. A natural human tendency is to focus on negative events and information (arguably this links back to evolutionary needs and drive for survival). As a result of this, we do not recognise or value enough our successes – wrongly letting negative events, or things that have not gone well dominate our thinking and reflections. Now this is catastrophic thinking in the work place, especially in a school when so much can happen.

In “The Happy Secret to Better Work” (scroll down to see the superb TED talk on this), Shawn Achor talks about the additional problem that often we give up our own control of being happy by defining it as an externally controlled state, when actually our “internal lense” and own approach to our lives is crucial in determining it.  The mistaken myth is that the external world is responsible for 90% of our long-term happiness – where in truth 90% of our long-term happiness is actually due to the way our brain processes the world and our own attitudes and behaviours. This happiness is of crucial importance to our professional performance and potential for success. So if we can change our “lens” we can alter not only our level of happiness but also our level of educational and professional productivity.

Achor states that our traditional approach to seeking happiness in the work place is erroneous with how our brains actually function. Impressive figures are that only 25% of job successes are due to intelligence alone. Actually, the hidden 75% of job successes come down to positivity and performance (Hom and Arbuckle, 1988), happiness (Estrade et al, 1997) and mental optimism – the ability to see stress as a challenge and not a threat. Achor states that the solution to being brilliant and content in the work place is simple – we just need to reverse the traditional cognitive formula of happiness and success in the work place. How many times have we thought that “if I work harder, I will be more successful, and then I will be happy”? Notably, such a cognitive mind-set puts success ahead of happiness and actually makes the two forever incompatible. For when we attain our goals and reach the desired “success state” we then move the goal posts – wanting to achieve more – unfortunately along with this, by our own definition and formula, we move our attainment of happiness continuously beyond reach. He states we push happiness beyond our cognitive horizon! Achor quite rightly readdresses our formula for happiness and argues that if we start with being happy, by focussing on the positive and being optimistic in the present then we will experience the “happiness advantage” – we will then work hard and the success will take care of itself. The science bit if you like, is that happiness increases the release of dopamine in the brain – which not only makes us feel good, but activates the learning centres in our brain increasing our accuracy, creativity, productivity and even intelligence by a whopping 30%. So happiness is actually a pre-requisite to success in the work place and not a result of it.

What advice can this research give us? Well the argument is that small changes in our mental attitude and optimistic outlook can lead to a rippling outward effect on our lives and professional performance.

Shawn Achor suggests five key ideas and I urge you to try them:


  1. Write down 3 new things you are grateful for every morning for 21 days in a row. This will actually re-wire your brain to focus on the positive in your life and day to day living. This will retain the pattern and alter in the long term how you perceive situations, and challenges.
  2. Write down 1 positive experience you have had every 24 hours. This allows you to relive it and encourages re-activation of the dopamine and reward pathways in your brain.
  3. Exercise! This teaches your brain that your behaviour matters and that physical health and mental health go together (healthy body, healthy mind!)
  4. Meditation– take time out in whatever way suits you. This, he argues will allow us to remove ourselves from the culturally imposed ADHD and multi-tasking in our lives. It will allow you to focus on the task in hand instead of doing many things simultaneously (and badly).
  5. To realise the power of random and conscious acts of kindness. Try and send one positive email per day! (a challenge at times) – It resets the balance of negative and positive events and reactions.


So, is there any value in positive psychology? – are we in control of our own happiness and the wiring of our brains? Can our “inner lenses” really have such a drastic effect on our performance and productivity at work?

Some interesting ideas here, and before you watch the fantastic TED clip by Shawn Achor below, I leave you with this thought…….

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Now watch this:      

TED : The Happy Secret to Better Work; Shawn Achor 2011

NB Research reverence to Achor, Hom and Arbuckle, and Estrade et al cited in the TED talk by Shawn Achor.

References and further reading:

Fredrickson, B (2003) The Value of Positive emotions, American Scientist volume 91 p.330 – 335.


The following reference was quoted in Fredrickson (2003)


Danner, D. D., D. A. Snowdon and W. V. Friesen. 2001. Positive emotions in early life and longevity: Findings from the nun study.   Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80:804–813.

Gottschalk, M (2013) Positive Psychology and Happiness at WorkPositive Psychology and Happiness at Work




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