Finding Happiness at Work

By: Laura Berger

The Proven Science of How to Enjoy Your Job

In True Grit, Grace, and Gratitude, I used the term “happy hour” as a constructive and necessary analogy, but I do have a good bit of aversion toward the expression. Why does an hour we reserve to be happy have to be after work? I also have tepid excitement for the sayings “Work hard, play hard,” and “All work and no play makes Jack a Dull Boy” because the masses interpret them as having work and play happening at two different times.

My approach to executive coaching is multi-faceted and situation-based, but my greatest mission is to blur the lines between employment and enjoyment. My view of the optimal workspace to which leaders should aspire is one where leaders create, in themselves and their employees, a pervading feeling of drive, purpose, camaraderie, and comfort. Now let’s match the facets of that statement with the brain science behind the human state of happiness.

The article “Hacking Into Your Happy Chemicals“ by fellow Huffington Post columnist, Thai Nguyen of theutopianlife.com, sums it up beautifully, identifying the four primary brain chemicals secreted during happiness:

  • Dopamine – Creates motivation. Exposure also produces an addiction to winning.

  • Serotonin – Creates feelings of significance. People with high levels also manifest greater logic.

  • Oxytocin – Creates togetherness. Environments promoting oxytocin are also marked by strong teams.

  • Endorphins – Alleviate anxiety and depression. People with endorphin surges are also ambitious and perseverant.

Take a moment to see how well the bolded words map to my statement of the optimal workplace.

So what levers can we pull to promote happiness? And how do these techniques specifically map to the brain chemistry that makes you and your teams go to work with a big glorious smile?

1. Turn your work into a game

Da Big Kahuna here is Dopamine. Take it from fellow Psychology Today blogger David J. Linden, Ph.D., who showed that the interaction of challenge and success inherent in video games leads to the secretion of great amounts of dopamine, (a.k.a. the pleasure circuit). Dopamine also addictive, achievement begets a further desire to achieve. Just this week, I received an email from a client with whom I had devised a game called “Listen All the Way.” My interviews with work colleagues revealed her habit of interrupting, leading her to decisions based on incomplete information. Having played the game, she reported, “I realize we are often not aligned … and it turned out that their solutions are often better than mine.” She is surprised that her direct reports might have better solutions than hers because she at times forced her own solutions through interruptions. Through the game and a trickle of dopamine, she spontaneously gives herself room to empower her employees to empower her. By the way, when her employee is acknowledged for the solution, that serotonin release creates approval leading to a spontaneous ambition to achieve more, and when the team implements the joint solution, Oxytocin creates a feeling of togetherness. We find these chemicals appear together time and again.

2. Bring laughter to work

There are so many essential benefits that comedy troupes such as Darren Held’s Held2gether Improv for Life have brought forth in training the likes of Google, PepsiCo, MetLife, McKinsey, American Express, DuPont, Ford, and Procter & Gamble. One is that laughter is one of the most effective triggers of endorphins. Many people will dread two hours of continuous work. Put them in a comedy club with an ambitious comic who is slaying the room for the same amount of time, and they’ll fret when it’s over. The primary difference is that endorphins are being secreted, (a.k.a. the second wind chemical). Endorphins, also addictive, give you sudden bursts of energy and a desire to persevere with a task, even through massive amounts of discomfort. This explains how “runners high” is spawned from such an excruciating activity. Too many years ago, I was on a massive enterprise-wide project that was failing badly—until someone kidnapped our project mascot, a doll, and began sending pictures of it in various sordid situations and with injuries. The kidnapper laid out a menu of misfortunes that would befall the mascot as each future milestone was missed. The team found the charade hilarious, shaped up, worked together, and snapped back on track with the milestones with startling efficiency. Incidentally, see serotonin and oxytocin above.

3. Communicate clearly with employees, bring them together, and reward them

How cliché can I get? Well when science proves something out, it should be shouted from the rooftops beyond facial blueness. In everyday life, when we receive hugs and gifts, oxytocin brings us a feeling of togetherness and trust, leading to happiness and stronger relationships and teamwork. Organizations that communicate effectively and reward when clear goals are met have been clinically proven to achieve the same results for employees, bolstered by the research of fellow Psychology Today blogger Paul J. Zak. What’s more, I often encounter personnel of large corporations who meet global service days—where teams take time off to work at community sites—with hints of cynicism, feeling they and the less fortunate are being exploited by the company to enhance its brand. If they dug a bit deeper, however, they’d also find that when properly positioned and organized, these days could just as easily be named global oxytocin days, and their companies might actually be interested in their engagement and happiness as well.

I truly hope that understanding how the basic chemistry of happiness can be triggered during work will create greater incentives for today’s most powerful leaders to remove the dividing line between work and play to catapult our nations global economic effectiveness.


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Featured on ABC News, CNBC, Yahoo Finance, Redbook, Self, and the Miami Herald, Laura Berger is a certified executive coach and co-founder of the Berdeo Group. Her clients include leaders at JP Morgan Chase, The Walt Disney World Company, Financial Solutions Advisory Group, and Big Brothers Big Sisters. She is the co-author of two books: Fall in Love Again Every Day and Radical Sabbatical.

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Laura Berger

Featured on ABC News, in CNBC, Yahoo Finance, and in Redbook, Self, and the Miami Herald, Laura Berger is a certified executive coach and co-founder of the Berdéo Group. She has counseled leaders for 15 years, maximizing their potential in the areas of Evidence based leadership, global operations management, and strategic change management. Her clients include leaders at JP Morgan Chase, Leo Burnett Worldwide, American Hospital Association, Starcom MediaVest Group, The Walt Disney World Company, Financial Solutions Advisory Group, World Business Chicago, and Big Brothers Big Sisters. She is an in-demand speaker and co-author of two books: Fall in Love Again Every Day and Radical Sabbatical: Could You Say Goodbye to Everything You Know to Get Everything You Want?.

Will Millions Make You Happier?

by Stacy Francis, CFP®, CDFA

You've heard it ad infinitum, "Money can't buy happiness." Now there's scientific data to give the old saw new teeth.

University of Southern California economist Richard Easterlin surveyed 1,500 people over nearly three decades to see what gets high marks on their “Happy-O-Meter.” His results revealed that time with family and good health are the stuff of happiness.

Money? Did this play a role in happiness? The study found that wealth doesn't necessarily lead to joy and contentment. In fact, the magic number that equals satisfaction is far lower than you would expect. It's $40,000 a year. Once enough is earned to meet basic needs, money in relation to happiness is a very personal equation.

Oprah's magazine says so. And so does Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who studies such things. In fact, the rule is well established in research: The first $40,000 makes a big difference in one's level of happiness. After that, the impact is much smaller. The difference between someone making $40,000 and someone making $15,000 is far greater than the difference between $100,000 and $1 million.

Your Happy-O-Meter

So technically, most of you should be happy. And if you're working for the next big raise, forget it. You're better off working on teaching yourself how to look at your money with a different eye.

The sad truth is that we're twice as rich as we were in 1957, but only half as happy. As Dr. David G. Myers, an authority on the psychology of happiness, wrote in Does Economic Growth Improve Human Morale?, "Never has a culture experienced such physical comfort combined with such psychological misery. Never have we felt so free, or had our prisons so overstuffed. Never have we been so sophisticated about pleasure, or so likely to suffer broken relationships."

Despite air conditioning, TiVo, carb-free wine and high-speed Internet access, we're not as happy as our parents and grandparents.

Super Rich ≠ Super Happy

But what about the Donald Trumps of the world? Surveys reveal that even lottery winners and the superrich soon adapt to their affluence and are little if any happier than the average Joe. Moreover, those who strive most for wealth tend, ironically, to live with a lower overall well-being than those focused on intimacy and relationships.

"By far the greatest predictor of happiness in the literature is intimate relationships," Sonja Lyubomirsky, a researcher at the University of California-Riverside, told a Chicago Tribune reporter. "It's definitely not money."

In the end, happiness is about wanting and managing what you already have, spending time with friends and family, as well as taking care of yourself. So the next time you get green with envy when you see your favorite Fendi handbag go parading by, take comfort in knowing you would not be happier even if it was on your own arm!

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Stacy Francis, CFP®, CDFA

Stacy Francis is the Founder, CEO and President of Francis Financial, Inc., a Wealth Management and Financial Planning firm. With over 18 years of experience in the financial industry, she is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ (CFP®), a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst™ (CDFA™), and a Certified Estate Planning Specialist (CES™). She is the Co-Director of the Association of Divorce Financial Planners’ (ADFP) Greater New York Metro Chapter and a member of the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO) and an honoree member of the Private Risk Management Association (PRMA). A nationally recognized financial expert, Stacy has appeared on ABC News, CNBC, CNN, PBS Nightly Business Report, The Today Show, Good Morning America, Fine Living Network, and The O’Reilly Factor. Stacy attended the New York University Center for Finance, Law and Taxation.