What is happiness anyway?

You’ve been given a wax candle, a book of matches and a box of thumbtacks, and asked to fix the candle to a corkboard on a wall so that it will not drip wax onto the floor. Can you solve this puzzle in ten minutes?

Well interestingly, you are more likely to if you’re in a good mood.

Alice Isen spent decades investigating if happiness makes us more creative. Her experiments proved that good moods make us more innovative and better at problem solving. The experiment described above was designed to test creative thinking. Known as Duncker’s candle problem, it is usually only solved by 13% of people within ten minutes, but Isen discovered that those in a happy mood succeeded 75% of the time.

So happiness is not just a warm, fluffy feeling. It may be hard to pin down exactly what happiness is, but the benefits of happiness are easy to pin down. It is vital for health, relationships, and business success. Not only is happiness useful as a means to these ends, but it is also a worthwhile end in itself.

Happiness is also essential for our survival as a species. Evolutionary scientists believe that feeling happy is a sign that we are safe, which allows our brains to function on a higher level than merely deciding whether to ‘fight or flight’. While emotions like fear and anger serve to narrow our focus and help us cope with threats, happiness broadens our attention, expands our thinking and helps us to succeed in building our relationships and our resources.

However many people still think that happiness only comes after this success. Whilst this is often the case, the opposite is actually more likely: happiness comes first, boosting our mental capacities and providing the mental resources required to succeed. Perhaps this is why it’s something we all want, both for ourselves and for our loved ones. We want to be happy, but most of us are don’t really know what it means. We’ve all experienced happiness at points in our lives, but what exactly is it? Is it a sense of pleasure, the satisfaction of achieving our goals, or the feeling that life is worthwhile?

Scientists, economists and policymakers have also found happiness hard to define, using at least five different types of measurement method. Some define happiness as a sense of pleasure, while others argue it is a certain standard of living. Some believe happiness is getting what we want, some say it is being successful and others define it as the feeling that our life is worthwhile. All of these definitions intuitively feel important for happiness, but each only seems to tell a part of the story.

To solve this dilemma, NEF proposed an insightful solution. Rather than view these definitions as a states of happiness that are all different, they can be thought of instead as different stages of a single dynamic process, all interlinking and influencing each other, in both virtuous and vicious cycles:

The Dynamic Model describes how “flourishing” or happiness is the result of interactions between different evaluations of our lives. The model can be applied to our lives in general, as well as to more specific areas. Using the workplace as an example; how people feel at work is influenced by what they do and how they do it, which depends on both the organisational environment they work in and their own personal resources.

The many benefits of happiness are shown by the feedback loops in the diagram. When people function well and feel happy they both improve their quality of life and further develop their personal strengths. In turn, their enhanced external conditions and additional personal resources lead to better functioning and even more feelings of happiness, continuing the process in a positive cycle of improvement.

This upward spiral could explain the huge gap Towers Perrin-ISR found between happier workers and staff who were less happy. Over a twelve-month period, companies with high levels of employee engagement improved their operating income by 19.2%, whilst companies with low engagement declined by 32.7%. Similar findings have been reported by Hays, happier workplaces achieve 4.5 times the revenue growth of less happy organisations, and engaged employees are 50% more likely than average to outperform their individual targets.

We can all be empowered to take control of our happiness. Every one of us can make a difference, both for our own experience and for those we work with. With happiness as our focus, we can all buy into a fair, enjoyable self-reaffirming process that will improve every aspect of our work and our lives.

So is happiness worth promoting? Absolutely. Happiness is both intrinsically valuable and instrumentally useful. Happiness is the goal that we all desire, and it is a very effective means to improving business. Positive emotions increase motivation and collaboration, we care about our work and our relationships. As scientists like Alice Isen have proved, happy people are more creative and flexible – two qualities that are critical to any business success.

Incidentally, if you’re still struggling with the candle problem, consider using the thumbtack box as a tray.

Nic MarksNic Marks is the CEO and founder of Happiness Works. Nic’s work in happiness and wellbeing research methodology is world-renowned. His love of using applied statistics to ground wellbeing and happiness in hard evidence has led to worldwide acclaim and the realization that happiness is a serious business.

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