Some research studies, like the ones where subjects self-administer electric shocks or tediously press buttons over and over again, don't sound like much fun. But a couple of years ago European researchers ran one experiment that I'd definitely have signed up for: participants got to watch a standup comedian and eat free chocolate before taking a series of math tests. 

What was the point of this pleasant experiment? To test the effects of happiness on performance, and when the researcher compared the performance of those they treated to sweets and laughs to another group that got exactly nothing, a clear winner emerged. Happiness apparently improved subjects' performance by around ten percent. 

Which suggests you should be nice to yourself the night before that big test. But do these results mean anything for managers and entrepreneurs? Out in the real world of work does happiness increase productivity by as much? The answer, according to new research out of Oxford University, is no -- in fact, happiness seems to raise productivity by a little more. 

Happier workers are more productive workers.

This new study focused on 1,800 workers at British Telecom call centers and lasted six months. It's design was simple. Each week the employees would report their level of happiness with a simple emoji and then this would be compared with standard metrics BT used to monitor their performance, such as call time and the percentage of calls converted into sales, as well as hours worked and customer satisfaction. 

The results, according to Quartz's Cassie Werber were clear: "The academics discovered that workers were on average 13 percent more productive in weeks when they self-reported as being very happy, compared to those weeks when people reported being very unhappy."

That 13 percent bump in performance beats the one gained from standup and sweets, but could the arrow of causation point the other way? Could it be that doing a good job made employees happier? Nope, say the authors and common sense, both of which suggest that the drudgery of low-level call center work doesn't exactly send people into fits of joy. Additional research apparently backs up this easy-to-believe claim. 

The left the researchers with a simple conclusion: happier workers perform better than unhappy ones. 

Takeaways for individuals and managers 

So what's the takeaway? It's clear for individuals that prioritizing your own happiness isn't an indulgence to worry about after you've achieved career success. As Harvard researcher Shawn Achor has pointed out here on Inc.com before, happiness will actually help you achieve your goals

But this new research also underlines an important truth for managers. There are hard-nosed business reasons to want to keep your people happy. How exactly to do that was outside the scope of this specific study, but there is a ton of other research and advice you can consult if this latest finding has finally convinced you that happiness isn't a fluffy extra, but a big productivity booster. 

Published on: Nov 6, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.