I have been writing on positive psychology ever since I read the masterful Happiness Advantage by one of the movement's current poster boys -- Shawn Achor.

The beauty of this field is found in the belief that people aspire to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, and positive psychology is the gateway to get us there.

But experiencing the happiness advantage doesn't happen with a flip of a switch. It takes a period of training your brain to adapt virtuous behaviors until they become ingrained as lifestyle habits, leading to more happiness, optimism and resilience.

If you're serious enough to commit to the journey toward sustained happiness, here are 5 basic starting points that will get you there.

1. Be generous. Even a generous attitude will suffice.

You don't have to be a neuroscientist to know that being generous and doing things for others makes you feel happy. But now, studies have discovered that even thinking about doing something generous can boost your brain's happiness levels.

In a study published in Nature Communications, 50 participants were told they'd be receiving about $100 over a few weeks. Half of the people were asked to commit to spending that money on themselves, and half were asked to spend it on someone they knew.

As Time Health tells it, "The researchers wanted to see whether simply pledging to being generous was enough to make people happier. So before doling out any money, they brought everyone into the lab and asked them to think about a friend they'd like to give a gift to and how much they would hypothetically spend. They then performed functional MRI scans to measure activity in three regions of the brain associated with social behavior, generosity, happiness and decision-making."

Brain scans revealed that even the intent to be generous was linked to activity in the ventral striatum, an area important in the feeling of happiness.

As reported in PsyBlog, one of the study's authors, Dr. Philippe Tobler, said:

It is remarkable that intent alone generates a neural change before the action is actually implemented. Promising to behave generously could be used as a strategy to reinforce the desired behavior, on the one hand, and to feel happier, on the other. You don't need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice.

2. Pay it forward.

A refreshing new study by the University of California at Coca Cola's Madrid site found both givers and receivers of kindness in the workplace enjoyed positive benefits

The British Psychological Society reported on the study. It found that, while receivers of kindness reported 10 times more prosocial behaviors than the controls, the givers' one-month followup measures were even more impressive: they enjoyed higher levels of life satisfaction and job satisfaction, and fewer depressive symptoms. This suggests that giving had a more durable effect than receiving.

The best part? Receivers didn't just enjoy acts of kindness -- they paid them forward. As a result, at the conclusion of the study, the receivers reported engaging in nearly three times more pro-social behaviors than did the controls.

The bottom line? Unfettered workplace acts of kindness, encouraged as corporate values, appear to be a way to create virtuous cycles within teams, benefiting recipients and givers alike, but especially the organization as a whole to produce good work. Start one random act of kindness, and watch it spread outwardly.

3. Choose to be happy.

Happiness comes down to choice, and making that choice has long-term psychological benefits. Brain research by Dr. Wataru Sato of Kyoto University says that when you choose positive behaviors (like forgiveness), you hold the key to rewiring a region of the brain called the precuneus.

By changing your daily habits, you'll be able to control your sense of well-being, purpose, and happiness. If you're caught in a vicious circle of nasty emotions like doubt, fear, and uncertainty, replace those emotions by consciously and intentionally choosing joy, faith, and hope.

Use the tools of meditation, prayer, journaling, and mindfulness to aid you in the process. Check in with close friends and family after two weeks and ask if they have noticed a difference. I would wager a small bet that they have.

4. Speaking of forgiveness...yes, that leads to happiness.

Forgiveness is rarely, if ever, discussed or practiced as cultural artifacts for workplace effectiveness. But it should be.

In a new study involving more than 200 employees from both office and manufacturing jobs, forgiveness was "linked to increased productivity, decreased absenteeism (fewer days missing work), and fewer mental and physical health problems, such as sadness and headaches."

As Greater Good Science Center reports, if people we work with hold on to negative feelings after a conflict, and if they can't cope by forgiving, you can expect the likelihood of disengagement, a lack of collaboration, and aggressive behavior to follow.

When we learn and master this virtuous practice as an organizational value, forgiveness can be an effective way to restore trust and set things right with colleagues and bosses alike so you're running on all cylinders again.

5. Experience more awe.

Ever seen, felt, or experienced something so grand or beautiful, it left you in awe? As it turns out, experiencing the positive emotions that come with feelings of awe is also very good for your health.

UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, co-author of an awe study, had this to say in a Greater Good blog:

That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines  (proteins made by our immune system) suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions--a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art--has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy.

One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that inducing awe increased ethical decision-making, generosity, and prosocial values. And get this: Just by standing in a grove of towering trees "enhanced prosocial helping behavior and decreased entitlement" among participants. In other words, it made people much nicer!

Another study published in Psychological Science found that awe leads to feeling like you have more time available. It brings you into the present moment, makes you less impatient, and helps you to influence your decisions. All in all, it makes life feel more abundant and satisfying.

But what about experiencing awe in the workplace? Does it even matter?

You betcha. Research says inducing awe at work results in people cooperating, building community, sharing resources, and sacrificing for each other--all altruistic traits of a productive and supportive work setting.

Awe also stimulates wonder and curiosity in people, behavioral traits that more companies are assessing and hiring for culture-fit because people who are more curious have a "hungry mind," and get along better with co-workers. They're also eager to learn more, are always interested in the next best thing, and are more likely to look at how they can improve the day-to-day business.

Keltner says that our culture is becoming more awe-deprived. He brings it full circle:

We spend more time working and commuting and less time outdoors and with other people. So often our gaze is fixed on our smartphones rather than noticing the wonders and beauty of the natural world or witnessing acts of kindness, which also inspire awe. Our culture has become more individualistic, more narcissistic, more materialistic, and less connected to others.

Organizations should look to infuse more daily experiences of awe into stagnant work routines. Take your meetings outdoors, meet a client on top of a cliff, bring your next all-hands-on-deck to the beach right before sunset. Be inspired. Be in awe.

Published on: Jul 18, 2017
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