'Accentuate the Positive' Works for Employees

June 25, 2012 — Watching sunsets, bringing fresh-cut flowers to co-workers, paying the grocery bill when a stranger comes up short at the register – all examples of activities a group of University of Virginia employees tried out to add happiness to their lives and the lives of others.

The employees initially attended a May 10 workshop about happiness, then took a "happiness challenge," to participate in one or more of a list of five happiness-inducing activities.

Reporting on their experience in a follow-up meeting June 21, they said they found more joy in their daily lives and were more productive at work.

The employees added at least one happiness activity to their daily routines for three weeks – the period of time psychologists say is necessary to form a new habit. Nineteen of 56 participants completed the challenge: They kept a log of what they did and how they felt, turned in their results and regrouped to talk about it.

The activities:
• exercising;
• meditating;
• making a gratitude list of three things every day;
• practicing "random acts of kindness";
• writing in a journal.

The activities provide a concrete pathway to greater happiness in life, said Holly Heilberg, a career development specialist at U.Va. Human Resources, and Mary Sherman, a consultant for the Faculty and Employee Assistance Program, whose offices were two of the program's co-sponsors.

Variations of the activities included taking beautiful photos and posting them on Facebook, saving boxes for co-workers, faculty or students who are moving and keeping a spreadsheet of things one is grateful for.

"I found this an exercise of awareness helpful in seeing the good things in life, and being more positive," Vivienne Spauls, a liaison in the psychology department of the College of Arts & Sciences, told the group. "I have a hard time meditating, but I found that simply by watching the sunset (as often as possible), that this was comparable for me."

Stephanie O'Brien of U.Va. WorkMed said, "It just made me feel overjoyed to help others." She brought baked goods into work, helped strangers who were lost and added a daily walk to her routines.

She found out about the workshop through Human Resources' Exceptional Assistants Network. "The overall experience with the EAN has been wonderful. I have met some really great people and even picked up a few that I really consider my friends now," she wrote in an email.

Both women emphasized sharing the information and activities with others as adding to the happiness challenge. The program's organizers said they are working on creating a cadre of "happiness ambassadors" who will continue the project and visit other offices and departments.

The participants recorded their level of happiness on a scale of one to 10 before and after taking the challenge. The median level was six, with a spread of four to eight. After the three weeks, the median level stepped up to seven, with 15 people reporting an increase. The data show that people who had lower levels of happiness in the beginning were more affected by the challenge.

In the class, participants watched a 12-minute TED talk, "The happy secret to better work," by Shawn Achor, a former Harvard University professor and researcher of positive psychology, who is CEO of Good Think Inc., a Cambridge-based consulting firm that researches positive outliers – people who are well above average – to understand where human potential, success and happiness intersect, the website says. Achor is also the author of "The Happiness Advantage."

TED, a nonprofit company created in 1984, is devoted to "ideas worth spreading." It began as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design – hence the name, TED – and has been expanded to reach wider audiences.

Positive psychology is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable human flourishing. Research concentrates on positive emotions and individual traits that help lead to positive institutions.

The class was sponsored by Human Resources Employee Development, the Faculty and Employee Assistance Program, Hoo's Well@ and the Mindfulness Center (housed in the School of Medicine).

– by Anne Bromley