Can happiness lead to high performance?

In my last two newsletters I’ve delved into the results of some game-changing research about what enables high-performing teams - the importance of positive group norms, creating psychological safety and operating in environments of trust.

All these factors have positive effects on our brains which enable both individuals and teams to perform at high levels.

You know another factor that leads to high performance?


Yep, that’s right – happier people are higher performing.

A recent study by economists at the University of Warwick found that happiness led to a 12% spike in productivity, while unhappy workers were 10% less productive. 

Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, has found that the brain works much better when a person is feeling positive. At those times, we tend to be more creative and better at solving problems. The research has shown that when we’re happy we’re more effective collaborators working toward common goals. So as Shawn says, there’s a big incentive for organisations to pay attention—“happiness leads to greater levels of profits” for companies that take the right steps.

Happy employees, in his view, make better decisions, excel at managing their time, and possess other crucial leadership skills.

But how many of us are happy at work? Global research by Gallup revealed this answer. They studied how many of us are “actively engaged” at work – where actively engaged is defined as employees being, “enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and contribute to their organisations in a positive manner.”What do you think the figure was? 45%? 37%? 22%? 13%?

I found it shocking and really sad to read that the figure was just 13%. Think about that. The large majority of us are disengaged and unhappy at work. What are the implications for our performance at work? What are the flow-on effects to our families, children, nieces, nephews and communities, from this? We bring this malcontent home with us and it seeps into all aspects of our lives.

I’m really interested in how we can operate at our best both personally and in teams. In my work I like to look at these two factors because I believe we can change our world by unlocking the secrets of high performance.

For me one of the crucial factors that underpins high performance is Connection. Connection to self and connection with others.

Connection to Self:97% of us think we’re self-aware but only 10-15% of us actually are – this says to me that many of us have not developed the ability to really connect with and know ourselves. That’s why I’m obsessed with personal leadership – how do we lead ourselves to get the best out of ourselves, especially when the chips are down? I’ve also been doing a lot of work on personal well-being. Looking after yourself underpins personal leadership. My work has shown that well-being is a very individual thing. What represents well-being to one person is different for someone else. However it’s about knowing what fills your cup of life and then making sure that you prioritise this.

Researchers think that roughly 40% of our happiness is under our own control; the rest is determined by genetics and external factors. That means there's a lot we can do to control our own happiness.

What do you do to work at building your happiness and well-being?

Connection to others: We can also connect with others to increase our personal well-being. Strong social support correlates with an astonishing number of desirable outcomes. Research shows that high levels of social support predict longevity as reliably as regular exercise does, and low social support is as damaging as high blood pressure. You get as big a boost to your health from social connection as you do from quitting smoking!

Research conducted by Shawn Achor asked tax managers at KPMG in the USA managers to choose one of five activities that correlated with positive change:

· Jot down three things they were grateful for.

· Write a positive message to someone in their social support network.

· Meditate at their desk for two minutes.

· Exercise for 10 minutes.

· Take two minutes to describe in a journal the most meaningful experience of the past 24 hours.

The participants performed their activity every day for three weeks. All of these activities led to increases in optimism and life satisfaction. Which one made the biggest difference? It was connecting with co-workers.

Further research by Shawn found that as well as benefitting from receiving support from others, what was even more important to sustained happiness and engagement was the amount of social support participants provided. His research found that social support providers—people who picked up slack for others, invited coworkers to lunch, and organised office activities—were not only 10 times more likely to be engaged at work than those who kept to themselves; they were 40% more likely to get a promotion.

So connection with others led to increased personal happiness and increased performance.

This can be shown by:

So for higher performance of self and team we need to build personal and collective well-being which stems from better connection with self and others.

If you’re just focusing on high performance as an end unto itself without understanding what underpins high performance from a brain science perspective, then all you are doing is creating environments where people can’t connect in order to perform.

How well are you supporting the people in your team to connect with others? Do you have a culture of connection? What behaviours are rewarded? Do you support your employees to understand what makes them happy? Do you have conversations about well-being as an essential part of personal leadership? What are you role modeling to your team or loved ones about connection? What difference would it make to your workplace if everyone was a bit happier?