As a researcher, practitioner and consultant in the field of positive psychology and the science of happiness, I am often met with the expectation from people that I am going to be happy all of the time. Sometimes I catch myself thinking the same thing, however, it would be naïve and also unnatural to be happy all of the time. Do we really expect to be happy when someone has hurt us, when we’ve put in a lot of effort and not achieved the desired result or the alarm clock wakes us up when we were hoping for a lie in? So how can you have more happiness when you’re unhappy?

For me, the science of happiness isn’t about a Pollyanna-ish being continually happy or being like Alec Baldwin’s character in Friends , it is more about having the tools to be able to increase your happiness when you need and/or want to be happier. This is what excites me and the potential to increase happiness in organisations, educational establishments and communities. For now, I will concentrate on happiness in the workplace, however much of the rest of this article could apply in schools and personal lives.

Why happiness at work?

When I talk to potential customers and even friends about my work in the field of positive psychology, it’s not unusual for people to assume:
a) that positive psychology is ‘just’ about happiness
b) happiness is ‘fluffy’ and not a top priority.

Instead, getting that promotion, winning that new contract, having greater employee engagement or squeezing that extra bit of effort and productivity from the team is what is more important to people. Without realising it, achieving these objectives will, however fleeting, make people happy.

What often surprises people who dismiss the importance of happiness in the workplace, is when I ask them what do they most want for their loved ones. The reason for their surprise is because the most common response I get is “for them to be happy.” Happiness is often an overarching aim for people in their lives and a focus on increasing happiness in the workplace can have a positive impact on individuals and the organisations as a whole.

Can we make ourselves happier?

OK, so if we can appreciate that happiness is an overarching goal for most people and that perpetual happiness is unrealistic, is there anything you can do to increase your happiness when you’re unhappy thinking of that overflowing In-tray of work, worried about that meeting with the boss, anxious about the upcoming presentation you have to give or just generally unhappy with work? Fortunately research shows that there is and it doesn’t have to be complicated! Work by Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that on average 50% of our happiness comes from our biological genes, 10% from the conditions or circumstances of our lives and finally, and often unexpectedly for people, 40% of our happiness comes from the intentional activities that we choose to do. 40%! That’s quite a lot of our happiness that is under our own control.

Increasing happiness when you’re unhappy – my own experience

You may feel that increasing your happiness is something that doesn’t apply to you as are so unhappy in your job, that the work environment is toxic or that your boss is a tyrant. I remember a time in a previous role when all 3 things applied to me and it was really getting to me. At this time I was just discovering positive psychology and the science of happiness and so I began to do some small things to increase my happiness. What was astonishing was that not only was I feeling happier more often, but the environment became happier as my colleagues and I shared more laughter and bonded together to be more engaged in our work and as a result, we were more productive. Not all was perfect as the boss was still a tyrant, but I was able to deal with and tolerate him more effectively.

Increasing your happiness

Equipped with the knowledge that we have a large amount of control over our own happiness, what is it that you are going to do?

Will you:

  1. Be more appreciative – observing a job well done and showing your gratitude. Being grateful has been shown to increase happiness
  2. Laugh more – take time to share a joke with a colleague or laugh at an innocuous mistake. Laughter reduces stress and boosts the immune system
  3. Get into the zone – when you’re in ‘flow’ carrying out a task that is both challenging and requires a high level of skill, you will be performing at your best and will be much happier as a result

I’m sure that you will be able to come up with many more activities that you can do at work that will increase your happiness and it can be fun and energising coming up with creative tasks to do.

Remember, it’s OK to be unhappy at times and isn’t it inspiring that there are intentional things that we can do to increase our happiness?