Don’t Worry, Be Happy

For some, “don’t worry, be happy” may have once been a saccharine Bobby McFerrin song and an irritatingly simplistic piece of advice. But, it turns out, happiness is good for you.

Ed Deiner, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, studies happiness. His research shows stress is bad for the body: it suppresses the immune system and makes already angry people more prone to heart attacks. And, he found, depressed people risk higher rates of illness than happy people.

Work too, is intertwined with our happiness levels. On that front, Deiner found that when managers and workers identify strengths, give and receive lots of positive feedback and challenge cynical or pessimistic outlooks, job satisfaction, and productivity increase, staff turnover decreases and absenteeism is reduced. Happy people tend to get higher ratings from supervisors, have happy customers, help others more, experience more success and are more creative.

In a recent interview, Deiner said, “work can be as rewarding as play and when we harness this energy, people become motivated, and energized on the job.”

Deiner identified five keys to being happy at work:

Be in the right job
Find a job that uses your strengths. An analytical person would be miserable in positions that don’t require critical thinking or detail-oriented work. People who like being with others will rue the day they took an isolated word processing job, and independent workers will strain under a highly structured or monitored workplace. You can identify your strengths by going to the Positive Psychology website: (once inside, click again on this site as it appears in the text, to take the strength-test online).

Find a good employer/leader/supervisor
Avoid taking jobs with supervisors who are critical, deficit- focussed or negative. If you can’t avoid them, begin a conversation with them about the kind of feedback you need at work. For example, Deiner says human beings tend to remember negative feedback better than positive feedback and heed the critical communications about their performance more than positive feedback. A general rule for leaders when giving feedback is to give six positive messages for every negative one. If a manager can’t think of six things an employee is doing well, he or she may have to reflect on why they are keeping the worker at the job.

As an employee, asking an employer directly for information about what you are doing right, may kick start a performance review that concentrates on strengths. If your job isn’t using your strengths, look for another position in the same company.

Practice good social values
Deiner observed that particular values practiced daily at work promote happiness on the job. Demonstrating gratitude, humility and forgiveness for mistakes was important. Grudge-holders tend to be unhappy at work and don’t make good managers either, according to Deiner. Being thankful and appreciative of others efforts (even if it’s their job) makes managers and employees happy. Deiner recommends making gratitude a habit because it generates goodwill and well-being. He advises leaders and workers to “realize that other people are involved in your successes”, making humility important to interpersonal effectiveness.

Speak to yourself respectfully
The messages you give are important to your happiness. Self-critical people also tend to be critical of others, sometimes making them hard to work with. Watch what you say to yourself and avoid denigrating yourself, harping on your shortcomings or criticizing your own efforts. Remember the 6:1 rule-keep it positive most of the time.

Get involved
It is true that people who are most involved in their work, communities and families also experience more negative situations than uninvolved people, but overall, Deiner said, involved people are happier people. Being involved doesn’t mean taking on a lot of busy work-it means finding activities, roles, and assignments that are worthwhile to you. Deiner’s research on happy behaviour highlighted an important difference between happy and depressed people. Depressed people, when monitored daily, reported “doing nothing” frequently. Happy people, on the other hand, found meaning in immersing themselves in important tasks and activities.

Monitor the importance of money
Unhappy people tend to have high standards for what makes them happy. This doesn’t mean happy people settle for less, it means they keep their expectations in check-they are happy with what they’ve got. For example, happy people generally believe what they need is what they have, while unhappy people believe what they have is not enough. Materialistic people tend to be less satisfied in life than less materialistic people. Deiner warns against letting social relationships flounder in the pursuit of money. “It’s a bad trade-off because even if you make lots of money, you’ll probably never be able to reach the same levels of life satisfaction as those who value love”, said Deiner.

Make a friend
Deiner found workers who had a friend in the workplace were more satisfied and productive on the job. Having a buddy to share a laugh – or the workload – with made coming into work easier and more fun.

“Commitment and involvement in work is greater when you have a social network in the workplace”, said Deiner.

So, go ahead and be happy, says Deiner, but come at it sideways. He counsels: “don’t run after happiness, it may allude you, run to family and friends, value gratitude, achievement and forgiveness, then happiness will bump into you”.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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