Workplace Happiness: What Everyone Can Do to Set a Positive Tone

Reviewed Apr 26, 2017

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Summary

  • Emotions are contagious in a workplace. Make sure you are spreading positive ones.
  • Small acts, such as smiling and saying hello to co-workers, can go a long way.
  • Be aware of the emotions you bring to work.

You can’t do much about the economy or the state of the world. But you can make your workplace a little happier—maybe a lot happier, if others follow your example.

The secret to such power lies in what social scientists call the “contagion effect” of emotions in groups. Your emotions not only affect those around you. They also can spread to total strangers. In one study tracking 4,739 residents of Framingham, Mass., for 20 years, researchers James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis found “clusters of happy and unhappy people” in the town’s social network. “The relationship between people’s happiness,” they said, “extends up to three degrees of separation (for example, to the friends of one’s friends’ friends).”

The typical workplace is far smaller than Framingham, and the impact of one person’s mood or behavior can be much more obvious. So what can you do to set a positive tone? Here is some advice from management experts and psychologists.

Small gestures count

Smiling and saying hello to co-workers takes little effort and could have a big effect. Sigal Barsade, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, says such small gestures can be like “striking the match in the workplace—the match toward positive.”

One person’s body language and facial expressions also can affect a group’s emotions, as Barsade found in a laboratory study. Being nice to other people also helps develop a culture of reciprocity, where everyone tacitly agrees to return the help and emotional support they receive.

Barsade admits that it is easier to create a positive atmosphere if you’re not acting alone, but if you don’t start the process, who will?

Curb your negatives

You can spread negative emotions as easily as positive ones, especially if you are not conscious of your effect on others. “Try to understand how your behavior makes experiences” for others, says Purdue University psychologist Howard Weiss. “A lot of the time, we create negative experiences in other people because we behave in ways that we know are wrong but we can’t control ourselves,” he says.

Weiss suggests replenishing your “regulatory resources” by taking time off from the emotional effort of self-regulation. Getting away from the workplace during the day can be useful. Barsade says a short “time-out” can be helpful when you find your mood sagging and don’t want to bring others down. Even just stepping outside for a few minutes of reflection can do the job.

Watch what you bring to work

If you start the work day grouchy, chances are you will end it that way. In a study of call-center employees, Wharton professor Nancy Rothbard and Steffanie Wilk of the University of Ohio found that the mood people brought with them to work had a stronger effect on their day (and their performance) than anything that happened at the workplace. (They also found, happily, that positive moods have a more potent impact on productivity than negative moods do).

Such research makes the point that there’s no sharp boundary between work and the rest of life. “You don’t enter some sort of cloister when you go to work,” says Weiss.

But you can work to soften the impact of your mood when it’s a bad one. “The first thing is to be aware of it,” says Barsade. “This goes a long way toward diminishing it, because at least you’re paying attention.”

And if you come to work cheerful, so much the better for your co-workers—as long as you don’t hide the positive emotion that you feel.

By Tom Gray
Source: Sigal Barsade, professor of management, the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania; Howard Weiss, professor of psychological sciences, Purdue University; James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis, "Dynamic Spread of Happiness in a Large Social Network: Longitudinal Analysis Over 20 Years in the Framingham Heart Study," British Medical Journal 337:a2338, Dec. 4, 2008, http://www.bmj.com/content/337/bmj.a2338; "Waking Up on the Wrong Side of the Desk: The Effect of Mood on Work Performance," Knowledge@Wharton, Aug. 6, 2006, http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/waking-up-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-desk-the-effect-of-mood-on-work-performance/

Summary

  • Emotions are contagious in a workplace. Make sure you are spreading positive ones.
  • Small acts, such as smiling and saying hello to co-workers, can go a long way.
  • Be aware of the emotions you bring to work.

You can’t do much about the economy or the state of the world. But you can make your workplace a little happier—maybe a lot happier, if others follow your example.

The secret to such power lies in what social scientists call the “contagion effect” of emotions in groups. Your emotions not only affect those around you. They also can spread to total strangers. In one study tracking 4,739 residents of Framingham, Mass., for 20 years, researchers James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis found “clusters of happy and unhappy people” in the town’s social network. “The relationship between people’s happiness,” they said, “extends up to three degrees of separation (for example, to the friends of one’s friends’ friends).”

The typical workplace is far smaller than Framingham, and the impact of one person’s mood or behavior can be much more obvious. So what can you do to set a positive tone? Here is some advice from management experts and psychologists.

Small gestures count

Smiling and saying hello to co-workers takes little effort and could have a big effect. Sigal Barsade, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, says such small gestures can be like “striking the match in the workplace—the match toward positive.”

One person’s body language and facial expressions also can affect a group’s emotions, as Barsade found in a laboratory study. Being nice to other people also helps develop a culture of reciprocity, where everyone tacitly agrees to return the help and emotional support they receive.

Barsade admits that it is easier to create a positive atmosphere if you’re not acting alone, but if you don’t start the process, who will?

Curb your negatives

You can spread negative emotions as easily as positive ones, especially if you are not conscious of your effect on others. “Try to understand how your behavior makes experiences” for others, says Purdue University psychologist Howard Weiss. “A lot of the time, we create negative experiences in other people because we behave in ways that we know are wrong but we can’t control ourselves,” he says.

Weiss suggests replenishing your “regulatory resources” by taking time off from the emotional effort of self-regulation. Getting away from the workplace during the day can be useful. Barsade says a short “time-out” can be helpful when you find your mood sagging and don’t want to bring others down. Even just stepping outside for a few minutes of reflection can do the job.

Watch what you bring to work

If you start the work day grouchy, chances are you will end it that way. In a study of call-center employees, Wharton professor Nancy Rothbard and Steffanie Wilk of the University of Ohio found that the mood people brought with them to work had a stronger effect on their day (and their performance) than anything that happened at the workplace. (They also found, happily, that positive moods have a more potent impact on productivity than negative moods do).

Such research makes the point that there’s no sharp boundary between work and the rest of life. “You don’t enter some sort of cloister when you go to work,” says Weiss.

But you can work to soften the impact of your mood when it’s a bad one. “The first thing is to be aware of it,” says Barsade. “This goes a long way toward diminishing it, because at least you’re paying attention.”

And if you come to work cheerful, so much the better for your co-workers—as long as you don’t hide the positive emotion that you feel.

By Tom Gray
Source: Sigal Barsade, professor of management, the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania; Howard Weiss, professor of psychological sciences, Purdue University; James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis, "Dynamic Spread of Happiness in a Large Social Network: Longitudinal Analysis Over 20 Years in the Framingham Heart Study," British Medical Journal 337:a2338, Dec. 4, 2008, http://www.bmj.com/content/337/bmj.a2338; "Waking Up on the Wrong Side of the Desk: The Effect of Mood on Work Performance," Knowledge@Wharton, Aug. 6, 2006, http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/waking-up-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-desk-the-effect-of-mood-on-work-performance/

Summary

  • Emotions are contagious in a workplace. Make sure you are spreading positive ones.
  • Small acts, such as smiling and saying hello to co-workers, can go a long way.
  • Be aware of the emotions you bring to work.

You can’t do much about the economy or the state of the world. But you can make your workplace a little happier—maybe a lot happier, if others follow your example.

The secret to such power lies in what social scientists call the “contagion effect” of emotions in groups. Your emotions not only affect those around you. They also can spread to total strangers. In one study tracking 4,739 residents of Framingham, Mass., for 20 years, researchers James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis found “clusters of happy and unhappy people” in the town’s social network. “The relationship between people’s happiness,” they said, “extends up to three degrees of separation (for example, to the friends of one’s friends’ friends).”

The typical workplace is far smaller than Framingham, and the impact of one person’s mood or behavior can be much more obvious. So what can you do to set a positive tone? Here is some advice from management experts and psychologists.

Small gestures count

Smiling and saying hello to co-workers takes little effort and could have a big effect. Sigal Barsade, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, says such small gestures can be like “striking the match in the workplace—the match toward positive.”

One person’s body language and facial expressions also can affect a group’s emotions, as Barsade found in a laboratory study. Being nice to other people also helps develop a culture of reciprocity, where everyone tacitly agrees to return the help and emotional support they receive.

Barsade admits that it is easier to create a positive atmosphere if you’re not acting alone, but if you don’t start the process, who will?

Curb your negatives

You can spread negative emotions as easily as positive ones, especially if you are not conscious of your effect on others. “Try to understand how your behavior makes experiences” for others, says Purdue University psychologist Howard Weiss. “A lot of the time, we create negative experiences in other people because we behave in ways that we know are wrong but we can’t control ourselves,” he says.

Weiss suggests replenishing your “regulatory resources” by taking time off from the emotional effort of self-regulation. Getting away from the workplace during the day can be useful. Barsade says a short “time-out” can be helpful when you find your mood sagging and don’t want to bring others down. Even just stepping outside for a few minutes of reflection can do the job.

Watch what you bring to work

If you start the work day grouchy, chances are you will end it that way. In a study of call-center employees, Wharton professor Nancy Rothbard and Steffanie Wilk of the University of Ohio found that the mood people brought with them to work had a stronger effect on their day (and their performance) than anything that happened at the workplace. (They also found, happily, that positive moods have a more potent impact on productivity than negative moods do).

Such research makes the point that there’s no sharp boundary between work and the rest of life. “You don’t enter some sort of cloister when you go to work,” says Weiss.

But you can work to soften the impact of your mood when it’s a bad one. “The first thing is to be aware of it,” says Barsade. “This goes a long way toward diminishing it, because at least you’re paying attention.”

And if you come to work cheerful, so much the better for your co-workers—as long as you don’t hide the positive emotion that you feel.

By Tom Gray
Source: Sigal Barsade, professor of management, the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania; Howard Weiss, professor of psychological sciences, Purdue University; James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis, "Dynamic Spread of Happiness in a Large Social Network: Longitudinal Analysis Over 20 Years in the Framingham Heart Study," British Medical Journal 337:a2338, Dec. 4, 2008, http://www.bmj.com/content/337/bmj.a2338; "Waking Up on the Wrong Side of the Desk: The Effect of Mood on Work Performance," Knowledge@Wharton, Aug. 6, 2006, http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/waking-up-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-desk-the-effect-of-mood-on-work-performance/

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