The Benefits of Positive Emotions at Work
Dr. Shelly Gable
Science has long documented the toll that negative emotions such as anxiety, fear and sadness have on our minds and bodies. Recent evidence, however, highlights the previously under appreciated benefits of positive emotions, emotions such as contentment, joy, awe and gratitude. A surge of studies in the past fifteen years have examined the correlations and consequences of the experience of positive emotions. Although researchers are still working on understanding the precise pathways that link positive emotions to these important outcomes, what is clear is that when people frequently feel positive emotions they are better off at home and at work. As a result, corporate wellness programs that enhance positivity in the workplace are becoming powerful tools to produce desired positive outcomes that improve overall employee well-being and productivity.
Positive Emotions Are Correlated with Better Health and Stress Management
Recent research includes studies that measure positive emotions occurring spontaneously in the course of daily life as well as studies that induce positive emotions in the laboratory. In the latter, positive emotions can be effectively elicited in a variety of ways, for example by showing people brief film clips that target a specific emotion, such as joy. Overall, these studies have documented valuable outcomes associated with experiencing positive emotions that range from improved physical health to lower job turnover.
One of the most powerful findings in this research is that positive emotions are associated with higher quality physical health and longer life spans. One way that positive emotions benefit the body is by undoing the damage of negative emotions and stress. That is, positive emotions are associated with faster recovery from stressful events, as happy people seem to bounce back more quickly from a variety of stressors compared to unhappy people. Positive emotions can be an important tool in the defense against the cumulative effects of stress.
In addition, research also shows that positive emotion may have a direct effect on health through other pathways. For example, some studies have shown that positive emotions are correlated with more effective immune system functioning which likely influences our ability to fight of diseases, which can lead to reduced employee absenteeism and sick days. Regardless of exactly why or how positive emotions lead to better health, the association between happiness and health is strong and well documented.
Positive Emotions Enhance Interpersonal Relationships and Creativity
Positive emotions also are closely tied to better interpersonal relationships. Of course, good relationships are a source of many positive emotional experiences, but many studies have also shown that positive emotions improve social interactions. We know that happy people are more approachable, are liked more and get along better with others than unhappy people. And studies have clearly shown that employees’ emotional experiences have an impact on interactions with clients, customers and co-workers.
There also is solid evidence that positive emotions influence important work-related processes, like creativity. In laboratory studies, people made to briefly experience positive emotions (such as through watching brief film clips) were able to solve problems more creatively and see the big picture more easily using well-validated cognitive tasks. Direct evidence on creativity in the workplace comes from Theresa Amabile and her colleagues’ now classic research on positive emotions and creativity on the job. They have found strong links between positive emotions experienced during the workday and creativity on the job. Most importantly, their research suggests that positive emotions precede creative thoughts on the job with incubation effects of up to two days (in addition, being creative leads people to later feel more positive emotion). Thus, another likely benefit of positive emotions is increased creativity and innovation in job performance.
Positive Emotions Lead to Greater Job Satisfaction
Finally, positive emotions are an important predictor of how people they feel and think about their jobs and their companies, according to research from Carl Thoresen et al. These researchers systematically reviewed over 200 studies that measured employees’ emotional experiences and their attitudes and motivations toward their jobs and their employers. In total, the studies that were part of the review included data from over 62,000 workers from a wide variety of occupations. The authors of the review found consistent and strong evidence that employees who reported experiencing emotions that are more positive had higher job satisfaction and greater commitment to their organizations. In addition, they also reported less ‘burnout’ and fewer intentions to leave their current jobs.
Not surprisingly, negative emotions predicted the reverse pattern of findings. And although positive and negative emotions are moderately correlated with one another (for example, people who feel a lot of positive emotions tend to also report feeling somewhat less negative emotions—and vice versa), the effects of positive emotions on job satisfaction are independent of the effects of negative emotions. This is significant because the research on positive emotions ironically does not paint a Pollyanna picture of emotional life that excludes negative emotions or ignores the inevitable daily hassles of work and home life. In contrast, negative emotions are critical to navigating the world and reacting to threats. What the research on positive emotions does tell us is that positive emotions are important in their own right and cultivating them has both direct benefits (e.g., increased creativity) and indirect benefits (e.g., helping people recover from stress).
Company Wellness Programs Can Increase Positive Emotions at the Workplace
There is a lot of potential for harnessing the benefits of experiencing positive emotions for the workforce. However, a critical question is whether a company can intervene with programs or practices that increase positive emotions in its workforce. A recent review by Christina Meyers and her colleagues in the Netherlands that focused on studies of interventions specifically aimed at increasing positive experiences among employees at organizations gives reason for optimism. Their research found that these interventions were consistently associated with increased employee well-being and performance, and less stress and burnout.
Furthermore, new tools and technologies are becoming available to employers to elevate employee moods. For example, new web-based platforms enable employers to provide mood-enhancing structured breaks where employees can watch videos and images tailored to their preferences. Managers can encourage employees to think about what they are grateful for and what brings them joy. Employees also can benefit from restorative breaks, such as going on walks, socializing and other activities that are recharging and non-demanding.
There is solid evidence that programs aimed at increasing positive emotional experiences for employees are successful. Finding a cost effective way to implement such programs on a large scale to roll them out to groups of employees can be a challenge. However, technology can be effectively harnessed in the service of delivering programs aimed at increasing positive sentiment. In fact, many of the studies reviewed in this article used technology to elicit positive emotions in subjects, such as through brief exposures to positive media like film clips, photographs and stories. Of course, companies would want to be sure that the programs or interventions executed were tailored to their needs. Programs built on the foundation of the science of emotion and geared to the specific preferences of the employee are likely to offer the most return on investment.
About the Author
Dr. Shelly Gable is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and senior research director at UpJoy.org, a web-based corporate wellness platform that promotes positivity and productivity at work. UpJoy.org provides mood-enhancing, structured breaks using positive imagery tailored to employee preferences. For more information, visit www.upjoy.org.
Sources and Further Reading:
Thoresen, Carl J., et al. “The Affective Underpinnings of Job Perceptions and Attitudes: A Meta-Analytic Review and Integration.” Psychological bulletin 129.6 (2003): 914-45.
Lyubomirsky, Sonja, et al. “The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success?”. Psychological Bulletin, 131.6 (2005): 803-855.
Pressman, Sarah & Cohen, Sheldon. “Does positive affect influence health?” Psychological Bulletin, 131. 6 (2005): 925-971.