In The Zone: Measuring Happiness In The Office

You might think that happiness is something ineffable, an elusive state of being that defies quantification and analysis. But over the past decade, Sonja Lyubomirsky and her collaborators at the University of California, Riverside, have conducted many studies that demonstrate that happiness can, in fact, be systematically measured.  (I think it’s safe to say that Sonja is one of the top happiness scientists in the world at the moment).

Here is what she discovered:

What does make a difference in happiness are people’s habits and activities. Even simple actions like expressing gratitude and performing acts of kindness can make you feel measurably better. The conclusion? Changing activities, rather than fixating on ideal circumstances, is the best way to boost happiness [PDF].

The benefits of happiness [PDF] go beyond just feeling good. In 2005, Lyubomirsky and her colleagues documented how happiness and positive feelings improve people’s personal and professional lives. For example, happy people tend to be more creative, are more productive at work, and go on to earn higher salaries. You read that right: Getting a raise won’t make you happier, but if you’re already happy, more money is likely to come your way as a side benefit. Hard statistics about these positive outcomes—higher salaries, better performance evaluations, and greater longevity—help win over skeptics to the value of happiness research.

In the workplace, one manifestation of being happy is your ability to achieve a state of full engagement, or “flow,” a term psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at Claremont Graduate University, in California, coined to describe this phenomenon. When it happens, hours pass by like minutes, and you forget about outside worries. Nearly everyone experiences flow at some point or another, including knowledge workers such as engineers and scientists, whose jobs require a great deal of focused creativity and problem solving. As it turns out, technology can help identify this cherished state of mind.

In one small but intriguing study, Yano, his colleague Koji Ara, and Csikszentmihalyi looked at whether you could quantify when people had reached that special state of being “in the zone” [PDF]. In this experiment, participants were asked to keep a diary of their feelings and corresponding activities throughout the day. The key indicator of flow turned out to be consistency in movement. For some people, that consistent movement was slow; for others it was fast. Some were morning people; others favored the afternoon or evenings. Regardless, when participants experienced flow, their motions became more regular, as they lost themselves in a challenging but engrossing activity. When they compared their data to their daily diaries, participants were often surprised to see that their mental state had such an obvious digital signature. Once people became aware of their daily patterns, they could better schedule their work to take advantage of times when they were most likely to be in this mental state.

In time, more businesses will make use of these methods, to measure worker behavior and satisfaction, to study the effectiveness of new practices and procedures, perhaps even to cultivate flow. In this way employers should be able to create environments that boost positive engagement and overall productivity. That would indeed be a happy outcome.

Taken from Can Technology Make You Happy? (a fascinating article about wearable sensors)