As part of his push towards a “Big Society”, David Cameron has proposed a well-being index to measure, as a nation, how happy we are. Brushing off criticisms that such an index would be “woolly or impractical”, Cameron believes that GDP is an inadequate measure of the performance of a nation, reflecting comments made by Robert Kennedy that GDP “measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile”.

Other factors, in Cameron’s view, contribute to the quality of life of the nation which can’t be measured by a balance sheet.

If such an idea applies to our nation as a whole, then surely it must apply to our own businesses and the way we run them? It’s a logical step to consider whether there are intangible elements which can add to the overall quality of a business, which aren’t reflected in the accounts books.
One school of thought that would support such an approach is the positive psychology movement. Now a recognised stream of psychology, this came into being more than ten years ago when Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Head of the American

Psychology Association at the time, decided to take a different approach.

In its most simple form, what Seligman did was to study people who were generally happy with their lives rather than people who were mainly unhappy, which had been the traditional psychological domain. Seligman reasoned that we could learn whether such people had predominant traits or attitudes which could help us all to learn the “secrets” of how to live a happy life.

The difference between positive psychology as opposed to many of the self-help books and CDs we may use (helpful as they can certainly be) is that it has ten years of clinical research behind it. It’s an established line of science and is respected as such. The most interesting thing is that positive psychologists believe that optimism can be learned to help people lead happier, more meaningful and more fulfilling lives.

Whilst no one can be happy all the time, and there are certain situations where optimism is inappropriate (we prefer our airline pilots to err on the side of caution for example), the findings are that people can take control of certain actions that will make them happier for a time, such as setting appropriate goals. They can add gratitude, hope, and a dose of self-control to their day.

This movement is now spilling over into the workplace and ties in well with the current national theme of well-being. How can we, as business owners, use these techniques to improve our own game and improve the quality of life for our employees?

A decade of research suggests that happiness at work—defined as pleasure, engagement, and a sense of meaning—can improve revenue, profitability, staff retention, customer loyalty, and workplace safety. Positive emotion in the workplace can increase creativity and problem-solving ability as well as helping fight stress.

Some simple ideas that can help bring a more positive approach into the workplace are:

1. In performance reviews focus on the value that an individual brings to the workplace. Identify his or her “signature strengths” where they really do make a difference and check that these are aligned to the responsibilities they have been given to ensure you’re bringing out the best in each person.

2. Have a weekly team meeting where you open with a success story such as positive feedback from a client, or ask everyone around the table to open with something positive that has happened to them within the business that week. Also finish team meetings by asking everyone to outline some way in which they improved their performance or learnt something new this week – a new article, a new style of selling, a tip or trick etc. This keeps people focused on continuous improvement and fosters teamwork.

3. Consider holding a half day seminar every six months to brief employees on updates within the firm and to brainstorm new ideas. When employees discuss the “larger purpose” or direction of an organisation it can help improve morale and produce cost savings, efficiencies and new ideas for the direction of the business.

4. When hiring, look as much for character as much as for skills. Whilst obviously in some professions you need certain skills – I wouldn’t want a doctor who is unqualified for example – in other areas, character traits such as optimism, enthusiasm, a sense of purpose and emotional intelligence can go a lot further in the long run than someone who ticks every box on the skills front.

5. Push beyond your comfort zone. Every week or month try to achieve something that you thought was beyond your reach. As with exercise, if you keep pushing your body to just beyond its comfort zone to goals that are always moving ahead slightly, similarly your company can keep improving in small ways by introducing this self-discipline.

Inevitably many are cynical about such thinking. One criticism is that positive psychology is too soft for numbers-focused business owners. Quantifiable research is underway which is beginning to produce tangible and encouraging results to support using positive psychology in the workplace but it is in its early stages.

Fundamentally though, it costs very little to implement the small changes outlined above. It’s amazing how much business owners will spend on ill-thought out and costly initiatives and expenditure when something which is in many ways simply common sense – the idea that if you create a positive environment of appreciation, it will make you more efficient and profitable—seems so difficult for many to take on board. Happy bosses perform measurably better, build productive teams and inspire loyalty. Perhaps some positive psychology might add a bit of value to your business too?

Find out more here: www.authentichappiness.org

Deborah Done, the author of our Big Ideas, is founder and director of Nab Communications, a freelance public relations agency which provides sensible and value for money PR advice to regional and national businesses. http://www.nabcommunications.co.uk/