Is Positive Emotion More Important Than Job Satisfaction?

By Chris Ihrig

Decades of research has left us with 30% employee engagement levels that haven’t budged in more than a decade.

What are we missing?

Over the years I’ve heard many arguments against employee happiness including:

1. Happiness is fluffy, it doesn’t add value.

2. You can’t make employees happy, the more you give them, the more they’ll want.

3. Employee happiness is not a valid business goal.

When decision-makers make uninformed comments like this as if they’re facts, people who are aware of the research can be hesitant to speak up. It creates a no-win situation. If they try to share what they know only to have the conversation cut-off by an uninformed opinion before they’re allowed to share the evidence, they can look foolish even when they are informed. If they are allowed to finish, they end up making the person in authority look foolish.

Just before positive psychology was born, in 1994, a team of researchers from Berkeley and Stanford attempted to steer us in the direction of looking at positive emotions and their relationship to employee satisfaction and job outcomes. The researchers had already figured out that positive emotions at work increased:

  • Work Achievement
  • Job Enrichment
  • Supportive Social Contact

They also knew that:

  • Individuals who exhibit positive emotions are perceived as more likable
  • Individuals feeling positive emotions are more likely to be voluntarily helpful

Research in positive psychology has greatly expanded on the benefits of positivity since then but most companies still reject happiness increasing initiatives out of hand. In many cases, they mistakenly assume that increasing employee happiness requires spending money on things like air hockey tables or unlimited time off. Initiatives that focus on providing more reasons to be happy do create a treadmill where the more that is given, the more that is wanted.

There’s another kind of initiative, one that teaches stress management. It seems that positive emotions are an indicator of low-stress levels. This type of positive emotion isn’t reliant on what someone has nearly as much as the way they perceive their situation. Once employees learn how to reduce stress and increase their own positive emotions, they are self-motivated to keep doing it because it feels good.

If you’re struggling with low employee engagement, you may want to take a look at cognitive training solutions designed to increase employee happiness.