Creating happiness at work seems like the holy grail of leadership objectives.  Wouldn’t it be great if all the team demonstrated happiness at work? What a brilliant environment to work in.  One of the most frustrating problems I found when I led and managed teams was my inability to make all of my team members happy. Despite my best efforts.  Of course, the frustration was misguided. In those early days, I didn’t realise happiness was an internal choice. So no matter what I did if someone chose to be unhappy then I was quite frankly stymied in my futile attempts.

What leaders need to know about happiness and neuroscience

When we talk about happiness in the brain, we’re largely discussing the role of certain chemicals, primarily dopamine and serotonin, which are neurotransmitters that transmit signals between neurons. When a person experiences something positive, like achieving a goal or receiving praise, the brain releases dopamine, which is often associated with feelings of reward and pleasure. On the other hand, serotonin plays a crucial role in stabilizing mood and promoting a sense of well-being and happiness.

For a team leader, understanding these basic neurological processes is vital. Recognizing achievements, providing positive feedback, and creating a supportive environment can trigger the release of these neurotransmitters in team members. This not only enhances their mood but can also boost motivation and productivity by activating the brain’s reward pathways. Thus, a leader’s actions and the work environment they cultivate can directly influence the neurological processes that underpin the emotions and behaviours of their team members.

A happy team

In my first management role at age 22, I didn’t realise why having a happy team was important.  I knew it felt much better to work in a happy environment. The understanding came much later on.  It was a no-brainer really from an experiential point of view.   Members of my team, who were happy, were engaged, motivated, purposeful and optimistic.  They were prepared to go the extra mile. Team members were more authentic and open. They simply recognised the importance of team cohesion.

Happy team members often exhibit engagement, motivation, purpose, and optimism, all of which are not merely behavioural traits but are deeply rooted in the brain’s neurochemistry.

Neuroscientifically speaking, happiness activates several areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with positive emotions and thinking. Moreover, dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters linked with feelings of well-being and happiness, play a crucial role in enhancing team spirit and productivity.

So does that mean everyone happy is a good team player?  No, although it seemed to increase the odds.   Also, what comes first?  Does a motivated team lead to happier employees?  Or do happy employees lead to a motivated team?

Happiness comes first

Shaun Achor author of The Happiness Advantage contends that happiness does indeed come first. It is happiness that fuels success and not the other way around.  Shaun is one of my favourite researchers and business psychologists. When I found his conclusions I was relieved because my intuition was always telling me that happiness was indeed a choice. It was happiness which created my world of happiness, not the other way around.

More and more studies are showing that employee happiness is important in the workplace.  At Warwick University, research showed a definite causal link between human happiness and productivity at work.   Professor Satya Paul or the University of Western Australia conducted research where he concluded that “happy people are more active, more productive and get less upset by the work’’.   Significantly he found happy people also earned more.

So what are leaders to do?

If they can’t make employees happy, happiness is, in fact, an individual choice, yet the success of their business relies on people being happy with all the benefits the firm derives from that positive state.  Furthermore, even the most optimistic, happy people go through periods of unhappiness when life throws a curve ball at them.

Every leader worth their salt understands that motivated and engaged teams are crucial to the success of their business.  It’s becoming clear that they will more likely succeed in achieving such teams if their employees are those who choose to be happy.

Although a leader can make someone choose to be happy, they can help them to make that choice, and here are some ways they can help.

1. Hire people with “can do” attitudes

Right at the outset, hire people who demonstrate “can do” attitudes and have displayed resilience in adverse circumstances.  Find out about their attitude and if they can turn seemingly negative situations into positive successes. Resilience and positivity are often linked to the brain’s ability to adapt and rewire itself, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity.

2. Get people to talk about what makes them happy

Encourage people to talk about what helps them maintain a happy state at work and do what you can to create that environment. Discussing happiness can itself trigger the release of positive neurotransmitters in the brain, enhancing the overall workplace vibe.

3. Help people develop

Help people develop self-awareness; self-responsibility and an understanding they do have the ability to choose happiness or not.  The brain’s neuroplasticity allows for the development and strengthening of positive thought patterns when practised consistently

4. Give appropriate support

Where life’s trials befall them, have the right kind of support, counselling, therapy or team support, with the focus on helping people get back into a happy state. This practice addresses emotional and cognitive needs.

5. Support Wellbeing

If they suffer ill-health, take measures to support them back to well-being and, therefore, a happier state. Physical health is intrinsically linked to mental well-being and vice versa, as both influence the brain’s functionality and emotional regulation.

6. Help people express criticism constructively

When negativity surfaces, don’t dismiss or condemn it, but assist employees in realizing alternative, more productive perspectives. This involves cognitive reframing, a psychological technique that helps individuals change negative thought patterns, which is possible due to the brain’s adaptive capabilities.

Incorporating neuroscience and emotional and cognitive strategies into leadership practices not only enhances the understanding of happiness from a biological perspective but also optimizes employee experience and yes, creates an environment where employees can experience happiness at work.

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I help leaders develop self- mastery, helping them to become confident in their own inner guidance.

I collaborate with leadership experts, managers and HR professionals to help them get their own message and unique services and products to a wide audience.