The Power of Positive Priming
Action vs. Activity

Improving Happiness at Work: Positive Practices and the Power of the Positive Question


An interesting article in the Harvard Business Review on The Happiness Dividend has me thinking this morning about how we can re-train our brains to be more positive at work. According to the article:

the single greatest advantage in the modern economy is a happy and engaged workforce. A decade of research proves that happiness raises nearly every business and educational outcome: raising sales by 37%, productivity by 31%, and accuracy on tasks by 19%, as well as a myriad of health and quality of life improvements. 

The issue is not whether happiness should matter at work--it clearly does. The question now, is what do you do to increase employee happiness?

According to the article, individuals can make a difference for themselves:

Individuals can begin to do two things on their own. First, recognize that happiness is an advantage at work. This will encourage you to seek happiness in the present instead of waiting for a future success. As a result, your brain will have more resources necessary to accomplish your work. Second, you can literally train your brain for higher levels of happiness at work by creating habits shown to increase job satisfaction. In the training with KPMG, we suggested five:

  • Write down three new things you are grateful for each day;
  • Write for 2 minutes a day describing one positive experience you had over the past 24 hours;
  • Exercise for 10 minutes a day;
  • Meditate for 2 minutes, focusing on your breath going in and out;
  • Write one, quick email first thing in the morning thanking or praising a member on your team.

I particularly like the idea of starting my day with an email thanking or praising a colleague. It forces us to start thinking more positively about our co-workers, reaching out not only to critique work, but also to recognize the positives in others. 

The Power of Positive Questions

In my own work, I've been looking much more at how using positive frames can change the nature of the work that I'm doing. I've been experimenting with a variety of appreciative inquiry practices, particularly the power of positive questions. 

Behind positive questions is the notion that what we focus on is what we get. So if we ask questions that focus on problems and how to "fix" something, we are likely to go down a more negative road to solutions. If we reframe questions so that they are positive, asking us to think about the best situations we've experienced, we can find new solutions and ideas that might not otherwise be available to us.

The difference can be profound. Think of where your brain goes when I ask you this question:

"Why is morale so low in our company?"

vs. this question:

"How can I bring out the best in the people I work with?"

Each of these questions is tackling the problem of low morale. But the first sends me down the old road of problems and complaining. I can feel myself start to focus on all that's wrong in the organization.

The second question asks me to move beyond that and start thinking about the positive solutions. Rather than focusing on what's wrong, I start thinking immediately about things I could do that will help. The differences are subtle, yet huge. 

The Encyclopedia of Positive Questions is a fantastic resource for developing and using positive questioning techniques throughout the organization. At the beginning of the book, they offer a variety of ways to use positive questioning, including: 

  • Getting staff meetings off to a good start
  • Coachingfor high performance
  • Transforming "problem talk" into "possibility talk"
  • Creating dialogue to foster shared meaning
  • Demonstrating positive intent and trust with customers
  • Creating a learning organization
  • Building high performance teams
  • Conducting project reviews that make a difference
  • Building self-esteem
  • Planning a course of action for the future
  • Creating your own interview guide

I've also been looking at using positive questions as a strategy for engaging customers in positive action planning and project development, building off of previous successes, rather than getting bogged down in problems. 

If you're interested in doing more exploration into the power of positive questions, here are some good resources to get you started:

  • Positive Questions to Lift the Day--a nice list of questions that could be used by individuals or by organizations. What would happen if you engaged people in responding to one of these questions each day? 

  What do you think? Have you used positive questions or other practices to improve happiness at work? 


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Great post, Michele. I like the idea of being in charge of my own happiness to do a better job. I will definitely start working on these techniques!

Hey Savannah--I like the idea of taking responsibility for this too, although I also believe that organizations could be more intentional about the environments they create and their own use of these techniques. I vacillate wildly between knowing that we can only control ourselves and therefore have to pay attention to our own behavior and what we do in organizations to create an environment that is supportive of these ideas.

I agree with Michelle that we shouldn't ignore systemic issues in the workplace such as environmental cues (lighting, desk set-up) and interpersonal interactions (management influence). While I agree that people have choices over their mood I also find this to be a problematic topic. If you take a person who has historically been subjected to systemic social problems (poverty, racism, lack of education) and is disempowered in the workplace and say to them, "Don't worry, you can control your own mood, just think happy thoughts," then the core issue is not being dealt with. The systems that maintain this level of inequality need to be changed. Work "happiness" is a complicated issue and needs to be addressed from a systems perspective.

Just my two cents.

This works well unless you are in a very toxic work environment with bullies and games at play. It is very difficult to be in charge of your happiness scale when someone else is being abusive or passive aggressive. This is a simplistic view, but happiness is a much bigger issue than just a to do list. It requires a sense of peace and centredness.

Van and Anna I think you're both getting at something that is important to bring up here regarding "positive thinking." I completely agree that systems impact our happiness and that we can be caught up in toxic systems and environments that make it impossible to be happy. I am definitely NOT someone who advocates "think happy thoughts and everything will be wonderful." That is definitely a simplistic view and I recognize that work and life is infinitely more complicated than that.

At the same time, I think that if you can start reframing some of the ways that you think about work and life--at least in terms of how you approach the problems you face--then you can start to see some different solutions. For example, if you're in a toxic work environment, then use some reframing questions to help you deal with it, like "What do I believe is realistically possible here? How can I expand this belief to broaden the range of possible outcomes?" or "What learning is available in this situation? How can I be open to it?" or "What one small thing can I do to make this situation better or easier?"

Clearly if you're in a toxic situation, you want to do what you can to move out of it. At the same time, you can start to look at how positive re-framing might help you see some alternatives that make the situation more bearable in the meantime.

Michele, thanks so much for posting this. It's a powerful approach and will change how I talk with clients about their workplace performance issues.

Glad these help, Cathy. Would love to hear how this strategy works for you in working with clients.

It's interesting how we can train ourselves to be more positive at work. Furthermore, we can keep a positive attitude by maintaining our energy levels. We recently wrote an article that describes how we can do this. - Erich

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