Happiness at Work: Get a Big Boost from Small Frequent Pleasures

Photo by Tran Mau Tri Tam
Photo by Tran Mau Tri Tam
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The Challenge: We get used to what we have and start taking it for granted–so we’re less happy.  
The Science: New research suggests we can prolong happy experiences, even at work.
The Solution: The trick lies in small frequent pleasures.

One of the more distressing facts about human nature is that we are not particularly good at staying happy for very long. Positive emotions wear off. Whether we’ve earned a promotion, landed a new client, or moved to the corner office, with time we tend to return to our happiness baseline.

Often the process doesn’t take very long. Consider what happens when you order a wonderful dish at a new restaurant. The first bite is exquisite. The second is very good. By the third, you’re ready to share. The more you eat, the less enjoyment you derive from your meal, until after a certain threshold you couldn’t bear another bite.

Chances are, the next time you return to the restaurant and order the same dish, it will taste like it’s missing something. It is: novelty.

The good news about our inclination to adapt is that the same psychological process responsible for acclimating us to positive events is also at work when we experience a tragedy. Studies show that lottery winners, for example, return to their happiness baseline roughly one year after receiving their windfall. Accident victims show a similar pattern. Just twelve months after losing the use of their legs, paraplegics estimate that they will feel just as happy in the future as they did before their injury.

Our brains are programmed to adapt to our circumstances, and for good reason. Too happy and we’d lack any ambition; too sad and we’d never leave our beds.

To some, learning about the existence of a happiness baseline can feel incredibly liberating. It means that no matter how badly you screw up your next project, inevitably your disappointment will wear off, and you’ll return to your happiness set point. So why not take some risks? After all, you’re working with an emotional safety net.

To others, it can seem downright depressing. If happiness is fleeting, what’s the point of even trying? It’s the reason some researchers have equated the human condition to a “happiness treadmill.” We struggle as hard as we can, only to remain stuck in the same emotional place.

Recently psychologists have begun examining ways of slowing the adaptation process as a means of prolonging happy experiences. If we can prevent ourselves from habituating too quickly to positive experiences, the reasoning goes, we can sustain the initial high for longer periods of time. Every positive experience takes some getting used to. And the more positive events we have, the longer it takes us to return to baseline. Which leads us to an important happiness insight: Small, frequent pleasures can keep us happy longer than large, infrequent ones.

What this means from a practical perspective is that bringing home a ten-dollar arrangement of flowers every Friday for a month is a wiser happiness-promoting strategy than purchasing a single forty-dollar bouquet. So is spacing out weekend getaways over the course of a year instead of taking a single two-week vacation.

The more frequent our happiness boosts, the longer our mood remains above baseline.

The implications from an organizational standpoint can be profound. For one thing, we may be better off splitting up positive annual events into quarterly ones. Companies often hand out bonuses at the end of the year, but delivering smaller, quarterly bonuses may be a more effective strategy. The same logic applies to parties. Instead of spending lavishly on a single holiday party, it may be wiser to divide such spending into smaller increments, providing seasonal get-togethers.

The importance of frequent positive events also provides a new lens for appreciating the psychological value of office perks. Offering employees relatively inexpensive workplace benefits—for example, by purchasing a high-end espresso machine or stocking the refrigerator with interesting snacks—is more likely to sustain day-to-day happiness levels than the sporadic pay increase.

From the employee perspective, access to office perks can often do more than temporarily elevate mood: It also sends an implicit signal that an organization cares about them. While financial bonuses tend to be viewed as payment for performance, perks communicate on an emotional level and provide a motivational boost. Studies show that when employees feel cared for, they are inclined to reciprocate by working harder. A 2012 experiment conducted by behavioral economists at the University of Zurich, for example, found that on-the-job rewards are significantly more motivating than cash bonuses of identical value.

In 2013, executives at Pictometry, an aerial imaging company based in Rochester, New York, made the decision to set aside $2,500 a week toward feeding their 250 employees. Everything from popcorn to cold cuts to microwavable meals were made available for everyone on staff to munch on throughout the day. Employees were even asked to provide input on how they thought the money should be spent.

Then a funny thing happened. One technician asked if he could use a portion of the stipend to bake pies over the weekend, offering to bring them in for his colleagues. Another requested that the office purchase a slow cooker and volunteered to bring in ingredients for a stew. Today it’s not uncommon to find staffers at Pictometry sitting together for communal lunches that they themselves have cooked.

To be fair, $2,500 a week is by no means a small expenditure. Multiply that amount over fifty-two weeks a year and you’re looking at a bill of $130,000. Is it worth it?

Here it’s instructive to look at the alternative: If Pictometry were to abolish its generous meal stipend and divide the money it’s now spending among its 250 employees, each one of them would receive a raise totaling just one quarter per hour. Which would you prefer: a salary bump of two dollars a day or access to an unlimited snack bar and the occasional home-cooked meal?

Key Takeaways: Three Tips for Boosting Happiness at Work

  1. Embrace small pleasures throughout the workday. Frequent happiness boosts more effectively keep your happiness level above baseline than large, infrequent rewards.
  2. If you’re leading a team, stock your office with inexpensive treats. You can get a bigger psychological bang for the buck by offering an unlimited snack bar than splurging on the annual office holiday party.
  3. Offer variety. Increasing the frequency of positive events isn’t the only way of delaying adaptation. So is variation. Instead of offering the same perks year after year, consider mixing it up. We’re more likely to notice positive things when they’re first introduced.

An exclusive book excerpt from The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace (Penguin Random House/Perigee) by Ron Friedman, Ph.D.

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Ron Friedman

Ron Friedman

Ron Friedman, Ph.D., is an award-winning social psychologist who specializes in human motivation, and frequently delivers keynotes and trainings on the science of workplace excellence. His new book, The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, has been described as “stunning,” “eye-opening,” and “a contemporary classic,” and praised by New York Times best-selling authors Daniel Pink, David Allen, Marshall Goldsmith, Susan Cain, and Adam Grant. Dr. Friedman has served on the faculty of the University of Rochester, Nazareth College, and Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and has consulted for some of the world’s most successful organizations. Popular accounts of his research have appeared on NPR and in major newspapers, including The New York Times, Financial Times, the Globe and Mail, Washington Post, The Guardian, as well as magazines such as Men’s Health, Entrepreneur, and Success.
Ron Friedman

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