On our Bucket List trip through Holland we arrive at our next destination; the “Vrije Universiteit” in Amsterdam. We are here to visit Meike Bartels, Professor in Behavior and Quantitative Genetics at the Department of Biological Psychology at the University. Her studies on twins are focused on researching how genetic and environmental factors influence our happiness. With other words: she studies how nature and nurture determine our happiness.
Meike is exemplary for the diversity that you can find on our Bucket List; the list we composed to help us on our quest to a broad understanding of being ‘happy at work’. We are here to discover her theoretical perspective on the topic. And to learn to what extent we can actually influence our happiness by changing our working environment.
Meike Bartels and the study of happiness
We enter Meike’s office, sit down and start getting to know each other. We tell her about our project, she tells us about her research. She states: “the field of psychology focuses on understanding and treating the minority that has some kind of mental illness. I wanted to turn this around. I want to focus on the positive side, and want to understand how we can increase the happiness of people in general”. We love this statement because it’s so recognizable. We see a big parallel between her motivation and ours.
Positive psychology is the study of happiness. Psychology has traditionally focused on dysfunction – people with mental illness or other psychological problems—and how to treat it. Positive psychology, in contrast, is a relatively new field that examines how ordinary people can become happier and more fulfilled. Meike envisions that with a focus on positive aspects the public health system will be broadened. The aim will no longer be only to help to heal the ill but also to increase overall happiness.
Just like Meike, we want to focus on bringing out the very best in people. This in contrast with the traditional management practices that often focus on making rules to minimize the bad influences of a small number of nonconforming employees. Or as Chaparral Steel CEO Gordon Forward calls it: “managing for the 3 percent. It implies that we often create rules to control the small number of nonconforming employees who might misuse their autonomy, while suppressing the innovation and creativity of the 97 percent who just want to do a good job”.
Meike continues by stating that the field of positive psychology is a very young research field and that there’s still loads to discover. The more questions we ask, the better we understand what she means. When it comes to ‘scientific happiness’ most is still unknown due to a few obstacles.
The challenges the researchers are facing on a daily basis can be found in the complexity of the environment, the difference in genetics between people, and certain unique influential personal experiences. But most important; it is hard to measure happiness objectively. The feeling of happiness for one person might be different than the feeling for the other. Because, if we are both asked to give a mark from 1 to 10 on our personal happiness, a 7 might mean something very different to you than it does to me.
Nature or nurture?
Meike is studying happiness of twins to best counter all those obstacles. Studying twins eliminates the difference in genetics and minimizes the influence of unique experiences and environmental differences. Her studies have proven that 40% of our perception of happiness is based on genetics. The remaining 60% is based on the other two parameters: environment and unique experiences. Let’s translate this fact to organizations and you will realize that at best you’re able to influence 60% of the perception of happiness. We must be cautious though, since there are still a hell of a lot of variables that influence the environment and the unique experiences of each single person.
But… since this field is called positive psychology, let’s look at it from the bright side. You’re still able to influence a significant amount of one’s happiness perception if you play it right.
The sense and nonsense of measuring happiness
From the theoretical point of view, measuring happiness within organisations has more flaws than strengths. Drawing conclusions on the happiness perception of employees, departments, or entire organisations has no or very limited scientific value. Therefore it seems rather useless to measure and compare happiness in such a way. So, what can be done then?
Luckily people are creative. Recently we’ve witnessed an interesting habit at the company Cyberclick in Barcelona. They implemented an inventive practice to collectively measure the mood of their employees. At the end of every day the company provide their employees with a short happiness survey. Their answers, based on a 4-point scale from unhappy to happy, are used to monitor the state of their employees’ happiness. Once the survey shows states of unhappiness they stop working and collective discuss the problem to find a proper solution. Besides just measuring by asking questions, the team members can always challenge the status-quo by questioning what they themselves can do to increase the happiness of their coworkers. This monitoring of happiness trends is something that sounds more appealing to us than trying to capture happiness in an absolute figure.
As you can understand by now, we leave the meeting with some answers, some questions, and again lots of stuff to think about. Once more we realize that it’s enriching to discover a wide variety of perspectives from our Bucket List. It helps us to broaden our understanding of how to create a better workplace. It doesn’t make it easier, but it definitely makes it more interesting!