On Topic: Science says happy thoughts boost productivity

Michael Chevy Castranova
Published: June 23 2013 | 6:00 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 4:55 pm in
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What struck me the most, when I thought about it later, was which way the sign was facing.

On a recent trip to Ohio, I stopped to see a longtime friend in her workplace. As we chatted, she pointed out the poster she’d only recently had framed and hung on the wall alongside her office door.

“The Answer Is No,” the sign proclaimed.

Employees who came to her with requests needed to understand they couldn’t just get everything they wanted simply by asking, she explained. Resources were scarce.

Fair enough. But the position of the sign meant means visitors wouldn’t notice it until they were leaving. My friend would see it every time she looked up from her desk, all day long.

While I’m not convinced that possessing a positive attitude and whistling a happy tune will ensure everything will go swimmingly on the job — or with life in general — I’m pretty certain assuming everything will end up a complete disaster is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

And this time I have science on my side.

Studies by Sara Bengtsson, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, indicate that people perform better when armed with positive messages.

Some college students in one of Bengtsson’s experiments were pumped up with words such as “intelligent” and “smart” before they took a test. Looking at brain-imaging data later, she saw greater activity in the anterior medial part of the prefrontal cortex of their brains — and they did better on the test.

Bengtsson then primed her subjects with “stupid” and “ignorant.” As the students now didn’t expect to do well, no heightened brain activity occurred — and they didn’t do so hot on their tests, either.

Expectations became reality, writes Tali Sharot, director of the Affective Brain Lab at University College London’s department of Cognitive Perceptual and Brain Sciences, in her book, “The Optimism Bias,” in which she details Bengtsson’s experiment.

One reason may be our brains really don’t learn from our mistakes, Sharot notes. In other words, being told, “No, you dummy, you’re wrong,” doesn’t help us improve.

Shocking, I know.

Too touchy-feely? Here’s this: A survey by the iOpener Institute for People and Performance and the Wall Street Journal a couple years ago determined that reasonably happy employees took 10 times fewer sick days than their less-satisfied co-workers.

Moreover, the committed workers put in more hours and were better focused on their tasks, the survey found.

For more real-world numbers, a Gallup 2012 study contended “actively disengaged employees — the least productive — cost the American economy up to $350 billion per year in lost productivity.”

So how do we foster more of these jolly employees and fewer of the folk who’d rather be somewhere else?

I don’t believe all our office signs should read, “The Answer Is Yes.” But how about, “The Answer Could Be Yes”?

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