Four Strategies for Increasing Happiness in the Workplace (and Within Yourself )

Fostering a happy workplace starts by cultivating optimism within yourself.

Do you notice that setbacks tend to occupy your mind more than victories?

Do you sometimes struggle to stay positive about your business?

Employees expect their leaders to be enthusiastic, energetic, and positive about the future. But on a day-to-day basis, maintaining a positive outlook and inspiring others can be challenging.

Even if everything in your business is going smoothly, a problematic issue in your personal life—with your spouse, child, friend, or relative—can throw you off your game.

Leaders must inspire their people amidst professional and personal challenges. Research-based methods for counteracting negativity and fostering optimism give leaders the resources to inspire themselves and uplift others.

How can you inspire others if you don’t feel inspired?

The Negativity Bias

We react more strongly towards negativity than we do to positive stimuli.

This negativity bias evolved for a good reason: it helped us survive in early human history. Detecting danger quickly was fundamental for staying alive.

Today, however, our brain’s vigilance and problem-seeking mindset tends to play against us:

  • Our attitudes are more influenced by bad news than good,/li>
  • We ruminate on negative events more easily than we celebrate positive ones.
  • We remember insults more easily than praises.

As psychologist Rick Hanson put it, “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones—even though most of your experiences are probably neutral or positive.1

The Cost of Negativity in the Workplace

This negativity bias can greatly affect your work and the performance of your teams.

When researcher and analytics executive Andrew Miner and his colleagues tracked employee moods, they found that negative interactions with a boss or a coworker had a 5x stronger effect on an employee’s feelings than positive interactions.2

Another study by researcher Will Felps and his colleagues found that negative people create a host of defensive behaviors within teams that increase conflict, reduce motivation, stall cooperation, and minimize creativity and learning.3

Felps estimates that just one toxic team member gives that team a 30-40% performance disadvantage compared to teams that have no toxic members.

Negative reactions—from others and ourselves—distract, deflate, and emotionally drain us.

When these reactions are our own, they affect our work. When someone consistently exhibits these negative emotions and behavior in a group, they drag down the entire team.

Smiling is contagious. Unfortunately, so is nastiness, laziness, and grumpiness.

It appears that one bad apple truly can spoil the bunch.

Counteract Negativity with More Positivity

To combat the negativity bias, we need to recruit a larger army of positive thoughts, emotions, and experiences each day.

How much larger?

Barbara Fredrickson’s research suggests that there’s a 3:1 ratio for positivity.4 In other words, we need three positive experiences to counteract a negative one.

Famed relationship expert John Gottman’s “magic ratio” of positive to negative experiences in the area of personal relationships is higher than Fredrickson’s at 5:1.5 6

To tip the scale in the direction of optimism requires a battalion of positivity three to five times greater than the negative sentiments in your own mind and throughout your organization.

Happiness Begets Happiness

Fostering a happy workplace starts by cultivating optimism within yourself.

Fortunately, there are proven methods to change the tide and bring greater optimism and joy into your organization as well as your personal life.

Here are four effective strategies for developing a positive personal psychology:

1. Be Mindful

Learn to pay attention to your mental and emotional state throughout the day. Negativity can creep up on us when we’re not aware of it. Once you enter a negative state, it’s easy to get stuck in it. The quicker you identify pessimism, the quicker you can change it.

2) Challenge Your Beliefs

Once you recognize that you’re having negative thoughts, you can learn to dispute them using the father pos positive psychology Martin Seligman’s ABCDE Method:

  • Adversity: Write down an instance where you recently encounter adversity. Be as specific as possible.
  • Beliefs: Write down, in detail, what you were thinking during the above incident.
  • Consequences: List the consequences of your beliefs. In other words, how did your beliefs about the situation make you react and how did they make you feel.
  • Dispute: Come up with something that either provides evidence against the beliefs you held, reframes them in a positive way, or puts them in a different perspective.
  • Energy: Write how the dispute would change how you reacted to the situation. Think about how it made you feel differently, react differently, and see things in a different light.7

When you feel yourself reacting negatively to a situation, recall the above process and use it to reframe your thinking, feeling, and reactions into a more positive experience.

3) Change Your State

The fastest way to transition from pessimism to optimism is to change your physiology. When you’re feeling down, move around. Play music that inspires you; music that gets you charged up. Move quickly and with power. Smile. Consciously uplifting your state repeatedly throughout the day can help condition yourself for continual success.

4) Cultivate Gratitude

Keeping a gratitude journal can create a noticeable increase in your overall level of happiness. Think back over the past 24 hours before bed and write down five things you can be grateful for. Do it for 14 days and notice if you feel a change in your well being.

Four Strategies for Encouraging a Happy Workplace

When you have started cultivating happiness within yourself, you can start to use your newfound perspective and attitude to create a happier workplace for others.

Here are four strategies for infusing your organization with greater optimism:

1) Stay Conscious of the Negativity Bias

Take action when you see negativity start to spread. Remember Gottman’s 5:1 ratio. Consciously foster positive experiences to counteract the negative ones. When you notice your people harping on negative situations, help them change their state to break the rumination cycle. Use humor whenever appropriate.

2) Celebrate Every Win, Big or Small

When your team experiences a victory, celebrate it. When someone does something positive or acts in alignment with your core values, give it attention. Encourage your team to celebrate even small wins. Savoring positive experiences helps counteract the brain’s tendency to ruminate and overanalyze negative events. Celebrating even small progress helps you build positive momentum. On-the-spot recognition goes a long way.

3) Ask Empowering Questions

When you’re brainstorming with your team, it’s easy for people to focus on what’s wrong with an idea. Cultivate “value sensitivity” by asking people questions like: “What’s great about this idea?” “What can we leverage here?” “How can we build on this idea?” “What can we learn from this?”

4) Always End on the Positive

When giving feedback to employees, many leaders have a tendency to leave things on a negative note instead of a positive one. Always end on a positive note that gives clear direction to build momentum. Feelings of shame and guilt hinder learning and performance. Compassion and support promote positive change.

The Skill of Optimism

Ultimately, optimism is a skill. And, all skills can be learned.

Learning to cultivate greater levels of optimism within yourself raises your overall happiness and increases your personal performance at work.

Learning to foster happiness in your organization elevates your group performance and supports your role as an inspiring leader.


  1. Rick Hanson, Buddha’s Brain, 2009.
  2. Andrew G. Miner, Theresa M. Glomb, and Charles Hulin, “Experience sampling mood and its correlates at work,” Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 2005.
  3. Will Felps, Terrence R. Mitchell, and Eliza Byington, “How, When, and Why Bad Apples Spoil the Barrel: Negative Group Members and Dysfunctional Groups,” Research in Organizational Behavior, 2006.
  4. Barbara L. Fredrickson, Positivity, 2009.
  5. John Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, 1994.
  6.  Gottman can predict with 94% accuracy if a married couple will stay together after observing the ratio of positive to negative comments the couple makes in a fifteen-minute conversation between them.
  7. Marin Seligman, Authentic Happiness, 2002.
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