People@Work: For Better or Worse, Happiness Comes to the Workplace

Don't Worry, Be Happy: That popular 1980s song by vocalist Bobby McFerrin "is a pretty neat philosophy in four words," as he put it, about keeping one's head up when faced with the mundane problems of everyday life. Workers today could benefit, it seems, from its cheery if simplistic message. High unemployment, increased workloads, stagnant wages and 401(k) plans that more resemble piggy banks than nest eggs have many employees feeling dour. And bosses have taken note. A growing list of companies, including American Express (AXP) and KPMG, have jumped on the so-called "happiness coaching" bandwagon, hiring consultants to teach employees how to tackle problems effectively and feel better about work -- call it the corporate equivalent of saying "the glass is always half full."The practice embraces the teachings of positive psychology and employs techniques such as note-taking, meditation or role-playing to help employees feel more engaged on the job. To its practitioners, it is a proven method that can lead to changed lives, or at least less burdensome ones.

To its detractors, such as Barbara Ehrenreich, author of "Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America," happiness coaching is just another gimmick that allows employers to squeeze more work out of dispirited employees. Moreover, Ehrenreich says, in jumping head first into the "think positive" pool, corporate executives in recent decades have forsaken true leadership "for the emotional thrills of mysticism, charisma and sudden intuitions." Americans have unbridled positive thinking to blame for calamities such as the recent mortgage debacle, which few saw coming because so few were willing to consider the possibility that anything could go wrong.

Nevertheless, advocates say that positive psychology can improve employees' lives. "It is possible to achieve greater happiness on the job," says Virginia Mathis-Bianco, an author and business professor at Marymount University in Arlington, Va. Moreover, it can boost the bottom line, she says. "Not only do companies that employ positive psychology methods have happier employees, they also do better financially."

But it's not easy. "It's a very difficult process that requires a lot of dedication, time, introspection, practice, new behaviors and, most importantly, accountability for creating happiness," says Mathis-Bianco, also a corporate trainer who teaches positive-psychology skills. More succinctly, she says, "It's not a silver bullet."

It's Not About Fake Smiles and Blind Optimism

One employer that is fully on board with Mathis-Bianco's message is Phillips Corp., a mid-sized machine-tool business in Columbia, Md. The 49-year-old company sells North American-made products worldwide, a "rare" commodity today, says Bill Withers, chief assistant to the president. The company believes it owes much of its success to its employees, whom it refers to as "partners."

By adopting the methods of positive psychology, he says, the company gives its employees a "sense of membership," and greater opportunities to be creative and speak up. That can transform companies -- or even moribund industries such as manufacturing, Withers says. Though not easy, the approach is simple, he says. "You follow the steps that need to be done and the net effect is that people bring their whole selves to work."

No one schooled in positive psychology expects people to walk around with plastered smiles on their faces, says Wendy Kaufman, chief executive of Balancing Life's Issues Inc., an Ossining, N.Y.-based corporate-training firm. She says there's a misconception that those involved in the field walk around with their heads in the clouds, failing to take notice of how bad things are.

"These are tough times," she says, but focusing on the negative won't get you where you need to go. That's wasted energy.

Kaufman emphasizes that happiness coaching is pragmatic; it isn't about placing a smiley-face sticker over problems. Rather, it's a methodical and confident approach, she says. "This is a person saying, 'Hmm, this is tough problem to solve, and it may take 22 different solutions, but I'm really confident I'm really going to be able to solve it.'"

Or as McFerrin put it in the closing lines of his iconic song: "I'm not worried; I'm happy."
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