Positive Psychology: How Finding Meaning in Work Can Boost Individual and Organisational Performance

15th July 2021
Two employees standing side-by-side in a high-rise office building.
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Two employees standing side-by-side in a high-rise office building.
Two employees standing side-by-side in a high-rise office building.

​Positive psychology is an area of psychology focussed on the strengths and behaviours that help people build meaningful, purposeful lives. When applied in a workplace, positive psychology enables people to move beyond feeling that they’re simply surviving in their jobs to feeling that they’re flourishing meaningfully in their careers. This, in turn, helps boost individual and organisational performance. The boost can be substantial – a recent study by the University of Oxford found that happy workers are up to 13 per cent more productive.

Positive psychology is a fairly recent discovery, having only been first recognised in the mid to late 20th century. One particular psychologist, Martin Seligman, is recognised as contributing significantly to founding and furthering the field, particularly with one model that he developed, the PERMA model. The PERMA model, a scientific model of happiness, describes the elements required to lead a purposeful life. 

This article will explore what positive psychology is in more detail and how it can influence performance. The article will explain the PERMA model and the benefits of positive psychology, as well as discuss examples of, and interventions for, positive psychology. 

What is positive psychology?

What is positive psychology and why is it important? In a nutshell, positive psychology is the study of the positive aspects of the human experience. Positive psychology is about more than being happy and positive, though. It’s about all aspects of creating a satisfying life, for example, contentment, self-actualisation and joy. 

According to Seligman, positive psychology leads us to a higher place in life: “Positive psychology takes you through the countryside of pleasure and gratification, up into the high country of strength and virtue, and finally to the peaks of lasting fulfillment, meaning and purpose.”

The reason that positive psychology is so important is that being fulfilled in life and living a life of meaning is critical for all human beings. If we aren’t feeling satisfied or fulfilled, we’re more likely to feel angry, anxious and depressed, and these feelings often result in extremely negative health outcomes. 

Regarding work in particular, feeling fulfilled is particularly important, given that, according to HuffPost Australia, we spend at least 13 years of our lives at work. In recent years, positive psychology has been increasingly applied and practiced in the workplace because of its slew of benefits, including employees being more engaged in their work and less likely to be absent. Happier employees are also less likely to leave. 

One particular benefit of positive psychology in the workplace is that it boosts individual – and hence organisational – performance. The reason is that more satisfied employees are more productive in general and put in more discretionary effort. They’re also likely to be more innovative and better at solving problems. 

Further resources on positive psychology              

The PERMA model 

Seligman’s PERMA model has been critical in developing the positive psychology field and helping many people and employees find meaning in their lives and work. The PERMA model, which stands for positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishments, is an evidence-based model that, when applied in the workplace, can help employees feel happier and be more productive. 

1. Positive emotion

Positive emotions are key to becoming and staying happy. When we experience positive emotions, we’re more likely to feel great, get along with those around us, and set higher goals for our future and have the energy to walk towards them. At work, we experience less stress and fatigue if these positive emotions are present. 

One positive emotion that really impacts performance at work is gratitude. Research shows that being grateful (and showing gratitude towards others) leads to increased activity in the part of the brain associated with happiness

The workplace provides many opportunities to show more gratitude to help employees perform better. For example, employees can be encouraged to share in meetings what they’re grateful for or what they appreciate about others. There can also be a more formal, organisational program to show gratitude, for example, an employee rewards program. 

2. Engagement

In the past, organisations focused on helping people to discover and develop their weaknesses. Positive psychology says they should do the opposite. In the PERMA model, engagement specifically says happiness comes from employees’ finding and using their strengths. 

By emphasizing their strengths, employees are more likely to focus on the future, including how they can better themselves, instead of thinking about what they may need to “fix.” When people are focussed on their strengths, they’re more likely to feel fulfilled and be innovative. 

Organisations can help employees engage by focussing on their strengths in the workplace in many ways. One way is by giving regular feedback, allowing employees to participate in training and development activities, and giving employees the opportunity to share their accomplishments. 

3. Relationships

Connection in the workplace influences our happiness greatly because it allows us to invest in relationships. From an evolutionary perspective, our brains are hardwired to require human connection for not only survival but also enjoyment. When we feel connected to other people, we feel happier, and that happiness is contagious. 

Organisations can help encourage employees to form better relationships in many ways. For example, give employees time to socialise, even paying for certain events. Design activities that involve working together, and ensure that the work culture encourages people to support and praise each other and address problems together. 

4. Meaning

Just as people need to feel that they have a purpose in life to give it meaning, employees also need to feel that their work has a purpose for it to feel meaningful. For this reason, creating meaning at work is important. 

One famous example of giving people meaning at work is the experiment that organisational psychologist Adam Grant conducted. In the experiment, Grant worked with call centre staff members who were tasked with canvassing for donations for a university scholarship fund. To help the staff members feel invested in the outcome, he took them to meet a beneficiary of a scholarship. 

The meeting had extraordinary effects on productivity. After the meeting, the team members went on to raise three times more money and record longer and more engaged conversations with potential donors. The key reason that this occurred was that the work felt more meaningful. 

5. Accomplishments

The final element in the PERMA model is accomplishment. Accomplishment is the positive feeling that comes from setting realistic goals and achieving those goals (or working towards them) through specific actions. 

Feeling that they’ve accomplished something (or are on the way to doing so) helps employees thrive at work and feel invested in outcomes. 

Organisations can help use accomplishment at work in many ways. Organisations can connect employees’ jobs with the overall organisational goals, showing employees how they’re working towards these goals. They can also encourage employees to set their own goals that align with key performance indicators (KPIs) and create plans to achieve them. 

Further resources on the PERMA model

A list of the five elements of the PERMA model.

Positive psychology benefits 

As the name suggests, positive psychology can be extremely beneficial for both people who want to live a satisfying life and employees who want to get the most out of their jobs.

1. Teaches perspective

Positive psychology teaches perspective by encouraging people to focus on their strengths and relationships. It also helps create meaning through setting goals and working towards them. 

2. Encourages individuals not to value money as much

Research shows that those who highly value money aren’t very happy. Positive psychology is beneficial because it helps individuals focus on things other than money. 

3. Teaches the value of experiences

Positive psychology teaches people to focus on themselves and those around them as opposed to material possessions. This can help them feel more satisfied because research shows that focussing on material possessions doesn’t lead to happiness. 

4. Increases gratitude

When individuals feel grateful for what they have in life, regardless of how it compares with what others have, they genuinely feel happier about themselves. Positive psychology encourages people to focus on gratitude as one of the positive emotions.

5. Increases wellbeing

Wellbeing – defined as the state of being comfortable, happy and healthy – is what positive psychology is all about. Positive psychology helps give life and work meaning, so wellbeing can become a constant in people’s lives. 

6. Results in a more positive mood

Individuals are said to be in a positive mood when they feel joyous and are interested in what they’re doing. Positive psychology helps increase the instances of being in a positive mood because it helps increase their overall happiness. 

7. Promotes contagious happiness

Did you know that happiness is contagious? Positive psychology helps people experience contagious happiness by helping them connect. When people are connected, they’re more likely to feel (and absorb) other people’s happiness.  

8. Enables peer acceptance

Fitting in at work is important because it helps us to create all-important relationships and connections. One benefit of positive psychology is that it helps individuals feel happier at work, and people like working with (and are more likely to accept) happy peers. 

9. Encourages generosity

Generosity is a big part of human nature, and people are hardwired to find it satisfying. Given the focus on relationships, positive psychology encourages people to be happier by helping them focus on how to better connect, which is often through giving. 

10. Improves work performance

One of the biggest benefits of positive psychology is how it affects workplace productivity. Happy employees work more effectively and efficiently. How much more exactly? As mentioned above, research shows that if employees are happy at work, they can be up to 13 per cent more productive.

11. Promotes team positivity

Universal happiness at work can be difficult to achieve because a few people will always be dissatisfied with the status quo. However, one benefit of positive psychology is that it can help change this. With its focus on helping people find meaning, positive psychology can help leaders help their teams become more positive by encouraging all individuals to find unique meaning in their work. 

12. Improves flow

In addition to helping people feel happier at work, which in turn helps them be more productive, positive psychology means that it takes less for employees to be productive at work. When individuals are enjoying work, they can get into a state of flow in which they’re absorbed in and motivated by the work. 

13. Enables greater success

Positive psychology helps individuals find meaning and purpose in life and feel happier. It also goes without saying that those who feel that life has purpose are more successful. Research shows that those who are happier are much more likely to be successful, because it helps increase individual performance.

14. Promotes a healthy amount of optimism

Optimism, or the hopefulness and confidence about the future or success of something, is critical in helping people achieve goals. Positive psychology helps people feel more optimistic, because they feel more connected to their purpose. It also allows people to focus on their strengths, and when using these, they naturally feel more confident that they’ll succeed. 

15. Provides a better understanding of a good life

To live a life of purpose, one first has to understand what this means. Positive psychology helps give people the tools to understand that relationships, meaning, positive emotion, engagement and accomplishments are all a critical part of a good life. 

16. Gives a deeper sense of meaning

In a capitalist society, many people feel as if life is all about earning money, accruing material possessions and achieving career success. However, positive psychology can help people move beyond this and understand that relationships and purpose can help give life more meaning. 

17. Puts focus on the present

Often, at work and in life, bad things happen that are out of a person’s control. When these bad things happen, it’s sometimes difficult to put them into perspective, potentially leading to feelings of anxiety and depression. By helping people focus on relationships and their purpose, positive psychology can help them focus on the good in the present moment.

18. Encourages giving back

Positive psychology is all about connecting people with a higher sense of meaning and purpose, making them more aware of their environments and those around them. Naturally, with this comes the inclination to help others and give back. 

19. Helps put negative emotions in context

Negative things happen to everyone, but to overcome them, people need to remember the bigger picture. Positive psychology helps people do this with a focus on their own purpose, goals and relationships. Having a broader focus helps people remember that negative events and emotions are only temporary. 

20. Encourages authenticity

One of the truly great benefits of positive psychology is that it helps people be themselves. It does this by helping connect people with their own unique sense of purpose and by helping them be grateful for their own relationships and accomplishments. By focussing on the self, people feel that they can be more authentic.

Further resources on the benefits of positive psychology            

Positive psychology examples

Positive psychology can help employees feel more happy, motivated and fulfilled by work in so many ways. How can positive psychology be practiced at work, though? Consider four examples of how employers can encourage positive psychology in the workplace. 

1. Support employees in keeping a gratitude journal

One of the key pillars of happiness at work is gratitude. Instead of feeling lost at or frustrated by work, employees need to look around them and feel grateful for all the wonderful things about their workplaces. 

One way to achieve this is to encourage employees to keep a gratitude journal. Employers should consider purchasing their employees physical journals to write in. Then, ensure that they support their employees by allocating time in the workday to write in the journals (ideally the same time every day), let them know that it’s OK to start with small examples, and encourage them to be as specific as possible about what they’re grateful for. 

2. Focus on personal strengths

When people focus on, use and nurture their strengths at work, they tend to be much happier. However, a lot of performance management at work focusses on identifying weaknesses and trying to improve them, which counters the theories of positive psychology. 

To try and encourage employees to focus on their strengths, employers should sit down with them and get them to identify what they think they’re good at. Then, ask them to also seek feedback from others on this. Once strengths are identified, employers can create plans to further develop employees and potentially design or change aspects of employees’ jobs, so they can focus on their strengths. 

3. Encourage gratitude visits

Gratitude in the workplace doesn’t just need to be personal. One way to apply positive psychology in the workplace is to encourage gratitude visits. Essentially, gratitude visits are opportunities in which employees notice what other people are doing well and praise or thank them for their effort and contribution. 

Showing small gratitude, whether it be a simple “Thank you” or an email, can have a profound effect on wellbeing. Research shows that up to 88 per cent of people feel better about themselves after being thanked at work.

4. Provide access to wellbeing therapy

Sometimes at work, an individual may need more specific assistance. In this case, wellbeing therapy is a great example of positive psychology in the workplace and may be accessed through an employee assistance program. 

Wellbeing therapy combines therapeutic treatments with the science of wellbeing and effectively aims to retrain someone’s brain to focus on the positive, build resilience and live a more fulfilling life. 

Further resources on practising positive psychology              

5 examples of positive psychology in practice

Positive psychology interventions

Traditionally, psychology as a field has been focussed on diagnosing what’s wrong and then finding a solution. However, positive psychology has a very different focus. Instead of simply finding out what’s wrong, positive psychology is focussed on making work and life more fulfilling. To do this, though, sometimes interventions are necessary. 

Consider five positive psychology interventions (PPIs) that may be undertaken in the workplace. 

1. Strength-building measures

Like encouraging employees to focus on their strengths, strength-building PPIs are about looking inward. However, when employees are encouraged to look inward, they’re encouraged to look to find the strength or resilience to overcome their challenges. 

An example of a strength-building PPI could be to encourage employees to solve problems themselves. 

2. Optimistic interventions

Optimistic interventions aim to help create positive outcomes at work by setting realistic expectations. They aim to help people see the current situation for what it is and find good in it. 

One example of how this may be achieved in the workplace is to ask everyone on the team to assume that everything at work is going extremely well and detail what’s working. This exercise helps people focus on what’s positive in the situation. 

3. Kindness boosters

The ability to be kind is a trait that all happy people possess. Happiness and kindness often go hand in hand. 

PPIs that help amplify kindness can work well in the workplace. For example, employees can be encouraged to buy something nice for someone else, volunteer for a cause they care about, and donate to or help someone else, not expecting anything in return. 

4. Empathy PPIs

Empathy interventions focus on positive emotions in relationships. In particular, they focus on creating healthy professional bonds. 

Traditional meditation and other mindfulness practices can help cultivate empathy between people, as well as help employees feel more connected. Other practices that enable effective communication and work to broaden people’s perspectives can also assist. 

5. Savouring PPIs

Savouring PPIs focus on particular experiences in the workplace and aim to help people maximise happiness in that moment. These types of interventions are focussed on encouraging people to savour every aspect of an experience, whether it be physical, sensory, emotional or social. 

Savouring PPIs are best suited to employee off-site days in which employees are out of their environments and comfort zones and can focus more on their surroundings. 

Further resources on positive psychology interventions          

Positive psychology exercises

In addition to positive psychology interventions, it’s possible to perform a number of positive psychology exercises in the workplace. These can help employees understand the principles of positive psychology and, in turn, help them find meaning in their work and become more productive. 

Consider five positive psychology exercises that employees can do as part of designated positive psychology sessions in the workplace. Note that many of these would be best performed by a positive psychology professional. 

1. Self-care vision board

Self-care refers to undertaking activities that help people take care of their mental, emotional and physical health. Regular self-care has been shown to increase empathy and decrease anxiety and depression, as it helps improve self-awareness, self-regulation, and the balancing of individual needs versus community needs. 

To create a self-care vision board, a practitioner will ask employees to list as many self-care activities as possible, and then find inspiring images and phrases associated with those. The board will act as a visual reminder of the importance of self-care. 

2. Sensory awareness exercises

Sensory awareness exercises guide employees in identifying experiences that help them derive enjoyment through their five senses. Sensory awareness is more than just awareness, though. It’s engaging with, and paying attention to, sensory information. 

To awaken the senses, a practitioner will give employees a piece of paper and ask them to label the column headings “Sound,” “Sight,” “Smell,” “Touch” and “Taste.” The practitioner will then ask them to list what they enjoy under each of those senses as they’re asked more questions to help uncover a deeper experience. 

3. Positive reminiscence

Another positive psychology exercise is positive reminiscence. Positive reminiscence is an exercise in which employees focus on experiences to give them an ability to acknowledge, appreciate and enhance the positive elements of it. Doing so can help them endure negative experiences more easily. 

To help employees perform this exercise, a practitioner will ask everyone to think about an event from the past that evokes positive emotions. The practitioner will then ask them to visualise it and remember as much as possible about it, focussing on the positive feelings and trying to relive the event. 

4. The self-compassion pause

Self-compassion is important as regards positive psychology, as people with self-compassion are more likely to treat themselves with kindness when they experience negative events. They’re also more likely to be more socially connected and have a stronger overall feeling of wellbeing. 

The self-compassion pause is an exercise best performed outside of work. For employees to complete this exercise, practitioners will often suggest it as homework when employees feel they’re experiencing some kind of stress or discomfort. The practitioners will instruct employees to focus on their breathing, and then place their hands on their bodies to remind themselves that while this may be a difficult moment, it’ll pass. 

5. Benefit finding

A final positive psychology exercise that can be helpful is for employees to reflect on finding positives after a traumatic experience. Doing so can help them develop resilience and compassion and create a new sense of purpose. 

This exercise can certainly be a challenging one to conduct in a workplace environment, as it’s quite personal. Nonetheless, if practitioners do conduct it, they’ll encourage employees to talk about their traumatic events for a few minutes, allowing free expression. After this, the practitioners will ask them to focus on the positive aspects of the experience and how that experience has made them better equipped to meet similar challenges in the future. 

Further resources on positive psychology exercises        

Finding meaning at work using positive psychology

Positive psychology has so much to offer people from all walks of life. It can, however, be particularly beneficial in the workplace. Using positive psychology at work can help employees feel happier and more engaged, meaning they’ll be more productive. Finding meaning in their work helps enable this, and positive psychology is pivotal in helping this to happen. 

Tags: 
Psychology

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