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Creating the Happiness Mindset for Innovation

To start off, a key question is can happiness possibly be operationalized at global corporate enterprises? Is that even possible? Can it even be measured?

“That is actually a debate that both psychologists and economists are having with some regularity,” says Sanderson. “Certainly, we know there are ways to measure happiness. But one of the challenges is that when we think about happiness, it’s not just one dimension, that broadly happiness includes three distinct components. There’s the component of pleasure, like the pleasure of having a great glass of wine, or you’re hearing a beautiful piece of music. There is anticipation and engagement. So doing things in your life, job, career, or community that you find personally engaging and fulfilling. And then there’s also doing things that you find meaningful, which bring you a sense of contentment and peace.”

Happiness and its dimensions may be more relevant to the workplace than one might originally think. For example, bringing in the right talent to the innovation team, creating the right culture and environment, and having the right leadership are all components that could and should bring happiness to an organization or group. One must understand talent wants and needs and then execute on that. But as the return to office movement has shown, with hybrid work coming out of the pandemic, there’s clearly still a divide.

Sanderson points to a study that might help balance that divide, as it shows how the meaning of one’s job is important: “There was a study that was done with people who had the exact same job. They were custodians in a hospital. And then they asked, how much do you like that job? And half the people said, I don’t like the job at all. What I do is I mop floors, wash windows and clean bathrooms. Another set of people said, I love my job. But they described it. They thought about it in a totally different way. They said, I’m keeping a sterile environment and protecting patients. I’m an important conduit between the nursing staff and the doctors and the patients. I’m a sense of moral support for the family. I love that example because what it really describes is how you think about your job really matters. And we can frankly all do a better job of helping people understand the meaning, value and purpose behind their job, and that leads to greater happiness, and actually better work performance.”

The study also shows how a change of mindset can be important, when it comes to an innovation team, its members and leadership. That mindset about their job matters and leadership can play a role in how the job is interpreted and shaped over time. It is also certainly key that leadership reinforce that message when things get stressful.

The Anxiety Age

So just what would Sanderson suggest when there is stress or anxiety in work and life? Like happiness, anxiety is also how we think.

Sanderson notes, “There’s a great book that I recommend, and it’s called, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. And it’s by a neuroscientist at Stanford. But what this book says is the reason why zebras don’t get ulcers is that zebras only show this anxiety when there is a predator, I would imagine, or when they’re about to die. Guess when people do it, all the time. I’m late for my plane. I have a blind date. I have a job interview. I have a lot of emails in my inbox. Whatever it is. So the reality is, yes, life can be stressful, work can be stressful, people’s personal lives can be stressful. But we could all learn to be more like the zebra. And show that sort of physiological stress reaction when things are truly life and death versus the sort of everyday ups and downs of life that are not actually life and death.”

So how can a businessperson overcome anxiety? “I think one way is actually talking about it. And that is the reality. Part of it is just sort of understanding, wait, is this life or death or is it not? I think it’s also the case of allowing people to obsess but for limited periods of time. One of my favorite examples of this comes from cognitive psychology. Say you’re going to set aside a time every day. And in that ten-minute period, you can panic about anything under the sun, and then it’s over. Then you’re moving on. There are ways that we can train ourselves to think about anxiety provoking things in a different way,” she says.

While some of this mindset is up to the individual, organizations also play a role in shaping the worker’s mindset. Sanderson concludes, “Organizations play a tremendous role in helping people understand how their job fits into the broader picture, the broader enterprise and really contains value and meaning.”

See the video from FEI for more on Seth Adler’s conversation with Professor Catherine Sanderson, as they tackle psychology, the pandemic, and the work/life environment.


  • Seth Adler

    Seth Adler heads up All Things Insights & All Things Innovation. He has spent his career bringing people together around content. He has a dynamic background producing events, podcasts, video, and the written word.

  • Matt Kramer

    Matthew Kramer is the Digital Editor for All Things Insights & All Things Innovation. He has over 20 years of experience working in publishing and media companies, on a variety of business-to-business publications, websites and trade shows.


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