Spoiler alert: The answer is yes – staying positive through the day is good for both your individual productivity and your company’s bottom line. Up until recently, we’ve had limited evidence about how staying positive at work can significantly boost your performance. Through the steady progress of positive psychology researchers and leaders in business who are constantly trying out and measuring new performance strategies, we’ve moved from the yes or no question to the why and how.
So that’s what we’re going to do here. We’ll break down why staying positive is critical to productivity, according to research, and then walk you through a few ways to practice it. And just so you know, there are other benefits of staying positive that go far beyond your office. So these are strategies that simply make life better. And we’re all in for that.
The Surprising Connection Between Positivity and Productivity
Before we get started, let’s set the stage with someone who’s made his living studying this stuff: Shawn Achor. His singular mission for the past decade has been to research and share with the world the importance of staying positive. Here’s Shawn, in his TED Talk, breaking down the positivity-productivity connection.
Why Staying Positive Works for Productivity
Below are three science-backed reasons why staying positive can increase productivity—both on an individual level and an organizational level. Yes, positivity can improve the success of your entire company. Keep reading to find out why.
1. Positivity broadens your view so you can see and act on more options
With her foundational broaden-and-build theory, Dr. Barbara Frederickson describes how positive emotions make people more open to new ideas. In her own words:
Joy sparks the urge to play, interest sparks the urge to explore, contentment sparks the urge to savor and integrate, and love sparks a recurring cycle of each of these urges.
Suddenly, you have access to a lot of positive feelings, just by starting with one. Here’s an example: According to Frederickson, being interested leads to exploration. Why might this help your productivity? You’re able to dig more deeply into your topics and tasks, which means you’re focusing intently, engaged in your work, and searching for new problems and solutions beyond the obvious. You might uncover an issue that could cost your company millions or come upon a solution that solves an outstanding problem.
At the very least, being interested in your own work increases your enjoyment of accomplishing that work. And when we enjoy our work, we’re going to do it better. All because you started with the positive emotion of interest. Powerful, yeah?
2. Positive people are better teammates
In his most recent book, Shawn Achor dives into productivity research and finds that tapping into your true potential requires other people. And both these relationships and your capability for achievement are maximized by positivity. Instead of siloing away and limiting yourself to what Achor calls your small potential, you’ll be more productive and successful if you build positive relationships with other people and are a source of positivity yourself. Only then can you unlock your big potential.
+ For more on Big Potential, check out our review, where we share our top takeaways from the book.
These insights are backed up by behavioral science findings showing how positive approaches to change enhance the overall success of the organization. Translation? When your whole team works on positivity and approaches problems from a positive place, they can increase more than individual productivity. They can improve productivity for the entire company. Pretty sure that’s a win.
3. Positive teams perform better
We’re talking about productivity, so it’s time to see some bottom-line numbers. The most rigorous study in this field tracked the effects of six positive work practices—caring, compassionate support, forgiveness, inspiration, meaning, and respect. The goal? Measure their impact over time on the effectiveness of nursing units in a large health care system.
The results? The nursing units that improved their positive work practices the most saw performance improvements of 8–35 percent for all major outcomes. Most importantly, the people being cared for by those nurses reported a sizeable 26 percent increase in patient satisfaction. These data confirm that positive work practices result in real behavior change, which then improves the final product being delivered to customers.
How can I be more positive at work?
So now you’re convinced that staying positive is a worthwhile objective. The next logical question, then, is how do you do it? This is one instance where the Nike slogan doesn’t quite work. We need more than a simple command; we need real strategies. And you know we’re using research to find them.
1. Reframe happiness as a strength for today instead of a destination for tomorrow
An unfortunate side effect of the classic American dream is that it tends to make us think of happiness as something that we’ll get to enjoy later. After we’re successful this week. This quarter. This year. Around here, we believe that happiness comes before success, not the other way around. Thankfully, we’re not the only ones.
Instead of playing that never-ending game, Shawn Achor’s thesis in The Happiness Advantage is that we should embrace happiness as an essential daily tool. That means changing both the timing and the purpose of how we think about happiness in life. The timing is not later but now, and the purpose is not passive bliss but daily strength. And when we’re happier in general, we’re more likely to bring that into our workplace. That means that staying positive is a result of prioritizing happiness in your life, not just your job.
2. Reframe stress as enhancing
Work-related stress is bad, right? Not so fast. While stress, of course, feels bad in the moment, recent research suggests that the positives (i.e., better performance on cognitive and memory tasks) balance out the negatives.
Taking it one step further, your attitude about stress can make a difference in your reaction to it. A big one. You can think of it either as an overwhelming problem or a focus-enhancing boost. If you’re on team stress-boosts-focus, you’re changing more than your mental reaction. You’re actually changing your physiological one too. The study above found that reframing stress more positively reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol on those who produce lots of cortisol under stress.
What’s more? Those who thought of stress in a positive way were also more likely to ask for feedback from supervisors or bosses. Asking for feedback, according to the researchers, indicates an opportunity for growth, which can lead to improved performance. In other words, you’re more likely to perform better and learn when you think of stress as a good thing. All of those together can result in increases in productivity.
In sum: Understand that stress can be good → positively reframe your stress→ improve your growth and performance → increase your productivity.
3. Protect yourself from negative coworkers
You know how it physically hurts your brain to listen to your coworker complain? You’re not making that up—science confirms it. One study found that listening to negative words activates the insula, an area of the brain associated with emotional experiences including pain and danger.
The same study found that hearing positive words activates the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain many believe to be the key for humans’ unique cognitive and decision-making skills. We’re pretty sure that’s more helpful for being productive at work.
The takeaway: Surround yourself with positive colleagues, a strategy Achor also suggests in Big Potential. If you’re stuck in the midst of a negativity session, make a quick exit. Throw your headphones on, take a walk, or simply turn your chair and tune out. Your productivity will thank you for it.
4. Try some of these research-backed positive workplace techniques
Give genuine compliments
The next time you’re impressed with or thankful for your teammate’s awesome work, take a moment to say thank you or mention what you value about their work. Make it as specific as possible to reap the full rewards. Peppering genuine praise throughout the day balances out the tasky nature of conversations and exchanges that tend to dominate our time at work.
For bonus points, write an email to a coworker for no other purpose than to genuinely praise their work. It’ll be an unexpected boost of positivity in a place normally reserved for formal reminders, deadlines, and tasks.
Invest time in soft skills
Researchers have found that workshops focusing on so-called soft skills—like mindfulness and connectedness—align best with what both managers and staff want to improve in their work environment. Whether it’s an optional meditation class at the office or a weeklong retreat in the woods, the key is to make it 100 percent clear that spreadsheets are not allowed. This time is for connection, wellness, and collaboration.
Foster personal positivity
In this post, we’ve talked mostly about teams and strategies that involve shifting your mindset. For a more in-the-moment perspective, check out our article on bringing your positivity to work every day.
Join the positive work movement
Do you know what the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors say their secret is for lasting success? It’s not a genius nutritionist or a standout player. Players and coaches alike rave about how energizing it is to experience the daily laughter and joy of a positive work environment. The Warriors are just the latest proof that success doesn’t have to be painful. We hope this post gives you some ideas for why and how to stay positive and be your best self at work.
Your turn: Research is just scratching the surface of this fascinating connection between staying positive and increasing productivity. Did we skip over any of your favorite insights or strategies? Please tell us in the comments.
For more articles on staying positive, check out 1 Surprising Way to Get Relief from Work Stress
Author: Scott Trimble
Scott researched human motivation at The University of Texas at Austin. He spends most of his time traveling, reading, teaching, and writing.