Being in a good mood can increase productivity. But in what ways, and what are the limitations?
I previously wrote about an experiment in which comedy and chocolate improved productivity (Oswald 2014). Subjects who got to watch comedy videos or eat free snacks (fruit and chocolate) and then solve math problems, performed about 10 to 12 percent better than a control group.
Other researchers have played with showing subjects images of cute baby animals and then asking them to carry out tasks that test their focus or dexterity. People who looked at images of baby animals were more successful at their tasks than people who looked at pictures of adult animals, food, or other neutral objects (Nittono 2012).
Being in a good mood ties a lot of this research together.
In Oswald et al.’s work, the team also asked their subjects at the end of the experiments whether they had suffered any great traumatic events in the last five years. When they looked at the results of the people who answered yes, they had a much lower average score than everyone else.
In one set of experiments (Sherman 2009), researchers showed subjects pictures of cute puppies and kittens, while showing another group pictures of adult animals only. Then they had them play the board game Operation. Both groups played the game both before and after looking at the images. The group that looked at baby animals were better at the game after looking at the photos.
But there are limits to what how being in a good mood can increase productivity.
In Sherman’s work, the players did better playing Operation, but they weren’t timed. Nittono et al. repeated the experiment and found that while people’s accuracy increased when they looked at cute pictures, the time it took them to play the game also went up. So they improved, but they also got slower.
There’s another factor that doesn’t have straightforward and predictable results: the weather. When it was warm and sunny, but not blazingly hot, workers at a Japanese bank got less work done than on days when it was raining, snowing, cold, or overcast (Lee 2014). Those results, which were gathered from two and half years of data, are counter-intuitive. Most people assume that nice weather puts us in a good mood, which increases productivity. But it’s just not true. Instead, beautiful weather distracts us, while rainy days make us more productive. We get caught up thinking about what we could be doing if we weren’t working. Lee and her team actually showed that you can get the same results (i.e., lower productivity) if you simply show subjects pictures of people doing outdoor activities in nice weather. The subjects still ruminate on what they could be doing outside, and their productivity decreases.
What Can You Do?
I’d been thinking about whether it’s possible to forcibly trick one’s self into being in a better mood while working to increase productivity, or more precisely, to recuperate from burnout and salvage whatever potential productivity might be left in a day.
Many of us hit a wall while working. Our brains feel fried. We aren’t focusing anymore. We aren’t being productive. Is it possible in this instance to take something we know about productivity research to change our mental state and behaviors?
Research on taking breaks from work points to the benefits of taking frequent short breaks, so taking a break might be the first step (Isen 2005). We also know that the most restorative breaks are the ones we enjoy. It can be as simple as spending a few minutes scrolling through social media websites or checking sports scores online (Coker 2011). However, taking a break to do nothing at all or to do a task we don’t like doesn’t impart any of the positive benefits of taking a break.
So take short and frequent breaks, and do something you enjoy during them. It could be anything from watching a minute or two of a funny video to treating yourself to a good cup of coffee.
Coker, B. L. S. (2011). Freedom to surf: the positive effects of workplace Internet leisure browsing. New Technology, Work and Employment, 26: 238–247. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-005X.2011.00272.x
Isen, A. M., & Reeve., J. (2005). The Influence of Positive Affect on Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: Facilitating Enjoyment of Play, Responsible Work Behavior, and Self-Control Motivation and Emotion, 29 (4) doi: 10.1007/s11031-006-9019-8. Retrieved Dec. 11, 2015 from http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2005_IsenReeve_MO.pdf.
Lee, J. J., Gino, F. & Staats, B. R. (2014). Rainmakers: Why bad weather means good productivity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(3): 504-513.
Nittono, H., Fukushima, M., Yano, A., and Moriya, H. (2012). The Power of Kawaii: Viewing Cute Images Promotes a Careful Behavior and Narrows Attentional Focus. PLoS ONE 7(9): e46362. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046362
Oswald, A. J., Proto, E., and Sgroi, D. (2014). Happiness and productivity. Working paper. JOLE 3rd Version: 10 February 2014.
Sherman, G. D., Haidt, J., & Coan, J. A. (2009). Viewing cute images increases behavioral carefulness. Emotion, 9: 282–286.
Image by Jeremy Salmon, CC.