Happiness Priming and Productivity

I used to work with a woman I’ll call Dee (not her real name) who claimed to start every day by blasting Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” dancing around her house while shouting the lyrics.

She did this every single day just to pump herself up for work. She was a bit of a character and a complete extrovert. I don’t doubt for a second that she kept up this ritual for quite some time. While it probably wore on her roommates after the first few days, Dee took great pleasure in it. And “pleasure” may be the reason her song and dance routine was so important to her. What happens when we intentionally start the day by doing something pleasurable?

A Variety of Happiness

Happiness manifests in different ways. We can be happy momentarily, like when someone gives us a compliment or offers to pick up the tab at lunch. Another type of momentary happiness is simply being in a good mood, despite whether we can easily point to specific things that created it.

We can also be happy in a long-term sense, meaning we’re largely satisfied with our lives and nothing traumatic has happened to us or our immediate loved ones in recent years. Contentment counts for something after all.

What’s better than contentment? Perhaps thriving. Thriving is certainly better than being content.

Or, we can invoke happiness in ourselves the same way Dee did whenever she played “Born to Run.” We might call that happiness priming.

Sometimes, however, our ability to make ourselves happy, be happy, or stay happy is out of our control. A change in hormones, for example, can make us feel fatigued or depressed, and that’s true for both women and men (low testosterone can cause all those side effects). Trauma and bad life events can decrease personal productivity. Getting sick or being diagnosed with a serious long-term illness can sap happiness away as well. When someone close to us dies or falls seriously ill, we have no control over our lack of happiness then either.

Conversely, the absence of traumatic events can promote general happiness, too. One way to think of good luck is the absence of bad events. We have no control over it, but that kind of good fortune can influence our mood.

All those kinds of happiness–the short-term, the long-term, the manifested, and the uncontrollable–affect productivity.

Happiness Priming

When the conditions are right, meaning no seriously bad life events have interfered with our lives recently, we can turn to happiness priming to help boost our potential for increased productivity. Plenty of studies show that when people are in a good mood, whether from eating free chocolate or watching clips of stand-up comedy, they are likely to perform better at tasks than people who have not been primed with happiness. In some studies, people who are in a good mood also seem to try harder. In other words, they make more attempts at solving problems or completing tasks. It seems as if attitude really does count for something.

Aside from jumping around at home while singing Bruce Springsteen, how can we prime ourselves to be happy?

In my own life, I start every day by making a very good cup of coffee. I adore good coffee, and I don’t mind spending a little bit of money on high quality coffee beans and all the accessories needed to grind and brew them freshly. Other people make sure to wake up early enough to spend time with their kids or pets before work. Others know that exercise puts them in a good mood in the morning.

While we can reap many benefits from finding a happiness-priming routine to do before work, we should be careful to not overestimate the power of happiness priming behaviors or what they mean.

For example, running enthusiasts who manage to squeeze in a few miles every morning before going to an office job often are stereotyped as being highly disciplined and committed. They are go-getters. They are consistent. But it’s not that running every day makes them that way. If you start running every day, you are not magically going to turn into a disciplined and committed go-getter. We need to be careful about noticing self-selection bias. We also need to be careful about drawing conclusions related to causality. Running does not cause one to become a different person. But if running makes you happy, then doing it every day can promote other positive, productive behaviors.

Image by Antoine Gady, CC.


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