Top Performers Have a Superpower: Happiness

A large-scale study found that well-being predicts outstanding job performance.

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The toll that working through the global pandemic has taken on employees’ job satisfaction and emotional well-being has focused business leaders on fostering workforce happiness as never before. While many — if not most — of us are motivated by genuine caring for the people who power our organizations, we also intuitively know that employee happiness should boost job performance. Still, two nagging questions remain: Which comes first, succeeding and then being happy, or being happy and then succeeding? And just how much does initial happiness matter?

The results of our recent research, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, have gotten us one big step closer to answering those two questions. For our study, we followed almost 1 million U.S. Army soldiers for nearly five years. We first asked them to rate their well-being — their happiness, if you will — along with their optimism, and then tracked which soldiers later received awards based on their job performance. We collected our data in the midst of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so the stakes were high: Some of those awards were for exemplary assigned job performance, while others were earned for extraordinary performance in heroic actions. Receiving an award in the Army, either for exemplary job performance or for heroism, is a relatively rare event. Of the nearly 1 million soldiers in our sample, only 12% received an award of any type during the five years that we ran the study.

While we expected that well-being and optimism would matter to performance, we were taken aback by just how much they mattered.

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References

1. P.B. Lester, E.P. Stewart, L.L. Vie, et al., “Happy Soldiers Are Highest Performers,” Journal of Happiness Studies, Aug. 25, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-021-00441-x.

2. E. Diener, “Subjective Well-Being: The Science of Happiness and a Proposal for a National Index,” American Psychologist 55, no. 1 (January 2000): 34-43.

3. E. Diener, R.E. Lucas, S. Oishi, et al., “Advances and Open Questions in the Science of Subjective Well-Being,” Collabra: Psychology 4, no. 1 (May 2018): 1-15.

4. W. Li, K.C. Stanek, Z. Zhang, et al., “Are Genetic and Environmental Influences on Job Satisfaction Stable Over Time? A Three-Wave Longitudinal Twin Study,” Journal of Applied Psychology 101, no. 11 (November 2016): 1598-1619.

5. J.F. Helliwell, H. Huang, S. Wang, et al., “Happiness, Trust, and Deaths Under COVID-19,” in “World Happiness Report 2021,” eds. J.F. Helliwell, R. Layard, J.D. Sachs, et al. (New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network, 2021): 13-56.

6. M.A. Killingsworth, “Experienced Well-Being Rises With Income, Even Above $75,000 Per Year,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118, no. 4 (January 2021): 1-6.

7. E. Diener and W. Tov, “National Accounts of Well-Being,” in “Handbook of Social Indicators and Quality of Life Research,” eds. K.C. Land, A.C. Michalos, and M.J. Sirgy (London: Springer, 2012): 137-157.

8. E.R. Tenney, J.M. Poole, and E. Diener, “Does Positivity Enhance Work Performance? Why, When, and What We Don’t Know,” Research in Organizational Behavior 36 (2016): 27-46.

9. The PANAS, along with the Optimism Test, Satisfaction With Life Questionnaire, VIA Survey of Character Strengths, and many other assessments, can be found at www.authentichappiness.org.

10. M.E.P. Seligman, T.A. Steen, N. Park, et al., “Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions,” American Psychologist 60, no. 5 (July-August 2005): 410-421.

11. E. Diener, S.J. Heintzelman, K. Kushlev, et al., “Findings All Psychologists Should Know From the New Science on Subjective Well-Being,” Canadian Psychology 58, no. 2 (May 2017): 87-104.

12. P. B. Lester, P. D. Harms, M.N. Herian, et al., “The Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program Evaluation. Report #3: Longitudinal Analysis of the Impact of Master Resilience Training on Self-Reported Resilience and Psychological Health Data,” PDF file (Lincoln, Nebraska: Public Policy Center, University of Nebraska (December 2021), https://digitalcommons.unl.edu.

13. R. Cornum, M.D. Matthews, and M.E.P. Seligman, “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness: Building Resilience in a Challenging Institutional Context,” The American Psychologist 66, no. 1 (January 2011): 4-9.

14. S.J. Heintzelman, K. Kushlev, L.D. Lutes, et al., “ENHANCE: Evidence for the Efficacy of a Comprehensive Intervention Program to Promote Subjective Well-Being,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 26, no. 2 (June 2020): 360-383.

15. J.H. Fowler and N.A. Christakis, “Dynamic Spread of Happiness in a Large Social Network: Longitudinal Analysis Over 20 Years in the Framingham Heart Study,” The BMJ 337, no. a2338 (2008): 1-9.

16. Lester, Harms, Herian, et al., “The Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program Evaluation.”

i. Open Science Collaboration, “Estimating the Reproducibility of Psychological Science,” Science 349, no. 6251 (Aug. 28, 2015).

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Comment (1)
Tori Davis
Interested to understand how gender bias was reflected in this study.  Men make up ~84% of the US Army.  How was this reflected when assessing the comparability of the military to the business world?