Workplace Blues? Call a “Happiness Coach”


Is the mood around your office a little blue these days? If so, you’re not alone. Amid layoffs, mounting workloads and a shaky economy, employee satisfaction has hit the lowest level in the 22-year history of the Conference Board’s annual survey on the topic.

But how would you feel if your employer brought in a happiness coach – a trainer or speaker urging you to practice new behaviors, cheer up and stop stressing out?

A growing number of employers are doing so, as my “Work & Family” column reports today. The methods these trainers teach differ from the skills coaches usually promote, such as advancing your career or learning teamwork. Instead, they draw on psychological research and ancient religious traditions to teach inner peace, gratitude, kindness and resiliency in the face of adversity – of which there is plenty in today’s workplace. Employees are urged to meditate, send daily e-mails thanking their co-workers for things, write in a journal about things they’re grateful for or help someone without expecting anything in return.

For example, Srikumar Rao, an emeritus professor at Long Island University whose training has earned him the nickname, “the happiness guru,” teaches people to stop jumping to conclusions and labeling everything that happens to them either a “bad thing” or a “good thing.” If your job is changed in a corporate reorganization, instead of concluding that’s a bad thing, tell yourself it could be good or bad in the long run, and there is no way to know right away. Keeping a neutral attitude lightens stress, says Dr. Rao, whose forthcoming book is entitled, not surprisingly, “Happiness at Work.”

The trainers encounter some surly audiences; one says he meets with groups who initially view such concepts as “hogwash.” Critics say stressing positive thinking at work is just a way for employers to paper over real problems and wring more out of workers. In her recent book “Bright-Sided,” author Barbara Ehrenreich blames Americans’ obsession with positive thinking for enabling us to avoid facing a wide range of serious problems.

But in interviews, people who have used the happiness techniques at the office say they work. A stressed-out working mother of small children who heard a happiness talk by Shawn Achor, a former Harvard University researcher. says he helped her stop focusing on her stress and look instead for opportunities to smile and laugh. And Mr. Achor makes a pretty compelling argument for cultivating a positive outlook. Beyond the innate benefits of happiness, he cites research showing people with positive attitudes turn in better performance, get stronger reviews, are more creative and perform better in teams, as discussed here, here and here.

Readers, would you welcome happiness training at your office? Or would you view it as a way for your employer to avoid solving the real workplace problems that are bumming you out? Also, have you tried positive-psychology or spiritual practices to help you cheer up?

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