Hilary Kolman considers herself a happy person, but who wouldn’t like to be happier? So when she learned that her employer, media agency MEC, was going to offer a small number of employees slots in a workshop on happiness, she wanted in. "We were invited to submit a short explanation of why we wanted to do the workshop, and after I got that email, I shut the door to my office and sat down and wrote it out really quickly because I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss out on the opportunity," says Kolman, director of analytics and insight at MEC. "I was incredibly excited."
According to Kolman, many of her colleagues were interested, too, and she was ultimately chosen to participate in the six-week workshop with nearly two dozen of her coworkers. Last fall for about six weeks, they gathered in a conference room at MEC’s Manhattan office on Monday mornings to study happiness with Helen Mumford Sole via a course titled "Inspiring Happiness." Formerly a senior executive at companies including LexisNexis U.K. and Gartner, Sole is now an executive coach with a particular interest in happiness.
"Nearly all of us can be happier," Sole insists. "It’s just a set of habituated behaviors really. So if we learn those behaviors, then we can be happier on just about every level."
Sole covered everything in the workshop from the importance of gratitude—her students were encouraged to start gratitude journals—and finding meaning and purpose in life to the use of tools like meditation. She even led the class in a guided meditation.
She also shared current research from the field of happiness studies. "I had never even heard of the idea of studying happiness," Kolman says, noting that she appreciated Sole’s intellectual approach. "I loved it because I’m on the analytics and insight team, so research is what I do, and it’s where my passion lives. I come at everything from a very analytical and intellectual approach."
The subject of happiness is getting serious attention from academics these days. Harvard University actually has a course on happiness taught by Tal Ben-Shahar, also known as the "Harvard Happiness Professor." And the Harvard Business Review devoted an entire issue to the theme of happiness earlier this year.
Meanwhile, studies show that it pays to make employees happier. In his book The Happiness Advantage: Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, author and researcher Shawn Achor analyzes the body of research conducted over the last decade regarding how happier employees impact the workplace, and he determines that a happy workforce raises sales by 37 percent, productivity by 31 percent, and accuracy on tasks by 19 percent.
"It’s irrefutable. We know happy employees are the most successful employees, so happiness brings success, and that brings success to our organizations," Sole says. "This is a win-win all around."
MEC North America CEO Marla Kaplowitz buys into that proposition. "I believe that a person who is happy in their personal life is also a happier person professionally, and you’re going to have happier clients when they’re dealing with a happy person. It sounds really basic, but I really do believe there is a connection there," Kaplowitz says. "So keeping people motivated and happy is, to me, job one."
Prior to the happiness workshop, MEC attempted to foster happiness in various ways. Paying attention to individual needs and desires is important, according to Kaplowitz, who says that while happiness for one employee might come in the form of having an iPhone, a worker with kids in day care might appreciate a flexible work schedule.
On a larger scale, MEC sponsors an internal "Social Irresponsibility Committee" designed to promote fun in the workplace through events like a Spirit Week harking back to high school.
But the happiness workshop, which Kaplowitz described as a pilot program, marked entirely new territory for MEC and for Sole, who had never before designed a program like this for rank-and-file employees.
It wasn’t logistically possible to make the workshop available to every single employee, so MEC sought a small group made of individuals from various departments and chose one team, the Citi Team, to participate so that the company could see how the workshop would impact individuals as well as members of a team.
Everyone who took part volunteered to do so, and as Kolman notes, potential participants were asked to write essays explaining why they wanted to study happiness. The results of the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire, which all of the applicants were asked to fill out, also helped determine who was chosen for the workshop.
Devised by Oxford University psychologists, the survey asks people to respond to 29 statements on a scale from 1, which equals "strongly disagree," to 6, which represents "strongly agree" (sample statements: "I don’t feel particularly pleased with the way I am." "There is a gap between what I would like to do and what I have done").
Sole administered the survey and tabulated the results (MEC didn’t want to be part of the testing or to see anyone’s scores), looking for people who didn’t score too low or too high on the happiness spectrum. The workshop was not designed for nor would it be helpful to people who are clinically depressed, Sole stresses, and people who scored too high on the survey wouldn’t get much out of the class.
Once the workshop wrapped up in November, all of those who participated were asked to fill out the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire a second time. MEC reports that every single attendee was happier at the end of the course than they were at the beginning, and some of the improvements were significant. One employee showed an increase of 32% percent in happiness level, while three others showed above 20% increases. The average happiness uplift for the entire class was 12%.
Additionally, all of the students reported that they found the class useful or very useful, enjoyed it very much or a lot and would recommend it to their friends.
As for what she got out of the class, Kolman says she is a more thankful person and that brings her joy. "I had never given much thought to what I am thankful for or what I am grateful for, but we had covered gratitude the week before Hurricane Sandy hit, and I started to think about things differently," Kolman says. "I realized how it impacted me after the storm. Having gotten in touch with that inner sense of gratitude that I don’t tend to think about made me act very differently when I saw what was happening around me, and I went out and volunteered and spent time with people who didn’t have anything. I’m finding that it’s making me—and this is going to sound so touchy-feely—more connected to the world around me."
Kolman also credits the class for enabling her to stay calm and focused. "I know what I can do to calm myself down if I’m getting stressed about something," Kolman says, "and it gave me the framework I needed for my life in general to make me a more productive, happier and calmer employee when I walk in the door."
While the interviews for this story were conducted right after the happiness workshop ended, the takeaways below were shared by MEC CEO Marla Kaplowitz after she had some time to see how the class affected attendees and the environment at MEC. Here, in her words, are the key lessons from the happiness workshop.
Every employee that took the course found it useful, and one even said it afforded her the opportunity to feel as though she could take care of ‘that’ part of her life, which ultimately gave her greater energy to focus on her workday.
A lot of interesting things started to happen toward the end of the course (and shortly thereafter), with employees really stretching themselves and going beyond the call of duty. For example, one employee took it upon herself to launch a media tools training initiative aimed at junior-level staff; another was promoted to head up an entire department.
A few weeks into the class, we started getting calls and emails from other employees asking how they could sign up, or whether we were planning a follow-up course. It seems that the happiness bug was infectious, and others wanted to learn how they, too, could gain a bit more perspective on how to be happy. We are, in fact, launching the course with a new crop of employees this spring.
One of the topics discussed in the class was nurturing and how this can translate into better work and personal relationships. One participant who was having a hard time connecting with junior team members, and according to the people she manages, has made significant strides since completing the course to become more open, communicative, collaborative, and, ultimately, nurturing.
There’s no denying that the advertising and media business can be stressful. Meeting client deadlines, expectations, and budgets, not to mention managing teams and trying to find your center of gravity, can be a lot to juggle. We found that by equipping employees with mechanisms and tools to tap into their "happy" sides, they can simultaneously balance workplace pressures more effectively.