What has happiness got to do with creative collaboration?

Last week, I went along to the Hacking Happiness Summit – an event that brought together the topics of entrepreneurship, technology, psychology, neuroscience, health and wellbeing. I went primarily with a personal interest, but as the event progressed it was clear that most of the ideas presented by the speakers were also hugely relevant for creativity, teams and collaboration.

Even though the central theme was happiness, it was also more broadly about gaining a better understanding of how we work as humans (e.g. how can we enjoy our work more? How can we avoid burnout?), so that we can be more effective and productive.

Improving individual performance

Meditation came up repeatedly as a big contributor to happiness, with several speakers clarifying its real purpose – it’s not to clear the mind, but to train the attention. One of the outcomes of meditation is mindfulness (paying attention, non-judgementally, to the present moment) which also has some unexpected benefits. Dr David Cox of Headspace, the meditation app, gave an overview of research which has shown how mindfulness can increase creativity in divergent thinking tasks, improve focus and enhance cognitive performance.

Improving relationships and communication

We don’t intend to get stressed, anxious or upset by what others say, but as humans we’re naturally built to react. Gelong Thubten, Buddhist monk, explained how practicing meditation helps us to develop the skill of being less reactive and compulsive. Additionally, Dr Cox stated that mindfulness promotes self-awareness, as well as making us more aware of others’ feelings. We communicate and express ourselves better, helping to avoid common relationship problems – a great skill to use when dealing with conflict in collaborative projects.

Better listening skills

Mark Williamson, Director of Action for Happiness, told us that we feel good when we make other people feel good. He recommended a “happiness hack” – responding constructively to other people’s excitement – one that could also be used for responding to team members’ ideas in brainstorming sessions. Rather than responding destructively (pointing out the bad or negative aspects), or even worse, passively (acknowledging and then quickly moving onto another subject), ask more questions, and be curious and genuinely interested in their news.

Higher productivity

Productivity in the workplace can be increased dramatically by a happy workforce, which happens when people are matched to work that they’re good at, says Henry Stewart, Director of Happy Ltd. But surprisingly, many managers don’t pay attention to this. Very similar to Teresa Amabile’s research findings in The Progress Principle, which demonstrated how managers should be helping their teams to increase inner work life (“the conditions that foster positive emotions, strong internal motivation, and favourable perceptions of the colleagues and the work itself”).

Longer-term results

Dopamine is the brain chemical attributed to the ‘hit’ you get after pleasurable activity. Darya Rose, neuroscientist & founder of Summer Tomato, explained how it’s long been the focus of increasing happiness. But the problem with this is that it’s short-term and leaves us wanting more. We should instead be striving to increase serotonin levels, another brain chemical that regulates and elevates mood. This can be achieved through things such as relaxation techniques, exercise, and natural light. Something else to consider for the support factors to put in place to keep creative projects running smoothly.

Building new habits

All of this seems easy to suggest, but much harder to keep going in practice. Why? Because we’re suggesting behaviour change. James Clear gave practical tips on building habits that stick – starting small, and not relying on willpower as this fluctuates and eventually depletes throughout the day. In addition, he recommended using your environment to make it as easy as possible to form the new habit (behaviour design expert BJ Fogg calls this “designing for laziness”), which can also be applied to groups and teams. This reminded me of workspaces that have been designed to encourage serendipity, by purposely creating places where people will bump into each other on the way to the bathroom or kitchen.

So, some useful and important principles to think about when involved in or supporting collaborative working – promoting the value of meditation, encouraging relaxation and exercise, paying attention to a team’s happiness levels and designing environments to make it easier for collaboration to happen.

Thanks to Hacking Happiness for a great event!

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