Positive Psychology and professional performance by Jayson Moran
Positive Psychology and professional performance – a formula for happiness?
by Jayson Moran
Should we be happy at work? Surely work is about getting a job done – why should happiness matter? What is happiness? How can it improve professional performance, development and wellbeing? And, how can we increase our happiness? These are all questions explored by the science of Positive Psychology. This article will introduce positive psychology – the science of happiness and wellbeing – and explore strategies to get you happier and more effective as result.
Why Happiness Matters for Professional Performance and Development
In my role as a coaching psychologist working with leaders on their effectiveness and results, I tend to focus on three areas. I focus on gaining clarity. It’s difficult to move forward if you don’t know where that is. I focus on overcoming barriers to performance. The barriers I help with are more psychological in nature – such as confidence, motivation and behaviour change. And thirdly, I focus on happiness. The reason I focus on happiness is that we are more creative, motivated, resourceful, and persuasive when we are ‘in good form’.

In today’s fast-paced and demanding world, happiness is often overlooked as a crucial factor for professional performance and development. However, research in positive psychology has shown that cultivating happiness can significantly impact our success and productivity. For example, doctors in a positive mood have been shown to be 19% more effective in diagnosing patients. Optimistic salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56%. Recent research has shown that overall happier people are 13% more productive.

If you’d like to read more about the relationship between happiness and performance – check out the book The Happiness Advantage by Sean Achor.
What Makes Us Happy?
Before delving into the relationship between happiness and professional performance, it is essential to understand what factors contribute to our happiness. While external circumstances may influence our well-being temporarily, long-term happiness is primarily derived from internal factors. External circumstances like life events (e.g, marriage, divorce, bereavement) don’t impact our happiness that much – because of hedonic adaption – we get used to our new circumstances and it becomes the ‘new normal’. Research indicates that our genetics (50%), and intentional activities (up to 40%) play a much larger role in determining our happiness levels. Well, we can’t change our genetics or the factors associated with them like our personalities – so let’s focus on these ‘intentional activities’ to see if we can leverage them for increased happiness.
The PERMA Model of Wellbeing:
Intentional activities are actions where we consciously decide to try and impact or improve our happiness. These actions can be cognitive (thinking actions) or behaviours. A good guide to where to focus our efforts is what’s called the PERMA-H model of wellbeing developed by Martin Seligman and colleagues (outlined in his excellent book Flourish). PERMA is an acronym for the 5 pillars of wellbeing: Positive emotion; Engaging with your Strengths; positive Relationship; Meaning and Achievement.

Let’s have a look at each pillar, and I’ll recommend a book or two for each if you’d like to go deeper and learn more.

Woman writing on dry erase board
Positive Emotion:
Happiness is not one, but many positive emotions. Experiencing joy, gratitude, love, optimism, hope, contentment, awe and curiosity and any of the many other positive emotions, not only enhances our overall well-being but also contributes to increased creativity, resilience, and cognitive flexibility. We think more effectively, build relationships and learn better when we experience positive emotions. Cultivating positive emotions through practices like gratitude journaling, the 3 good things exercise (a personal favourite), and random acts of kindness – means we build psychological and social resources, Each positive emotion has a purpose. For example, hope is there to help us take action in bad situations. it generates creativity and inventiveness – and helps us be more resilient. A great book on this topic is Positivity by Barbara Fredrickson.
Engaging with Your Strengths and Flow:
Identifying and utilizing our strengths is essential for happiness and success. Positive psychology emphasizes the importance of understanding our unique strengths and leveraging them in our professional pursuits. It feels good when we use what we are great at in our work or our day-to-day.

Additionally, experiencing a state of flow, characterized by complete immersion and focus in an activity, fosters happiness and enhances performance. We tend to experience flow when we are using our strengths on something that challenges us to the point where we have to be fully absorbed.

This is ‘being in the zone’, or ‘being one’ with the music, football or crowd. Stephen Kotler has an amazing video on Youtube about Flow – while you can find out your strengths for free using the VIA Strengthfinder at

Positive Relationships:
‘Happiness is other people’
– Christopher Peterson.

Humans are social beings, and positive relationships are vital for our well-being and happiness. Building and nurturing meaningful connections with family, friends and colleagues undoubtably makes us happy. But what makes a relationship positive? My favourite definition is from Carl rogers: “a positive relationship is one that helps you grow.’ We can help others grow by supporting, listening and even challenging them – which is why I like Rogers’ definition – it gives us practical ways to create positive relationships.

Trust is also essential in relationships. My favourite book on building trust is ‘The Trusted Advisor by David Maister – which outlines a simple, yet effective, formula for building trust.

How meaningful is your work? For some of us our work is exceptionally meaningful – but for others it’s just a way to pay the bills. There’s nothing in the least bit wrong with this, but having something meaningful and goals around that – a purpose – is a fundamental driver of happiness. Here’s 3 ways to set meaningful goals if you’re looking for a little more purpose in your life.

  1. Figure out what’s really important to you and set goals around that. Maybe its family (visit your Mum more?), maybe its creativity (take that art class), maybe its adventure (book that trip?). A great book on prioritising what’s important (and ignoring what’s not) is the cleverly named ‘The subtle art of not giving F**k’ by Mark Manson
  2. Face your fears. Some of the most rewarding things I’ve done in life have been the scariest. I had a huge fear of water and the sea in particular. Learning to swim in my twenty’s was very satisfying. I had a huge fear of public speaking. One of the proudest moments of my life was my first talk in front of an audience of 60 people. I had a huge fear that people would reject me if I stood up for myself, spoke my mind and told people how I really felt.

    Learning how to be assertive has improved my relationships no end – but also felt great. Figure out what scares you. Feel the fear and do it anyway (excuse the cliché) – you won’t regret it. Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero of 1000 faces’ is the seminal book on this idea.

  3. Play the roles in your life well. We all play multiple roles in our life. I’m a psychologist, speaker, brother, partner, son, researcher, coach, friend and other things. And we can find meaning and purpose by playing these roles well. It feels good/is meaningful to me when I visit my parents – because I’m being a good son. I’m playing the role of ‘son’ well. Its feels good/its meaningful to me when I learn a new technique for helping clients move forward. because I’m being a ’good’ psychologist – I’m playing the role of psychologist well. And, we can usually play these roles a little better. So, pick an important role in your life so ask yourself the question: ‘What would someone who plays that role well do? And do a little more of it.

A great book on this idea is Vitor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning

Woman video calling on laptop
Achievement equals progress, moving forward, reaching goals. In fact achievement can make us happier regardless of what the achievement is. Video games and their popularity exemplify this wonderfully. In your average video game – say Super Mario brothers (but this holds true for pretty much any video game) all we are doing is moving an imaginary character, around an imaginary world, achieving imaginary goals. Whether that’s collecting imaginary coins, killing imaginary bad guys or saving imaginary princesses. And it feels good. So good in fact that the video game industry was worth over €300 billion last year alone. That’s a lot of imaginary achievement.

Much of the work I do with clients in terms of achievement is in overcoming some of the key psychological blocks that get in the way of performance. Much of this boils down to mindset -the attitude and beliefs we bring to our problems and challenges. Below are the top 3 and a book that should help.

  1. Fear of failure – Mindset by Carol Dweck.
  2. My problems are a bad thing – The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan holiday
  3. There’s nothing I can do, its hopeless – Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman
A Win in Anything is a Win in Everything
A key reason I really like the PERMA model is the interconnectedness of the pillars. For example experiencing more positive emotions like optimism and joy, make us great to be around – thereby improving our relationships.

Great relationships are meaningful – and an achievement in themselves. Working on one pillar – can mean we get gains and increased happiness in others.

A Formula for Happiness?
So, working on our happiness and wellbeing is important for our achievement, performance and success. The main message from the field of positive psychology is that happiness has many faces and paths. The main source of positive emotion we have in life is when we move towards meaningful goals, preferably while utilizing our strengths, in the presence of those we love.

Explore. Understand. Move forward.

Jayson’s focus is helping professionals & entrepreneurs develop, move forward, and deal with challenging business and personal situations, to get the results they, and their organizations need, by increasing their effectiveness.

He helps leaders increase effectiveness by focusing on three key themes related to their performance and development.

  1. Gaining clarity and getting organised.
  2. Happiness, Wellbeing and Stress.
  3. Overcoming barriers to performance and productivity.

Get in touch

Jayson Moran headshot
Jayson Moran
Performance, Development & Wellbeing Psychology