We’ve all experienced the benefits of happiness. After hearing that you are getting a raise, you give the best presentation of your life. After lunch with a witty friend, you quickly solve problems at work that afternoon. You hear your favorite song during your commute and get a great idea for that project you’ve been neglecting. Happiness can be a powerful performance-enhancing drug. It can also turn you into a bumbling fool. You receive a flirty text message and can’t concentrate in class. You’re so elated about your promotion that you fail to notice a “don’t walk” sign and narrowly escape injury. How can happiness both improve and impair our performance?Psychologists study happiness in the lab by making people feel happy and then measuring the consequences. The effects of listening to a few minutes of upbeat music, watching a funny film clip, or receiving a gift of a free pen may be short-lived, but they have astonishing effects on how people act afterward.
People randomly assigned to experience a positive mood outshine those in negative or neutral moods in key ways. They are better at problem solving because they are more likely to think innovatively. When bargaining with others, they are more likely to make fair tradeoffs, generate alternative possibilities, and reason flexibly. They are also more likely to seek variety and perceive complex tasks as interesting. Overall, people randomly assigned to experience a positive mood perform better in situations that require innovation, flexible coping skills, and creativity.
When we feel happy, we think more expansively and see alternative perspectives. Consequently, we perform better when confronted with difficult tasks or complex problems at work. Incidentally, this is one reason why companies tend to favor layoffs over wage cuts during recessions. Wage cuts can create damagingly low morale that could outlast a recession, whereas companies can always re-hire later.
So why do happy moods also prevent us from paying attention in class or distract us in dangerous parking lots? When we need to focus, we must selectively filter out irrelevant information. This is the opposite of what happens when we feel happy and tend to think expansively. A positive mood helps if you need to be creative, but it hinders when you need to focus on just one thing.
So next time you’re feeling particularly happy, it might be a good time to tackle a complex task, negotiate for something you want, or start a creative project. Just be careful crossing the street.
Ashby, F., Isen, A., & Turken, A. (1999). A neuropsychological theory of positive affect and its influence on cognition. Psychological Review, 106 (3), 529-550 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.106.3.529
Hermalin, B., & Isen, A. (2007). A model of the effect of affect on economic decision making Quantitative Marketing and Economics, 6 (1), 17-40 DOI: 10.1007/s11129-007-9032-6
Rowe, G., Hirsh, J., & Anderson, A. (2007). Positive affect increases the breadth of attentional selection Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (1), 383-388 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0605198104