Size matters: small things make us happy

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It really is the small things that make us happy.

This is what’s made me happy this week.

1.    Treating myself to a coffee on the way to work, and it wasn’t even Friday

2.    Buying My Lovely Husband (MLH) a caramel donut, to make him happy

3.    Having the first draft of a feature signed off with an accompanying email that says, “I like it. I have no changes. Consider this signed off.” Bliss!

These are small, trivial acts. The don’t cost very much, if anything. I haven’t booked a safari trek to South Africa and I haven’t bought a new car. In fact, if I did, I’d only worry about what I’d spent to get them.

So, if it’s the small things that make us most happy, why don’t we do them more?

1.    The treat

Remember the vanilla latte I bought on the way to work? This is exactly what I’m talking about. But what constitutes a ‘treat’? you ask. Well, let’s look at the evidence. Elizabeth Dunn (UBC), Daniel Gilbert (Harvard) and Timothy Wilson (Virginia) wrote ‘If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right’ in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, which summaries research into eight recommendations. One is to buy lots of small-ticket items – my coffee, or a trinket necklace, a new scarf or a car magazine – instead of fewer large items – the TV you don’t need, the reverse cameras for your car (sorry, that’s a private dig at MLH, I digress), the uber-expensive leather jacket.

Studies prove you’ll be happier by the frequency of the purchase, rather than its greatness.

2.    The good deed

If you walk into a shop and buy something meant for someone else, the chances are you’ll feel pleased with yourself. I certainly felt pretty smug with MLH’s caramel donut.

Why though? Again, let’s look at the evidence. In the Journal of Social Psychology’s ‘Acts of Kindness and Acts of Novelty Affect Life Satisfaction’, 86 participants took a survey measuring life satisfaction. Then they were split into three groups. One group performed daily acts of kindness for 10 days. The second simply did something new each day. The third group did what the hell they wanted. The results showed that the groups that practiced kindness and engaged in novel acts were both significantly happier. The third group didn’t get any happier. 

So to come back to the question, why are we happier when we’re nicer? Human nature. The small deeds that make others happy, in turn, dials up our happiness barometer. In addition, the more we feed off others’ happiness, the more likely we are to do more good again and again and again. Oh dear, my husband could get very fat from all the caramel donuts…

3.    The positive feedback

Forget constructive feedback. Sometimes we just need a pat on the back and nice words. Let’s see why. Findings from a study by Harvard Business School showed that when people were reminded of their best work, they work more creative and less stressed. It’s a little gift of confidence. And it’s the difference between a good and a bad day. So why don’t people praise us more, and why don’t we tell the people we admire that we admire them? Because we’re a society that hates braggers. And we all resist the urge to seek praise. It might be fashionable to think that praise is bad, but when it comes on an unexpected day, from an unexpected place, it can be a powerful thing indeed.

What makes you happy? Are you treating yourself to the right things? Partaking in random acts of kindness? And are you giving praise to people around you? Remember, it’s the small things, after all.

Follow me on Twitter, if you fancy it! @akmanvell

A guide to clever seating

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You’ll know by now that I get the bus. A lot. More than I would like. But what might surprise you is that when I’m met with an empty bus, I will choose one particular seat.

If a handful of commuters are on the lower deck, I’ll sit as close to my ‘seat of choice’ as possible. But if there is just one person sitting (shock horror), already in my ‘seat of choice’, I’ll revert to my second option.

This psychological game plays out in other aspects of my life too. It may be that I’m slightly kooky with behavioural rules that I’ve created in moments of boredom. But gym lockers must be even numbers only – and there are only ever really two choices. I ponder over left, versus right side-of-the-road walking. And ask; where to sit at lunch?

We each have psychological safe areas, you know, those social norms we set out for ourselves and absolutely need to adhere to. We think, what’s going to serve me best? How comfortable will I feel? How will others perceive me?

But how does this translate to the boardroom?

I’ve been looking into it for you, so here’s your guide for social cues to benefit you in the game of seating chess.


  1. The power seat

You know which one it is. It’s on the end. If you’re chairing the meeting, sit there. It says that you’re in control.

If you’re chairing a brainstorm or discussion, why not get rid of the table all together? Circular seating creates a better dynamic for equal and open dialogue.

  1. I’m a team player seat

If you are a part of a team and you are there to collaborate, sit in the middle, away from the power seat and as close to the centre as possible. Your central position says: I’m approachable and open to talking.

  1. The face-off seat

Eyeballing your colleague (or a client) is never a good idea. Research shows that to assert our authority, we often take up a defensive seat, opposite the person we are at odds with. Try sitting diagonally to them, to encourage communication, but avoiding antagonism.

  1. The dead-space seat

For this reason alone, never be late to a meeting. If you sit next to the power player, you’ll never be seen, or listened to. Ok, slight exaggeration, but it’s certainly harder than anywhere else to have a strong point of view.

  1. Taking notes?

Sit at the table. You’re important. There’s no need for you to feel ousted and to sit at the side of the room. Did they invite you to take notes via skype? No. You are physically there, you can’t hide. You shouldn’t have to.

Picture citation: Reynermedia, Empty Boardroom CC BY 2.0