The science of happiness at work: How positive psychology can increase productivity

Positive psychology in the workplace

Whether virtually or in the office, people spend the majority of their waking hours at work. Many employers ask, “How can positive psychology be used to increase productivity in the workplace?” And the answer is happiness. Successful leaders understand that work cultures that embrace positive psychology are more likely to result in healthy work environments that support employee performance, engagement, motivation, innovation, and job satisfaction. In other words, happy employees make for happy employers. Not only can a positive work environment result in more satisfied and productive teams, but it also supports the well-being of both employees and organizations.

The PERMA model

Martin Seligman is a leading researcher in the field of psychology and is known as the “father of positive psychology.” He is also the Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, a prolific author, and an authority in learned helplessness, depression, optimism, pessimism, and character strengths and virtues. As a part of his extensive work on well-being, Seligman created the PERMA model, which outlines five essential components to living a balanced, fulfilled, and happy life:

  • Positive emotions
  • Engagement
  • Positive relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment

Read on to explore how the tenets of the PERMA model, and positive psychology in general, can be applied in the workplace to help both employees and organizations flourish.

Positive emotions

Whether in a personal or professional context, humans thrive when they feel positive emotions such as happiness, hope, joy, compassion, and gratitude. And research shows that experiencing positive emotions on a regular basis may also improve mental health, reduce stress, and enhance resilience, teamwork, creativity, and problem-solving abilities.

That’s why it’s important for organizations to cultivate work cultures that embrace positivity and gratitude to help ensure that all team members feel valued. This can be as simple as sending an email of thanks or calling out the hard work of a colleague in a meeting, or it can be as complex as setting up a system of rewards such as paid time off or bonuses for staff who meet their productivity goals. It can be easy to dismiss the power of a genuine show of appreciation, but to the person receiving the affirmation of their value, it is priceless.

If you’re interested in learning more about the power of positive emotions, then APOP 1000: Introduction to Positive Psychology at Penn LPS Online is an ideal starting point. This course will introduce you to the scientific study of what helps people live full lives, what it means to be “happy,” and how to cultivate well-being at home and in professional settings. As you explore the foundations and collective wisdom of positive psychology, you’ll also discover how to enhance your own well-being by embracing a positive outlook.


When people are engaged in their work, or in a state of “flow,” they are completely involved in the present moment and the specific activity at hand. Findings from Martin Seligman and other researchers in positive psychology indicate that employees are more likely to get into a flow state when they are using their top strengths in new and innovative ways and that doing so is correlated with higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depression. That’s why it’s essential, whether you’re a manager or an employee, to be aware of your unique strengths and be proactive when opportunities arise to put your skills to use on projects or in teams.

In APOP 1200: Human Flourishing: Strengths and Resilience, you’ll explore the science of human flourishing and positive psychology and discover what helps people bounce back from adversity. You’ll also learn how to leverage your character strengths to more effectively contribute to the greater world, overcome personal or professional challenges, and enhance your well-being. As you study the physical and psychological protective factors that lead to resilience, you’ll learn how to cultivate them and promote flourishing in your own life and community.

Positive relationships

Positive connections with other people were literally wired into our brains for survival and are integral to happiness. A recent study by the University of Kent found that strong bonds with family, friends, and co workers can help boost physical and mental health and overall well-being. As you’ve likely experienced firsthand, both positivity and negativity among colleagues in the workplace can be contagious. In work environments where employees lack strong relationships, morale will inherently suffer, but when colleagues share strong bonds, it can reduce stress, improve collaboration, and boost productivity. That’s why participating in team-building exercises and events where colleagues can connect and build rapport is so vital.

You can dive into the scientific research on how healthy bonds are the key to happiness and well-being in APOP 2200: Flourishing with Others: Building Thriving Relationships. In this course, you’ll study positive relationships in families, romantic partners, friendships, colleagues, and teams, as well as broader bonds with communities, nature, and the planet. You’ll discover practical strategies to cultivate and improve these different types of relationships so that all parties involved have a greater chance to thrive.


Having a sense of shared purpose is integral to both productivity and job satisfaction. Employees can find meaning if they can connect their work—and the work of their organizations—with value. In some cases, such as with a charity, nonprofit, or health services provider, that connection may be easy to make. But when things aren’t so clear cut, it is up to business leaders to articulate the values that they stand for, outline the positive difference that their organizations make, and share success stories that bolster employees and help them feel proud of their work. Happy team members who feel a sense of meaning are empowered to spread positivity, collaborate more cohesively, and perform at higher levels that ultimately benefit the bottom line.

Some people find meaning by engaging with the arts or expressing their creativity. This could involve listening to a moving vocal performance, viewing a beautiful painting, or crafting a short story. In APOP 3400: Flourishing through Creativity and the Arts, you’ll explore the link between well-being, creative endeavors, and the arts, including the scientific principles underlying cutting-edge research in this emerging field. And you’ll examine ways to apply these positive psychology findings in your day-to-day life to help you flourish.


When employees feel a sense of accomplishment and achievement, it can help increase self-esteem and confidence, enhance motivation and passion, and inspire others around them to be successful. While it is the responsibility of individuals to put their strengths and abilities to use at work, it’s also important for leaders to collaborate with their teams to create SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) goals that align with these strengths. Equally critical is that companies provide professional development opportunities that allow staff members to explore their passions, upskill or re-skill, and advance in their careers. When management takes the time to recognize these accomplishments, it can build trust, strengthen loyalty, and make employees more likely to share innovative ideas and perspectives.

Whether you’re an aspiring leader or you’re interested in learning more about how to flourish in your current role, APOP 2000: Positive Psychology at Work could be invaluable to your success. Explore research-informed strategies, case studies, and topics including work relationships, positive leadership, prosocial behavior, and our sense of meaning and purpose to discover how workplaces can contribute to or hinder your ability to thrive. You’ll gain an understanding of the variables that allow employees and leaders to spread positivity and shape work cultures that uplift and inspire.

What is the science of happiness at work?

Much of the research in positive psychology, including work conducted by Martin Seligman, embraces the goal of increasing understanding of how positivity helps people flourish. A recent article published by Frontiers cites findings that confirm the benefits of applications of positive psychology strategies in improving well-being and reducing depression, anxiety, and stress; aiding employee performance and productivity; increasing resilience; and promoting self-growth and quality of life. It also covers research that found a positive correlation within organizations between individual, interpersonal, and group trust with creativity and innovation.

An experimental study published in ScienceDirect investigated and summarized the influence of positive traits, including optimism, well-being, and personal strength, on employee performance and organizational productivity. The results indicated that implementing positive psychology concepts and the aforementioned positive traits increased both individual performance and overall productivity.

And in a recent Harvard Business Review podcast interview, Robert Waldinger, the Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, iterated that although findings indicate that doing meaningful work is one of the drivers of well-being, having strong work relationships is even more powerful. In fact, having at least one friend at work can make people feel happier and more engaged and satisfied in their jobs. The study, which began in 1938, also found that when people have autonomy and some level of control over working conditions, they experience less on-the-job stress and more fulfilling work lives.

If you’d like to further your understanding of the methods and approaches used to conduct well-being research, enroll in APOP 2900: Understanding the Science of Positive Psychology at Penn LPS Online. In this course, you’ll explore the strengths and shortcomings of positive psychology study design and discover how to become a critical consumer of research findings (such as how to differentiate between drawing conclusions from one study vs. a broader base of research in the field). You’ll also learn how to read and dissect primary research articles, extract relevant data, and distill this information through accessible scientific communication.

Learn more about the benefits of being happy at work

Satisfied employees are more confident in their abilities, engaged in their roles, positive in their mindsets, and experience higher levels of productivity. Additionally, happy employees are more likely to be creative and passionate about their work, collaborate effectively with others, contribute to positive work environments, and demonstrate enhanced physical and mental well-being. Conversely, unhappy employees can contribute to diminishing organizational morale, job satisfaction, and employee performance, which negatively affects efficiency, productivity, and profitability.

If you would like to learn more about how the science of positive psychology can help you become more effective as an individual, team member, and leader in your workplace, explore the Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology at Penn LPS Online. In this 4-course program, you’ll develop tools and practice strategies that support personal, organizational, and community well-being. And you’ll learn the theoretical and empirical foundations of human flourishing while investigating how to apply positive psychology in business, education, healthcare, and nonprofit settings. In this online credential, you’ll prepare to:

  • Boost your effectiveness and resilience as a leader
  • Collaborate with others to enhance employee engagement
  • Understand how to measure changes in individual and organizational well-being
  • Use a strengths-based approach to your professional development

Ready to get started? The Ivy League certificates and Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (BAAS) at Penn LPS Online were designed with educational excellence, flexibility and accessibility in mind. With fully online classes, you can complete your coursework on your own time and schedule, avoid the stress and expense of a campus commute, and continue to pursue your career ambitions as you enhance your credentials. If you’d like to learn more about the science of happiness at work by enrolling in the Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology, fill out your application today. Or browse the Penn LPS Online course guide to explore your options in any upcoming term.

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