Happiness shocks

A study about productivity (or: "how I just spent 45 minutes making screenshots of movies on Youtube and deciding what photo to use"). Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Researchers in the United Kingdom designed a human lab experiment in which they used "happiness shocks" (which sounds potentially R-rated, but isn't) to improve workers' moods, and measure how happiness affects their productivity.

The results will make you smile. They recruited 700 university students and assigned them tasks as part of an experiment.

Then, they interrupted some of the participants from time to time to do things like give them fun snacks and drinks, or show them a 10-minute clip of a funny movie.

Technically in psychology, this technique is called a "mood induction procedure," but these researchers used the term "happiness shocks," and it's funnier, so let's stick with it.

The researchers followed up with questions designed to ensure that the participants actually enjoyed the little breaks and felt happier (not everyone finds the same movies funny, I suppose), and later gauged their productivity.

The results? Workers who were exposed to happiness shocks were 12 percent more productive than those who weren't, and some of the happy workers were 20 percent more productive. 

In economics, increasing productivity by just 3 percent would be "considered very large," the study notes, and yet the cost of the happiness shocks were very cheap.

Granted, these were university student in a lab—not real workers slogging away at their TPS reports, dealing with overbearing bosses, or trying to work from home during a pandemic.

As a result, the researchers (at the Social Market Foundation and the University of Warwick in England, led by Daniel Sgroi) suggest that further research in real-life situations would make sense.

"The scale of the effect makes it likely that even close to zero-cost 'nudges' would have impact. This is an important idea to test in practice," Sgroi writes.

Sure enough, there’s now another study—one that actually used current workers, and says it improves on previous research by establishing a causation between happiness and productivity, not just correlation.

It’s from Oxford University (2019): “An extensive study into happiness and productivity has found that workers are 13 percent more productive when happy. The authors state that while the link between happiness and productivity has often been discussed, their study provides the first causal field evidence for this relationship.” 

Bottom line? If you want more productive workers, make them happier. Science says it works. And if you’re not happy at work, maybe it’s just one more reason to think about moving on.


Behind the scenes: I might have spent more time trying to decide what “funny movie” to use for the photo for today’s newsletter, than I did writing it.

My criteria was that it had to be (a) something I laughed at really hard when I saw it, and (b) something that I think I would still find funny, even if I hadn’t seen it in a while.

I went with There’s Something About Mary because I vividly remember the first time I saw it, in a theater in 1998. The best part was that I went in knowing absolutely nothing going in, not even that it was a comedy. I remember thinking it was probably the movie version of some kind of Victorian novel I’d never heard of.

Also, a chyron in the very first scene shows that the movie opens in Cumberland, Rhode Island, which is my hometown. (It’s a Farrelly Brothers movie, but I didn’t know that at the time. They’re from there, too.)

Here’s the list of other movies I considered for the photo before deciding on TSAM:

  • A Fish Called Wanda; Airplane; Anchorman; Annie Hall; Back to School; Barbershop; Best in Show; Beverly Hills Cop; Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure; Big; Blazing Saddles; The Blues Brothers; Borat; Bridesmaids; Caddyshack; Coming to America; Crazy Rich Asians; Dazed & Confused; Elf; Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; Four Weddings and a Funeral; Friday; Galaxy Quest; The Graduate; Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle; Heathers; His Girl Friday; Idiocracy; Monty Pyton and the Holy Grail; Napoleon Dynamite; Office Space; Old School; Parenthood; Planes, Trains and Automobiles; Shaun of the Dead; Some Like It Hot; Spaceballs; Team America: World Police; Stripes; The 40-Year-Old Virgin; The Hangover; This is Spinal Tap; Tootsie; Trading Places; Trainwreck; Wedding Crashers; and Weekend at Bernie’s.

Just thinking about these movies made me laugh a bit, so I’m hoping perhaps I’ll bea bit more productive. Also, that list might give you as much insight into what makes me tick as reading all 379 previous editions (!!!) of this daily newsletter.

Anyway, what better use for the comments section than this: If you choose to participate, what “funny movie” would you have chosen to illustrate the idea that taking a break to watch 10 minutes of it would be a good idea? It can be on my list or not, of course.

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7 other things worth your time

  • That ship is still stuck in the Suez Canal, and reports are it could take a while—maybe weeks—to get it free. It’s likely to be a really complicated operation now, involving dredging part of the canal, offloading cargo and fuel, and trying not to make things worse by unbalancing it or even breaking the ship in half. Consumers might notice the first economic effects soon, as the price of robusta coffee (the kind used in instant coffee) goes up, possibly followed by fuel. (BBC)

  • Biden gave his first White House press conference, and everyone in the media basically wrote the story they could have written before he took the podium. Overall, I’d say the press failed (didn’t a single question about Covid, for example). Also, Biden said he’s running for reelection. I kind of miss the days when presidents at least pretended for the first year that they weren’t thinking about the next campaign. (New Yorker)

  • Kind of a wild social dynamic: Some older Americans who have had their second shot are traveling, dating, socializing — and getting a lot of grief from their unvaccinated (or not-yet-vaccinated) adult kids over it. (WSJ, $)

  • Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature and governor passed a “sweeping” voting law “imposing voter ID requirements on party lines, limiting drop boxes and allowing state takeovers of local elections.” A Democratic legislator was arrested “after being asked to stop knocking on a door” leading to the governor’s office during the signing. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

  • Point: “Weaned on Hollywood endings, Americans now face a messy one … No one is sure just what that ending will look like or when it will arrive — or even if we’ll know it when we see it.” Counterpoint (Bill Gates): “By the end of 2022 we should be basically completely back to normal.” (AP, Reuters)

  • No sooner do I sign the papers to rent a house on Cape Cod for a week this coming summer, then a study comes out showing that great white sharks spend almost half their time in water under 15 feet. (Boston CBS Local)

  • Police about 70 miles north of NYC say they called off a high-speed pursuit when the 2003 Infiniti G35 they were chasing hit 143 miles an hour. Turns out the license plates were from another vehicle, but using driving records and ill-advisedly posted social media photos, they tracked down the alleged driver in Queens. At 18, he’s basically the same age as the car. Beyond the speed, which is obviously insane, I keep imagining the old cars I drove in my late teens and early 20s: brakes and tires probably needed replacing, check engine light on half the time, etc. (Fox 5 NY)


Thanks for reading. Photo courtesy of Youtube. I’ve written about this at Inc.com. If you’re not a subscriber, please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter—with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers.

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