Dr Timothy Sharp

10 July 2014 — Dr Timothy Sharp, known to many as Dr Happy, is the founder of the Happiness Institute, an organisation devoted to enhancing happiness in individuals and businesses, with clients including GHD, Ernst & Young, Westpac, AMP and Fairfax using its services to boost employee moral and productivity.

Dr Sharp is an expert in the field of positive psychology, which, in short, is the science of happiness. Rather than treating distress and dysfunction, it’s about promoting thriving and flourishing.

And while most people are aware that things like excessive lighting, poor indoor air quality and noise can cause stress and sickness, less are aware that work spaces can be designed to enhance positive affect.

At next week’s Design Speaks: Workplace/Worklife forum, Dr Sharp will present a lecture on the principles of positive psychology, how they contribute to workplace happiness, and how happiness research can be integrated into design. We caught up with him to see what the latest findings are.

What do you mean when you talk about creating happiness?

Dr Sharp: The first thing I will be saying [in my lecture] is, “What is happiness and what is a positive culture?” Because there are a lot of myths and misconceptions around that. If we don’t get that right, we’re never really going to achieve it.

The biggest mistake people make is that they think of happiness as positive emotion. And that’s only partly true. Part of happiness is feeling good, feeling joy and excitement and pleasure. But if that’s all we do it can become hedonism or selfishness and that’s not what I’m talking about and what positive psychologists are talking about.

So we need to broaden that definition. According to positive psychology, the real definition is what we call thriving and flourishing, and that includes positive emotion, but it also includes meaning and purpose. This goes beyond just the immediate pleasure I might want to experience in this minute. It’s a much more long-term perspective about living a good life. It also incorporates positive relationships. It’s about my family, my friends, my loved ones, my colleagues. It’s about accomplishment and achievement, which again goes beyond short term into more longer term perspectives.

Once we broaden the perspective from short-term pleasure to longer-term flourishing and thriving, engaging fully in our life and work, then we’re getting closer to a more helpful definition.

In the workplace, most of the same things apply, but the focus is on directing or channeling those things towards productivity and profitability. Ultimately that’s what a business is about. But I believe the best outcome for an employer should also be the best outcome for the employees, because the research suggests happy employees work better – they’re more engaged, they’re going to have more discretionary effort. They’re more likely to help out their colleagues, they’re more likely to be innovative and creative, they’re more likely to solve problems.

How do you think positive psychology can influence workplace design?

Dr Sharp: A lot of designers and architects have some of these things in mind but wouldn’t necessarily understand the theoretical and academic background. So hopefully by giving them a better understanding of the psychological principles, they can actually do it more effectively.

What are some of the things designers can do to encourage happiness?

Dr Sharp: One of the things I’ll be emphasising is that there’s no one right way. Every organisation is different. Every culture is different. Even within some big organisations, there will be many cultures within that. So it’s not like every designer or business can pick up a manual and follow a, b, c. It’s like any design. You have to design it for the context and for purpose.

But there are some basic principles. We know for example, some of the really basic things, like natural light and plants and greenery – there’s some good strong research that people exposed to natural light, people that have plants and visuals of nature within their workplace, begin to feel happier, tend to experience more positive emotions and therefore function better.

We also know, more in the psychological realm, one of the most important things is good quality relationships and connectedness. There was a big movement 15-20 years ago towards open-plan offices. And there was a lot of excitement around that. What most people are realising now is that there’s good and bad with that.

What we know is that there are certain people that function better in closed private spaces; there a certain people who function better in open, public places. There are certain tasks that lend themselves better to one or the other.

What the research is suggesting is that you need a bit of both. And the better workplaces will have open spaces where people can come together, collaborate and interact and socialise; but also we need times where we can duck away, hide in the corner and really focus and not be disturbed. So it’s getting the right balance between privacy and publicity.

It’s partly a personality thing, and partly comes down to the individual – the introvert versus extrovert idea – but it also comes down to the task, and the particular project.

Reinforce purpose

Another thing is finding ways to remind people why they’re doing what they’re doing.

A really simple and very basic example is in the occupational health and safety space. If you walk into any factory or warehouse, or where there’s manual lifting of labour involved, you’ll see all sorts of signs and poster reminders about careful lifting, machinery, protection. And as simple as they are, they are very, very effective – leading to significant reductions in workplace injuries.

What we’re seeing now is more subtle, sophisticated versions – and what we could be doing more of, I suppose – to remind people of the purpose of why they’re doing what they’re doing, to remind people to be grateful of their colleagues. In some of the better workplaces we’re seeing “gratitude walls” or collaboration spaces.

The bottom line is we know that one of the things that goes towards workplace happiness and efficacy is purpose and meaning. Factoring spaces into design to reinforce this can lead to happier, more productive staff.

Is physical health an issue?

Dr Sharp: We know one of the biggest risks to poor health and sickness and therefore absenteeism and low productivity is being overweight, being tired.

Healthier workers tend to be better. They have more energy and can concentrate for longer.

There’s one great study where by moving the printers and photocopiers, for example, to a different space so people had to get up and walk an extra 20 or 30 metres, just by doing that, a significant proportion of the workers lost weight, gained fitness.

If you have to do that several times a day, those things add up.

Making it easier to go up and down fire stairs – in some cities you can’t even do that anymore for various reasons. But that’s not very helpful from a health and wellbeing point of view, so by building or factoring those sorts of things in – there are many designers now building in internal staircases if you’ve got multiple floors of building.

Just by moving more, by encouraging people not to be sedentary for too long – it adds to health and wellbeing, it adds to collaboration and relationships, and all of those things add up.

What’s the standard like in Australia? Are we designing our offices to engender happiness?

Dr Sharp: Like most areas, there’s good and average and bad. There are certainly some great examples out there. And there are some pretty crap examples.

A lot of things I talk about normally are easier for companies to do. Mostly I talk about culture, which mostly comes down to management style and leadership style. They’re the sort of things that are changing gradually, and mostly in a positive direction.

When it comes to design, it’s a bit harder, really. To completely renovate, or redesign or rebuild, there is a bigger upfront cost, disruption, and all sorts of factors.

In the new designs and new buildings we’re seeing some exciting improvements. But I think generally there’s a lot of room for improvement and I don’t think many organisations fully appreciate the benefits. Many say, “That sounds nice,” so they slap bright-coloured paint on the wall; they try to do something in a superficial way. I suppose what I’m excited about doing in this conference is to try to get the message out that it’s not just a superficial thing. There are real, fundamental benefits to the business, to the employees, and which ultimately affect the bottom line. If you did a cost–benefit analysis there may well be some cost of making changes in the short-term, but longer term that would almost certainly pay off.

If you ask leaders, “What’s your biggest concern?” they’ll say, “My people.” Attracting the best people; keeping the best people. And if you look at the factors that drive that, it comes back to all of the things I’ve talked about. To culture, being appreciate, and all of these things are very doable. And they don’t cost millions of dollars most of the time.

And those that do this well outperform those who don’t – in every measure.

Dr Sharp will speak at Design Speaks: Work Place/Work Life forum on 15 July.

The Fifth Estate’s The Tenants and Landlords Guide to Happiness covers the benefits of sustainable office design.

4 replies on “Dr Timothy Sharp on engendering happiness through design”

  1. It is not only the places we work it is also the places we live in

  2. I was on a recent Travel Scholarship looking at innovative buildings for the aged and one of the main themes that came up was that they needed to be ‘happy’ places. Upon further interrogation the characteristics of happy places were very similar to what has been highlighted above. More than offices, if ever somewhere needed to be happy it would have to be buildings for the aged, 24/7 in the same place!

  3. Sometimes companies are not interested in retaining staff at al it serves them better to continually have new staff( juniors) on lower pay rates that the can turn over and keep their costs down.

  4. We spend more time in our offices than in our living rooms…why should they not be attractive, comfortable spaces…personalised…with ergonomic furniture, plants , sensitive lighting and heating…art works; book shelves , coffee makers, why not cushions and objets d’art even.?
    Why not the office as a home from home rather than a bleak impersonal box , or worse, hot desk to be faced with dread on Monday mornings.
    Time , including time spent in a office, is precious. Why not contribute to human happiness by investing in offices that are something special, creative and marvellous?

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