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Expert Interview: Scott Crabtree

January 22 2020 / by Mari Ryan

In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan and Scott Crabtree discuss the science of happiness and the link to well-being. Scott Crabtree cropped

Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Series. I'm Mari Ryan, I'm the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It's my pleasure to welcome you today to this expert interview, where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Scott Crabtree.

Scott is the founder of Happy Brain Science, and you know what? Because he’s the founder of this organization, he got to pick any job title he wanted, so he calls himself the Chief Happiness Officer. He strives to be our guide to the science of thriving at work. Scott and I have a lot in common about creating thriving workplaces.

Scott has numerous repeat customers, including NBC, Nike, Boeing, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Kaiser Permanente -- and the list goes on. He has had a 30-year career in which he served as leaders in game development and software engineering. He’s founded startups and worked in a variety of technology companies, both large and small. He resigned his position as a leader at Intel to pursue his passion; helping people apply science to be happier and more successful in their careers. He has a B.A. in cognitive science from Vassar College. When he is not immersed in scientific data, he loves spending time with his wife and daughters, especially in nature and always enjoys playing with his rock band. Scott lives in Portland, OR.

Thanks for joining me today, Scott, I’m so excited to have you here for this conversation.

Scott Crabtree: Thank you so much, Mari, I’m so excited to be here and talk about a topic that we both have great passion for.

Mari Ryan: Exactly. For many, the pursuit for many people, the pursuit of happiness is perhaps a never-ending endeavor, and especially when it comes to being happy at work. We hear a lot about people being miserable at work and toxic workplaces. Our discussion today is going to focus on this intersection of brain science and the science of happiness in the workplace. Scott, I’m wondering can you tell us a little bit about why does happiness at work really matter?

Scott Crabtree: Great question, and to some people it doesn’t matter, but I think to everyone it should matter because first of all, happiness feels good, right? Basically, the whole world wants to be happy. So by itself, happiness is a reward. But for some people that’s not enough. But good news, as you may know, science says a lot of benefits come with happiness.

It’s not a universal statement and I don’t want to overstate it, but basically a lot of peer-reviewed scientific data suggest that happier brains work better in almost all circumstances. Again, not every single one, but most circumstances.

Now, we can’t be happy all the time, bad things happen in life and unpleasant emotions – sadness, anger and more – are just part of life. So, this is not about eliminating negative emotions. Science suggests ways we can choose more happiness at work and in life, and that if we do, among other benefits shown from research, we’ll be more energetic, we’ll be more creative. We’ll be more sociable. We’ll work better together. We’ll be more resilient to bounce back more quickly from those hard times.  Among other benefits we’ll be more successful, we’ll be healthier, happier people show up in the emergency room less often and at work more often for example, and finally, we’ll live longer.

To me, that’s a laundry list of things we want in life, and happiness delivers a lot of those benefits.

Mari Ryan: That makes it sound so easy, but I don’t think it’s quite as easy as all that.

Scott Crabtree: That’s for sure.

Mari Ryan: How can both organizations and individual employees measure happiness and its benefits? You talked about all those benefits, but how do we measure it? How do we know if it’s working or we’re making progress with this?

Scott Crabtree: That’s a great question, Mari, and I know you do data-based work. We need data to know whether we’re having an impact. The good news is you can measure happiness. This is not immediately apparent at first, so there was some debate around this for years. Essentially you can measure people’s happiness by asking them how happy they are in a smart, research-based way.

Now, if some of your audience is skeptical, and I would bet good money that at least a few skeptics are out there, they are thinking, you can’t ask someone how happy they are. People delude themselves all the time.

So, what the scientific community seems to have some consensus around is that asking people how happy they are is not a perfect measure of happiness, but it is a valid measure of happiness. We know this by correlating self-reports of happiness with independent measurements of brain activity. We all have a happy part of our brain, the left side of our prefrontal cortex. If we go into a lab and look at happy, short, little film clips the left side of our pre-frontal cortex will light up with activity. Even babies – you give the baby something to suck and the left side of its prefrontal cortex lights up.

If we go into a lab and look at horrible things that make us sad – and you’re right, it’s not easy. There is sexism, and racism, and pollution, and war and all kinds of problems in the world. If we look at videos of some of that stuff, the right side of our pre-frontal cortex will light up.

The correlation between brain activity and self-reporting is not 100 percent valid, but it is accurate enough that if you’re asking enough people, if you are surveying a thousand employees for example, you're going to get a very accurate measure of happiness through self-reporting on questionnaires. Now, that’s a good practical way because most employers don’t want to lay down a thousand people in an FMRI machine to measure their brain activity. Surveying people is a decent way of measuring happiness.

Mari Ryan: It’s certainly a practical way, but that’s a great suggestion.

Scott Crabtree: Exactly.

Mari Ryan: I’m curious, how can employees and managers apply scientific insight, you mentioned there is a lot of research about this, how can they apply this in a way to become more productive, creative, effective, and hopefully, ultimately, happier?

Scott Crabtree: Great question; it’s the question that spurred me to launch this work. If I gave you the full answer, I would talk at you non-stop for about four hours and neither of us, nobody here wants that, including your audience. I will try to keep this very short and high level.

In my session that I call the science of being happy and productive at work, I have four themes – and I’ll explain each briefly. Subdue stress, practice positivity, flow to goals, and prioritize people.

Subdue stress is about reframing stress as a helpful source of energy. Too many of us stress about our stress and push ourselves from healthy moderate stress to excess stress that is unhealthy and unhelpful. So, reframing stress is part of it, and then, as we already alluded to, coping effectively is critical. Hard times are going to come; there’s nothing we can do about it. What we can do is cope effectively. So, science says among the best coping techniques to end up less stressed and happier are physical exercise, talking with a friend, mindfulness or meditation – things like that tend to be effective coping techniques that lead us to a better, happier place.

Practice positivity is frankly a bunch of corny-sounding cliché stuff about positive attitude that people have heard before. So why would I include this? Because the scientific data is clear – it works. You hear a lot of things about happiness. If you watch television for an afternoon, you may hear that happiness comes from certain sodas and perfumes and sports cars, and basically all of that is baloney. All that corny-sounding stuff like positive attitude really works. So look on the bright side, be optimistic, notice the best in each other and each other’s work. That kind of stuff makes a real difference on our happiness, therefore, brain function, therefore, results.

Flow to goals is about that delightful focused zone that psychologists just call “flow,” where you are deeply immersed in something meaningful and making progress, and time starts to disappear. It is a super-happy, delightful place to be. Harvard scientist Theresa Amabile and her team found that simply progress towards clearing meaningful goals is one of the strongest impacts on what she calls “quality inner worklife,” essentially happiness and engagement at work. So that’s about progress toward clear and meaningful goals, and that focused zone we call flow, and the perils of multi-tasking. When we divide our conscious attention and rapidly switch, we basically make ourselves stupid and miserable, to put it in an abbreviated and provocative way.

Finally, prioritize people is probably the most important thing for most of us, most of the time. Harvard scientist Daniel Gilbert says if you had to boil all the science of happiness down to one word, that word would be social. We are social creatures and we need each other. Even introverts get a strong well-being boost from good contact with other people. I often get asked if you could only tell me one thing to do, what would you tell me? My answer is always invest in the quality of your relationships. For most of us, and we are all different, we are not averages, which is what science gives us. Everyone should decide for themselves, but for most of us, most of the time, investing in the quality of our relationships is the single most important thing we can do to boost happiness and well-being at work.

Mari Ryan: Scott, I love your framework, and it’s so clear to start with and it seems so practical in so many ways. What I love about it is that connection to the models that we use for well-being and one of those elements of the dimensions of well being that we focus on is connection. So, the sense of belonging and those have at work that make you feel you are part of something bigger than you, but so that you have those connections and relationships. We are just perfectly aligned there.

Scott Crabtree: Absolutely, Mari, I’m delighted to hear that.

Mari Ryan: Right. I’m just curious as well about this concept of the brain science. How can leaders practically think about applying some of this and some of this science of happiness to create cultures where people are going to be creative and innovative at work?

Scott Crabtree: Such a good question and I’m sure you’ve heard this saying: The leader sneezes, the team catches a cold. Leaders have a strong impact on their teams and how they behave. First of all, I apologize to whoever said this first because I don’t know who to attribute this quote to, but I once heard a person say, “tell me how you are compensating your people and I will tell you how they’re behaving”. In my experience, too often leaders say, we value teamwork, and then they promote the jerk that causes damage everywhere they go, but produces great individual results. If you want teamwork – pay for teamwork – if you want people who behave well and kindly and in a supportive way … still holding each other accountable, this is not like “Pollyanna Positive” all the time, this is the real world … but if you want people who really value teamwork, who support their colleagues, reward them and award them for that.

Even more than that, people are watching what leaders do. If leaders invest in relationships and say, you know what, I am busy but yes, I have five minutes for you, to look you in the eye and have a real conversation with you. If they see their leaders investing in people’s ability to concentrate and get into flow, that’s something I think almost all organizations could improve is how people are interrupted. From a leader’s standpoint, what makes sense is to go around and interrupt anybody, anytime, for anything. You’re the boss, get what you need anytime.

What the research suggests, as you likely know, is on average – again, it’s all averages as your mileage will vary out there – but on average it takes 20 minutes to get into flow, about 20 minutes to load up on ‘okay, I’m going to do a well-being strategic assessment for this organization, I’m gonna do some interviews and some data collection, and then I’m going to strategize.’ Twenty minutes later you are deep into flow. It takes about two minutes to get out of that flow.

So, if a boss comes to you in the middle of computer programming, or designing a new jet engine, or whatever hard work you are doing, and they talk to you for three minutes and go away, it’s as if they’ve taken a half hour of your time, and extra happiness and flow and engagement from you.

So, interrupt each other less. Don’t be the kind of leader that expects people to be on email all the time because it’s just counterproductive in the long term.

Those are a couple of ideas, and of course I have many more, but I don’t want to blab on forever. Leaders can make conscious choices to boost happiness, and therefore, wellbeing and results of their employees.

Mari Ryan: Such great points and I agree so much with them, and I love the whole concept of flow because I’m all about flow experiences. I’m curious as well about what you talked about there really goes to how we can create situations that create the conditions where employees can be more engaged. I’m curious, from your perspective, how does the brain science and the happiness science support the engagement aspect?

Scott Crabtree: Such a good, and such an important question, Mari. Some people will tell you – Gallup is one of them, for example -- I have lots of respect for Gallup by the way. I’m a big Gallup fan, I use Strengths Finder all the time, love their research. They will tell you that happiness and engagement are two totally different things. You can be happy and totally disengaged, you can be completely engaged and miserable. There is some truth to that, but if you define happiness the way scientists do, and therefore I do, as not just positive emotions, but also a longer lasting sense of meaning and satisfaction with life. You alluded to this earlier.  Am I part of something bigger, what’s the purpose behind what I am doing? If you include that in happiness as scientists do, and therefore, as I do, then still happiness and engagement are not the same thing, but boy, they are tightly woven with each other. A lot of what you do, and using strengths at work is a great example, a lot of what you do to get one will also get you the other. Quality relationships, trust, the ‘why’ behind what you are doing, the meaning, so many things that will deliver employee engagement will also deliver happiness. Things that deliver happiness will also deliver engagement.

That’s part of why I love the work that we do so much is that it is win-win. This is not how employers can squeeze more productivity out of employees while they ruin their lives. The data suggests that those most engaged at work have better lives at home as well. It’s obviously correlative data only, and I’m not claiming causality here, but the data is that happier, the more engaged employees, their kids behave better in school. The ripple effects are many for well-being at work.

Mari Ryan: That was going to be my next question. How do we link all of this back to well-being, and I think you just did.

Scott Crabtree: It’s interesting because I got into this world through the happiness door. I read The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky and it was my introduction to the science of happiness, and I discovered in that book all the benefits that come with happiness, and I was like, I want to know this and do this and be this. I want to be engaged and resilient and sociable and healthy and live a long life. Sign me up! I’m diving into the happiness research.

Well, the world of positive psychology and related sciences have said, yes, absolutely. It’s important and it’s valuable and there’s multiple components to it. Martin Seligman, who is one of the founding fathers of positive psychology, he has this PERMA model, which stands for Positive Emotions Engagement Meaning Relationships and Accomplishment. I think particularly in a work setting that you and I both focus on, that’s a good, comprehensive view of how happiness and meaning and accomplishment and relationships, it all rolls together into what we can safely call well-being at work, which is so win-win-win. It’s win for the employees, win for the employers, and win for everybody they are serving.

Mari Ryan: It certainly is, and that’s why we’re so passionate about the work we do.

Scott Crabtree: Exactly.

Mari Ryan: If our audience wants to learn a little bit more about you and the work that you're doing, Scott, where can they find you?

Scott Crabtree: Thank you for asking. There is so much more about the science of happiness. I have a bunch of free resources on my site, which is happybrainscience.com. Among other things you’ll find there a recommended reading list where I review a bunch of books that are wonderful resources. People can also find this card game that I made that teaches the science of happiness at work called Choose Happiness at Work, and other resources. I hope people will do … if some of your audience is hearing about the science of happiness and the science of thriving for the first time in a meaningful way, I hope they will respond the way I did, which is, I want to know more. I want to learn more, I want to know this, I want to apply it, and I want to live it because if all of us experience more happiness, the world will be a much better place.

Mari Ryan: Wouldn’t it? So, that’s just amazing that you are out there, being the advocate for creating these wonderful workplaces where people can thrive and where they will indeed find some happiness. Scott, I’m so excited. Thank you for being here. Any final comments before we’re finished today?

Scott Crabtree: Just how happy and grateful I am to be here. I’m grateful to anybody listening, and that’s a good segue to an immediately practical tip for anybody listening. One of the easiest ways to boost happiness, and therefore well-being and effectiveness at work is to practice gratitude. A lot of people know that they should be grateful, but … trust me, in my experience, I know this … there’s a difference between knowing that you should be grateful, and practicing gratitude. If gratitude is done well, it’s an act that we do regularly. Back to your great question about what can leaders do, it cost nothing and it boosts happiness for you and your employees, therefore boosts your bottom line, to give heartfelt gratitude to people frequently.

Mari Ryan: I totally agree. I hear this all the time in interviews and focus groups that I do with employees. They just want to be appreciated and respected.

Scott Crabtree: They sure do. I’m so delighted to talk with you because the work you’re doing is so important. Who knows, maybe together we can make a lasting positive difference for some people out there.

Mari Ryan: I have no doubt that we both are, and I’m so grateful to spend time with you here today, and I’m so glad that we’ve made this connection for our audience as well. Thanks, Scott.

Scott Crabtree: Thank you so much, Mari, I really appreciate it.

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Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, vacation policies, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, happiness at work, wellness, employee happiness, employee wellness, worksite well-being, hr, employee engagement, social connections, authentic happiness, science of happiness, employee well-being, human resources, corporate culture

Mari Ryan

Written by Mari Ryan

Mari Ryan is the CEO/founder of AdvancingWellness and is a recognized expert in the field of workplace well-being strategy.