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Laura Drury Laughology blog posts

How to be happy at work: What does neuroscience say?


Is it possible to feel truly happy at work? Or is it, as Dolly Parton sang, just a way to make a living? Well, that depends on you and the mindset you adopt. Don’t believe us? We’ve got the neuroscience to prove it.

So if you’re hoping to jump on the happy work wagon, here’s some insight into the science behind happiness and how you can harness it more in your everyday working life. It all starts with understanding how your brain works.

Why is it important to be happy at work?

If you’re in a positive mindset you make better decisions and choices. You’re also more productive. You connect with others on a positive emotional level, improving your verbal reasoning and thereby improving trust and relationships. You’re also more creative, innovative and resilient. It’s a win-win!

In ‘This Book Could Fix Your Life’, neuroscientist Helen Thompson describes how volunteers were given a practical problem with a box of matches, a box of drawing pins and a candle. Some were shown a funny clip beforehand, whilst others a maths documentary. You’ve guessed it, those who laughed at the comedy were more likely to solve the puzzle than those who watched the maths.

But what if you have a naturally grumpy disposition? Can you really make yourself happier?

Quite frankly, yes, you can. It does however require intentional engagement and practice and crucially, you have to want to.

Simply put, how you think affects how you feel. How you feel affects how you behave. How you behave affects how others respond to you (and how you feel about yourself) which then affects how you think. At the centre of your happiness are your thoughts.

Like everything else you say and do, your thoughts are habits, and your habits are pathways in the brain. With the right training and commitment, you can re-wire and change those pathways and in doing so, become more resilient.

How to feel happier

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is one approach and is the foundation of Laughology’s FLIP-it Thinking Toolkit. FLIP is the acronym for Focus, Language, Imagination and Pattern-Breaking.

It’s a useful tool to help pinpoint any negative - ‘wonky’ - thinking and consider how you can:

  • Shift the focus from your feelings to facts
  • Use more positive, less emotionally charged, language to help you feel better and reframe any negative thoughts
  • Harness your imagination to create more positive outcomes
  • Through practice and application, do some pattern-breaking of your unhelpful cognitive circuits to create happier ones.

What promotes happiness in the brain?

Your happiness is largely down to the happy chemicals that are released in your brain - a D.O.S.E. of neurotransmitters. These are complex little chemicals that play various roles in the brain, some of which are as follows:

  • Dopamine – helps you feel motivated; it’s released when you achieve what you set out to do or experience the unexpected. Low levels can cause procrastination, so break your work down into manageable chunks - you’ll get that extra dopamine hit on completion.
  • Oxytocin – promotes social bonding and building trust. It’s released when you cuddle as well as when you’re stressed - as long as you seek help from others. It then helps to heal any damage the stress has caused.
  • Serotonin – is important for mood regulation as well as sleep, learning and appetite. Low levels can cause anxiety and depression. Boost your levels by reflecting on previous achievements as well as exercising, getting exposure to sunlight or massages and a tryptophan-rich diet.
  • Endorphins – contribute to your wellbeing and help reduce stress hormones. They’re released when you’re excited, eat spicy food, are in pain, at peak moments of an intimate act (oo-er) and when you laugh! Even the anticipation of laughing can bring about an endorphin hit, so search out the funny people in your workplace.

What else contributes to your happiness and wellbeing at work?

Neuroscientist and psychologist, Richard Davidson, describes four constituents of wellbeing, validated by neuroscience. These include:

  • Resilience,
  • The ability to savour positive emotions
  • The attention of the mind (mindfulness and meditation)
  • Generosity

Davidson describes generosity and kindness as the ability to ‘activate the very circuits in our brain that sustain positive emotion. A change that lasts more so than anything else that has been studied.’

He also describes how kindness and compassion are innate in humans. You’re born kind - any loss of it is likely down to experiences growing up.

Whilst these things are simple to apply, changing habits is by no means easy. So be kind to yourself, as well as others.

If you want a quick fix, smiling helps. If you don’t feel like it, put a pen in-between your teeth instead and try to prevent it from touching your lips. Now look in the mirror. Even if the sight of yourself doesn’t make you laugh, the muscle memory part of your brain will recognise this as a smile and start to release a happy feeling.

Go on, have a go. You know you want to.


If you’d like further support to boost your happiness at work, why not come along to our FREE ‘HappIness with a Capital I’ webinar? You can learn more about the neuroscience and grab some strategies to put in place straight away.






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