The Science of Happiness: Connecting – Why Relationships at Work Matter

In our series on the science of happiness, we explored The Five Ways to Happiness at Work with creators Nic Marks and Dr. Jody Aked.

With Connect being the most important component of The Five Ways, Nic and Jody show us how teams can create real friendships in the workplace.

The Science of Happiness: Connecting – Why Relationships at Work Matter


Nic Marks is one of the UK’s top happiness experts and statisticians. He worked extensively in public policy and with many governments advising on how to measure and improve wellbeing. In 2010 he gave a popular TED talk on his policy work. 

Nic has worked with over 1,000 teams and organizations looking into the ingredients of good work and positive workplace cultures. 

Dr. Jody Aked has a 17 year research career, with experience leading large-scale projects that deliver policy and organisational impact. Jody has specialised in the study of wellbeing and complex systems change. Her work on The Five Ways to Wellbeing has influenced how governments, GPs, universities, charities and workplaces talk about mental health. 

Jody has advised many organisations on how to improve workplace culture. She is a trained facilitator and coach with a PhD and a Masters degree in Psychology. 

Friday Pulse: Let's start with the big picture. Why is Connect the first of The Five Ways?
Our social relationships are the most important thing to our wellbeing and happiness. What's between us is as important as what's within usConnect is the bridge between myself and the team, and the organization. Other wellness programmes and performance reviews focus on the individual. We’re much more about how teams bond and work together.

Connect is an evolutionary driver — not only did we need to survive and thrive, but we had to help our kin group, our tribe. We feel good when we support each other or show kindness to others. And then that kindness is reciprocated. 

We work harder when we work in synchrony — that's another symbiotic relationship. That was the effectiveness of sea shanties; when you're singing, you literally pull and tug harder because doing things together releases endorphins — the natural painkiller in the body that allows you to do more than you would do alone.

Connect also ties to how we define wellbeing and how we measure it. A lot of definitions are about the joy or meaning and purpose, but it's not often put in definitions like social relationships and relational wellbeing. If you look at initiatives, like Human at Work and big corporate initiatives, they never have relationships in there.

There are a lot of wellbeing frameworks out there. How do The Five Ways differ from everyone else?  
One of the most popular motivational theories is by Daniel Pink. He talks about autonomy, mastery and purpose – all very individually focused. 

When we look at The Five Ways, we have EmpowerChallengeInspire, but we also have the social, which are Connect and Be Fair. Daniel Kahneman said, "Happiness is almost a social emotion." And it's sort of between us. It's not to say that we can't be happy on our own, but that tends to be more about contentment, more about reflective energy. 

Yet if we think of those positive emotions, which are higher energy, then they tend to be expressed most when we are interacting with others. Enthusiasm is a contagious emotion that helps us connect with other people and bond with them, and bring them along. There are ways that the emotional realm helps us connect with other people.

Clients often wonder why we measure friendship at work.  My answer is that it goes to the basic desire to be healthy and happy in life. You go to work eight hours a day. Friends energize you; they make you feel better about yourself. They make you laugh but can also challenge you. 

But it's also highly functional at the organizational level. People will help friends in a way that they won't help colleagues. If I see you're struggling and you're my friend, I'm going to help you. And I'm more likely to ask for help from my friends than someone I just perceive as a colleague. You get much more reciprocal exchanges between people that are friends in an organization. So yes, it's good for the individual, but it's highly functional for organizations.

Do you suggest that companies spend more time cultivating friendships between their people, or let that happen naturally? What's the right play here?
Certainly, you want to facilitate that.  Maybe you just need to say, do you want to be a company that encourages relationships. Are you a friendly company?

There are ways that organizations can connect very simply that don't cost anything. As an old example from Zappos – when employees used to log into their system, it would show a picture of another employee. It would then give three names to guess who they were. You’d click it, and it would tell you who they were and say something about them. This helped people to get to know each other, in the sense that you might find they've got similar hobbies. You might never think about them again, but you also might get to know someone new. 

Office design is another one — designing spaces for people to bump into each other. We create social spaces for the whole team or the whole company but maybe not necessarily the personal, one-to-one interactions. And that's particularly important for introverts. Extroverts don't often struggle to make friendships at work. Introverts will naturally find it harder. They tend to rely on proximity and frequency of bumping into people, sitting by someone else's desk and finding common threads.

Friendship is all about small interactions. You don't make friends with a whole group of people at one time. You go to a party, and you'll pick off one or two people and you'll start talking to them. Then, if you like each other, you'll talk to each other again…and again. That's how the friendship builds. 

Connect is a very organic thing, so what kind of mistakes happen when companies try to force their people into building these relationships? 
You have to find ways that are inclusive. If you start saying, "Oh, let's go for after-hours drinks" that can exclude people with young children and people that don't drink alcohol, and it immediately skews it towards male and all sorts of other things. You have to think about how you do things which include everybody. 

You have to watch for in-and-out-groups. You could get a team that's very well-bonded but sets itself against other teams. The best thing is when teams connect well with other teams, and they don't split the company into little fiefdoms. That's why we've got the inter-team cooperation measure.

What holds people back from connecting, and how do leaders address that kind of fear or reluctance?
COVID showed that it is not seeing people. I think actually just not seeing people for a long time is a big issue. Over the pandemic, we were taught to be scared of other people. Trust may have been eroded. 

Beyond COVID, you have to get to know the person behind the colleague. Understand something about their life, and other interests and other pressures outside of work. That's something that really builds connection. There needs to be time for talk that's not work-related. It doesn't need to be 100% of the time but getting to know people is important. 

In a post COVID environment, do you think that trying to rebuild these socially distant relationships should be a top priority? 
Relationship building is work. We tend to think of relationships as a side project, but it can be the core of what you do together and the engine of it. Research shows that new ideas and new things happen out of relationships. 

Conversation can be our superpower, but our conversations tend to go: "How are you?" "Yeah, I'm fine." We never give anything of ourselves to anyone. The ability to converse has always been one of our best tools. But with email and platforms like Slack, we communicate more, and we converse less. We don't reveal much about ourselves. It's difficult to work with someone when you have no idea day in, day out, what's really going on for them. 

Try new conversation openers like, "Yeah, I'm good. But I slept terribly last night." It's something that gives a little way for you to make a connection from that. Team leaders share things — it doesn't have to be that personal, but it can be more human. They can practice active listening by saying things like, "Have I got it right?" It gives people an opportunity to course correct a conversation and feel heard.

This is reinforced by the data we gathered during the pandemic. The three most suppressed variables were work-life balance, team relationships and friendships at work. They are all relational variables, as work-life balance impacts our connections outside of work. It is hard to maintain connections when you can't see each other. 

We were living off the social capital that we had accumulated before COVID messed up everything.  To continue the analogy, we could say we ran down the stock of social capital and so relationships became more important than ever, as we needed to re-connect and re-build.  The good thing is that shared experience is a great connector, and we have all been through this pandemic together – so maybe it contributed to reset and move forward together. 

And finally, why are humans so dependent on relationships? 
Our social skills are one of the things that make us uniquely human. For example, we're the only animal that sings in groups. Birds will sing individually as part of mating, but we will sing and dance and make music together. And it's very, very much part of our instinct to collectively gather together and do things. Our whole super-sized prefrontal cortex is to help us navigate the complexity of relationships. It's the most complex thing we do as a human being. If you think about the biggest things that go wrong in your life, they tend to be relational.

Relationship building is a process where trust builds on trust, so you shouldn't try to build it too quickly. Spending time together naturally builds it. Some relationships take longer than others. But patience and reciprocity in relationships are important. It's got to be two way. If it's one way, then it's just a comms strategy based on what you're telling people, not how you're listening to them. 

One thing that was linked to cognitive decline is when your social world gets smaller and smaller — which is what most people's lives were like in 2020. We did not have to deal with the same relational complexities as you do when you live in a big family unit, or you're at school every day, or you're in the workplace every day. 

That's what I like about Friday Pulse's data points — they feedback at the team level. It creates that psychologically safe distance. If you've got someone who really doesn't want to bring themselves to work, that's fine, you've got to respect that, but you can then say, "What have you noticed about the team? What have you noticed about our schools? What have you observed in past jobs or in past places?" These are safer starting places for those individuals and can help you draw them into the team. 

How you can connect better with your teams
Friday Pulse supports teams to have better conversations every week. It helps them get to know each other better, build on what’s going well and rapidly unearth the challenges that need addressing. By meeting each week to discuss everyone's experience of work, it builds trust and a resilient, happy team.

For more information, check out our demo video here.