Can optimism and kindness contribute to worker health and well-being?

Hayami Koga and Laura Kubzansky
Hayami Koga (right) and Laura Kubzansky

Hayami Koga, MPH ’16, PhD ’23, is exploring how a Japanese philosophy of hospitality and mindfulness can help workplaces become more psychologically healthy environments.  

May 31, 2024 — Hayami Koga remembers her father always telling people to “laugh for their health.” It wasn’t until she was in medical school that Koga realized the wisdom in that advice. In Japan, where Koga is from, sudden deaths from overwork became such a common occurrence that a word was coined in the 1970s to describe them: karoshi. Through her work as a physician and public health researcher, Koga is hoping to nudge workplaces in Japan and elsewhere in a healthier direction.

“I have seen how work can be dangerous, toxic, and unhealthy,” Koga said. “I want to change the structure of work from something that is harmful to something beneficial to health, a source of your well-being, something to be optimistic about.”

Koga attended medical school at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health in Japan, an institution with a focus on worker health. But she came to believe that its approach—which emphasized educating patients about preventing and managing health risk factors like high cholesterol and hypertension—didn’t go far enough toward getting at the root causes of poor physical and psychological health in the workplace.

She continued to explore her interest in worker health and well-being after graduation, reading avidly while working first as a doctor at a hospital, and later as a research analyst with Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare. One book she came across was Social Epidemiology, edited by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health professors Lisa Berkman, Ichiro Kawachi, and Maria Glymour, and it changed the trajectory of her career, inspiring her to apply to the School.

“The book looked at health with a more structural and population-based lens and focused on social determinants,” Koga said. “None of this was part of my medical school curriculum, so it was very new to me, but I wanted to do whatever I could to understand it.”

Health benefits of optimism

Koga earned an MPH in social and behavioral sciences in 2016, and a PhD from the Harvard Kenneth C. Griffin School of Arts and Sciences in 2023, for which she studied in the Population Health Sciences program in partnership with Harvard Chan School. Two years ago, she was lead author on a study that linked higher optimism with longer lifespan and a greater likelihood of living past age 90 for women across racial and ethnic groups, which was covered by a number or media outlets. She passionately believes that increasing optimism can be beneficial to everyone’s health and hopes the work in this space continues.

Koga’s doctoral studies were supported by financial aid from the Dillon Family Fellowship. The fellowship gave her the opportunity to join the Work and Well-being Initiative, a research partnership between Harvard Chan School and MIT Sloan School of Management that seeks to provide a deeper understanding of work conditions that support worker well-being and to identify policies and practices that enable workers to be healthy in and outside of the workplace.

“As the oldest member of the Dillon family, and a long-time advocate for the work being done through Harvard Chan School, I am delighted that our fellowship inspired Hayami to continue her optimism research,” said Phyllis Collins. “Optimism, and ways to obtain and sustain it, is very important to me—especially in workplaces where we spend so much of our time. Here’s to hoping we can bring an end to karoshi.”

Sharing omotenashi

As a postdoc, Koga is continuing to explore how promoting positive psychological factors in the workplace can improve worker health and well-being. She’s supported by Plan Do See, a hospitality group with a mission to share omotenashi—a Japanese philosophy of hospitality and mindfulness—with the world. “I would translate omotenashi to more Western terms by saying it’s something like acts of kindness, which I think contributes to worker well-being. Part of my research is focused on why that is,” Koga said.

Seiko Miyama, an executive assistant at Plan Do See, said that employee well-being is one of the company’s top priorities. “We were very excited to bring Hayami on board to help us continue creating outstanding work environments and to elevate our outcomes. When we met her, we were instantly drawn to how well her research and interests aligned with our values at Plan Do See, so we’re thrilled to team up with her to share omotenashi with the world.”

Koga’s advisor Laura Kubzansky, professor of social and behavioral sciences, appreciates what can come from students following their curiosity. “The intellectual capital students and researchers, like Hayami, bring is incredibly special and heartening. They are passionate and committed and looking to make the world a better place by answering their own questions.”

To help answer questions about well-being as part of their work together, Koga and Kubzansky considered early psychological research on optimism conducted by Martin Seligman who coined the term “learned optimism.” While studying his work, Koga coincidently came across a reference to Seligman’s research on optimism and health in a book her father had published about personal development and success. Kubzansky shares a similar family connection: She and her father, who she calls “the ultimate optimist,” were able to publish a paper about optimism together before he died.

Koga calls Kubzansky and Harvard Chan School’s Lisa Berkman—another mentor—“super women.” She said, “They have overcome a lot to be where they are and have taught me that being female is not a setback. It was hard to imagine myself in this field alongside people like them. It is rare for a Japanese physician, especially a woman, to pursue a PhD in the U.S.—and I did it while raising a kid! I am proud of that and what I have accomplished—and I could not have done it without these role models.”

In 2023, Berkman, who is co-editor of the book that inspired Koga to apply to Harvard Chan School, hosted her graduation dinner. Koga said, “Full-circle stories like this are so special to me and make me hopeful for what we can all achieve together in this field.”

Shweta Shreyarthi

Photo: Kent Dayton