How to Define Happiness at Work
Many people want to be happier and work happier.
But what is happiness?
Definitions vary, but I like this one from the happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky: "Happiness is the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one's life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile."
So what is happiness at work?
If we add workplace to the definition above, we can answer the question of what is happiness at work by saying that:
"Workplace happiness is the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one's (work) life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile."
In the workplace, happiness is closely linked to staff motivation, self-discovery, spirituality, and deriving purpose from tasks, according to researcher Nesreen Awada.
Best-selling happiness author Tracy Brower explained in an interview with me that there are four key components to happiness at work:
- Dedication: feeling committed
- Immersion: work when time flies
- Energy: how can I get energized from my work and how am I motivated to put energy into my work
- Mattering: the work I do matters and has meaning
As you can see, a lot of this happens 'now.'
Best-selling author Shawn Achor challenges the conventional belief that we should be working towards future happiness.
Instead, he says in his viral TED Talk about Happiness at Work, we should practice being happy in our work now, to create even more success in the future.
The Science of Happiness at Work
While it may seem like an art to achieve a worthwhile (work) life, it turns out there’s a lot of science to living happier.
Years ago, I stumbled upon Yale Professor Laurie Santos' fantastic course on Happiness, the Science of Well-Being, which now has over 4 million participants. In her course, she shares what makes us happy and how to live a happier life, all based on research.
One big concept Laurie highlights is that we are all terrible at knowing what makes us happy.
Suppose you ask people what will make them happier. In that case, the answer is usually something like a promotion or a higher salary, and beyond work: buying new things, getting married, or looking better.
The research repeatedly shows that these things don’t make us happy.
We're so bad at predicting what will make us happy because we overestimate the happiness some of these “achievements” will make us. (Spoiler: they can make us happy, but only briefly.)
In short, we don't know what we want – a scientific concept called miswanting.
Happiness at Work: It's relative
Let's look at money as a potential source of happiness.
Each year in the United States, people spend over 70 billion dollars on lottery tickets, more than on books, music, movie tickets, sports tickets, and video games combined.
However, lottery winners are not happier than others. When they first hear the news, they're so glad, but they feel the same after a while. (The opposite is true: accident victims were not as unhappy as expected and bounced back from devastation.)
The same happens when you get a promotion or a higher salary. You feel a sense of pride about this accomplishment and happiness … for a while. But after a month or so, your new title and salary are ‘normal,’ and you return to your base level of happiness.
We don't keep getting happier with more money, status, or anything else we typically work toward because happiness is relative.
The Hedonic Treadmill
The above is known as a concept called the hedonic treadmill.
Hedonism is the term for something that feels good – but that might be fleeting. And like when we’re on an actual treadmill, where you can keep running without an end in sight, if we keep running towards a promotion or salary raise (hedonic delights), we may forget to enjoy the current moment.
Additionally, if we think that that goal makes us happy, we’ll be miserable once we reach that goal. One month after that promotion, we may say: “Is that it”? And we run towards the next one.
We typically know these things don’t truly make us happy, but even if we are conscious of our tendency to want more, we often keep going for it. This is called the knowing-doing gap: just because you know something doesn’t always mean you’ll put it into practice. (My life is a good example!)
We must embrace that there is no way to happiness (at work); happiness is the way.
Eight Ways to Achieve Happiness at Work
In my previous article about employee motivation (and engagement), I quoted Paul Graham. In his famous essay "How to Do What You Love," he said that for most people, "work and fun are opposites by definition."
You go to work to make money and use that money to do what you want. But if we don’t enjoy our time at work, we’re wasting a huge percentage of our lives. Why would we?
That’s why I’ve renewed my efforts to be happier at work. Here are the eight strategies I’ve learned in researching workplace happiness over the years.
1. Have a Purpose
“Purpose” means having a highly valued, overarching goal you seek to pursue over the long term.
Professors Amy Wrzesniewski (Yale) and Jane Dutton (University of Michigan) found that having meaning and purpose in work makes you like your job more and improves your well-being.
And if that wasn't enough, it may also please you to know that having a purpose makes you more agreeable, social, healthier, and happier.
Setting a work goal may seem easy, but it's more complicated.
While simple and short-term goals are feasible, pursuing dreams like a new job title or a higher salary might not necessarily bring genuine happiness, as Shawn Achor explained.
Achieving a substantial, long-term goal that motivates and drives you at work can be challenging. To find such a goal, I suggest you work on your Ikigai.
Ikigai is a Japanese concept that refers to the reason for being. It’s the intersection of four key elements:
- What you love.
- What you are good at.
- What the world needs.
- What you can be paid for.
Finding your Ikigai can bring a sense of fulfillment and happiness, as it aligns your passions and skills with what the world values. You can find detailed instructions on how to find your Ikigai here.
2. Set Achievable Intrinsic Goals
The "A" in Martin Seligman's PERMA, the most well-known model for happiness, stands for Achievement.
A sense of accomplishment comes from working toward and reaching goals, mastering an endeavor, and having the self-motivation to finish your goals. Accomplishing goals contributes to happiness because you can look pridefully at your life.
Besides having a big (work) life goal, setting more immediately achievable goals and feeling a sense of accomplishment is essential.
Whether completing a course on a subject you want to improve on, creating more connections at work, hitting a target, completing a project on time, or helping a colleague, small victories can make a big difference in how you feel about your job.
According to Locke and Latham's 2002 study, goal setting impacts your motivation and positive emotions. It's important to remember to set goals that align with your values and career aspirations, as well as goals that give intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic ones like money, titles, and promotions.
This way, you can work towards something meaningful and rewarding, further contributing to your happiness and satisfaction in the workplace.
Don't forget to party afterward!
Celebrating your accomplishments is an essential step.
It helps reinforce the positive emotions associated with the achievement and gives your brain a clear signal that you have achieved something significant.
Celebration can motivate you to continue pursuing your goals and set even bigger ones in the future.
3. Find a Friend at Work
Positive relationships in the workplace can help you enjoy work more and contribute to better well-being.
Recent Gallup data support this notion, showing that having a best friend at work is critical for job satisfaction and has become even more so in light of the pandemic.
Having a work friend provides benefits such as making work more enjoyable, providing emotional support, and improving job performance by allowing for better communication and collaboration.
The idea of a best friend at work aligns with a finding of the most extended study about happiness, the Harvard Study of Adult Development. People with warm relationships and who feel most connected to others even live longer. And those who feel most connected to their work friends also feel more engaged.
As MIT reported, loneliness (including work-from-home loneliness) is a more significant issue than ever. When we feel isolated, our body goes into fight or flight mode, creating more stress and inflammation.
4. Don't Compare Yourself to Others
"Comparison is the thief of joy." This quote, attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, is cliche for a reason – it's true!
When you constantly compare yourself to others, you may feel like you do not measure up, which can be discouraging and disheartening. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, frustration, and sadness.
Additionally, when you're focusing on what others have that you don't, you're missing out on the good things in your own life. You might feel like you'll never be good enough or'll never achieve the same level of success as others.
Even the most successful people, like CEOs, can feel lonely and unhappy.
Remind yourself that success and achievement are not the only things that bring happiness and that it's essential to focus on cultivating good relationships, finding meaning in our work, and experiencing new things.
5. Take Control
People who can do more of what they are passionate about and have control over their work environment are significantly happier than those who do not.
In practice, this could mean deciding when and where to work (hello hybrid and remote!), setting your priorities, or having some control over your projects.
Feeling like you have control over your work life can help you feel more engaged and fulfilled, increasing happiness and reducing stress levels.
This doesn't mean having complete control over every aspect of your work life. It means having some control over the key elements that impact your work experience and feeling like you have a say in how things are done.
One defining trait of happy individuals is that they see things as being in their control. Take control and reassess situations that you think you can't change. It turns out that often, you actually can.
This sense of control makes you feel empowered and motivated, contributing to overall happiness and well-being at work.
6. Practice Positive Emotions
Practicing positive emotions in the workplace has major perks. Focusing on the good in our (work) lives can boost your happiness, increase motivation, and even strengthen your relationships with coworkers.
You can practice your positive emotions by:
- Expressing gratitude
- Fostering hope
- Smiling more
According to Barbara Fredrickson’s "Broaden-and-Build," positive emotions turn into more positive emotions!
This theory states that positive emotions have a broaden effect, leading you to approach new challenges with a sense of curiosity and creativity, and a build effect, strengthening personal resources such as psychological resilience, physical health, and social connections.
The next time you feel stressed or down, try focusing on what makes you happy and positive. It could be a project you're excited about or a coworker who always makes you laugh. Whatever it is, please give it some attention and let those positive emotions flow.
7. Find Moments of Flow.
When was the last time you were so absorbed in your work that the time flew by? This is a concept called Flow, and it’s imperative to feel happier.
Flow, coined by the researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and in the “E” (for Engagement) in the PERMA model, happens when you hit the perfect combination of challenge and skills.
In Flow, our unique strengths are fully utilized and stretched, but not so much that we become overwhelmed or frustrated. This combination of challenge and skill creates a sense of mastery and accomplishment that can be incredibly satisfying.
To get into “Flow State,” create more blocks of time (multiple hours) to get more absorbed in your work slowly. Ensure you won’t get interrupted by anything or anyone during this time by completely switching off notifications or even WiFi.
It's also important to find activities you are passionate about and good at to enter a flow state more easily. By creating the conditions for flow, you can experience greater happiness and satisfaction in your work and life.
8. Draw the Line
Having a healthy work-life balance is essential for overall well-being and job satisfaction.
Research from the World Health Organization has shown that people who struggle to balance work and personal life tend to experience burnout and stress, negatively impacting their health and happiness.
As a result, 52% of employees felt their workload had increased, while 36% experienced a decline in mental health. 2023 research from Microsoft shows that especially constant communication makes us feel extremely overwhelmed.
Managing your workload and prioritizing self-care activities is crucial to combat these adverse effects. Set boundaries between work and personal life, and make time for activities that promote physical and mental well-being, like exercise, mindfulness, and connecting with loved ones.
Make sure to alarm your employer when things get too much. Enough is enough; nothing is more important than your physical and mental well-being.
PLUS: Optimism, Nutrition, Physical Activity, Sleep
A lot of elements of being happier are connected.
Recently, the PERMA model added a PLUS to acknowledge that taking good care of ourselves is important in living and working happier. These include:
- Optimism (training your happiness muscle)
- Nutrition (eating well makes you feel better)
- Physical activity (similarly, this can improve your mental health)
- Sleep (helps you take on the bad stuff better)
Why would I care about happiness?
It may sound intuitive to want to be happy. But what if it all just sounds like a bunch of work?
Well, there are good reasons to strive to be happier. The research shows that happy people have:
- higher income
- greater productivity
- higher quality of work
- more satisfying and longer marriages
- more friends
- stronger social support
- richer social interactions
- more energy
- better physical health
- and even longer life.
- higher creativity
- more helpful and charitable
- more self-confident
- better self-control
- greater self-regulatory and coping abilities (for when things don't go well)
Why would my company care?
In an excellent fireside chat, Khun Nala Jiratornsirikul, Peoples Manager at Alpha Ventures DAO, shared that one of her key responsibilities is balancing the company's needs and the employees’.
I believe that when we’re happier, we do better, and that’s a true win-win. But here are some stats that may convince your boss:
- Happier employees are 12% more productive, while unhappy employees are 10% less effective than the average.
- Reduced sick leave: 75 – 90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related problems.
- Team members who feel happy are 58% more likely to go out of the way to help their colleagues and increase teamwork by 23%.
A lot of what companies want overlaps with what employees want.
Mark Mortensen from INSEAD and Amy C. Edmondson from the Harvard Business School captured this well in their article “Rethink Your Employee Value Proposition.”
What makes us happy is purpose, meaning, achieving, learning, growing, and connecting with great people.
Those are all things that a company can deliver in a healthy, employee-centric culture. I’d be happy to write another article about the employer side of happier work!
To conclude: A Happier Workplace
The pursuit of workplace happiness is not just a subjective desire; it's grounded in scientific principles.
The science of happiness at work reveals that our traditional ideas of achievement, such as promotions and salary increases, only provide temporary boosts to our well-being.
The hedonic treadmill concept suggests that lasting happiness comes from within, driven by factors like purpose, positive relationships, and a sense of control.
I've started practicing the 8 habits to be happier at work and they've helped tremendously.
I can only encourage you to pick up one or more.
Message me about your results!
This quiz assesses three core components of meaningful work: the degree to which people find their work to have significance and purpose, the contribution work makes to finding broader meaning in life, and the desire and means for one's job to make a positive contribution to the greater good.