3 Secrets to Happiness at Work According to Research

Happiness at WorkOrganizations are investing increasing amounts of money and resources in improving happiness at work, from team-building exercises and fun consultants to Google’s Chief Happiness Officer (Spicer & Cederström, 2015; Tan, 2014).

After all, the benefits are obvious. Happy workers enjoy what they do and work harder and smarter. Companies take fun, play, and satisfaction in the workplace seriously because they recognize the importance of happiness for productivity, staff retention, and employee wellbeing (McKee, 2014).

This article explores happiness at work in light of psychological research findings, sharing what we know of the concept, its advantages, and its implications for work-life balance.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Meaning and Valued Living Exercises for free. These creative, science-based exercises will help you learn more about your values, motivations, and goals and will give you the tools to inspire a sense of meaning in the lives of your clients, students, or employees.

How to Define Work Happiness

Happiness, as a concept, is so slippery that, despite advanced tools for measuring emotions and predicting behavior, we still need to figure out precisely what it is, suggests Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage (Achor, 2011).

As a result, it is sometimes easier to speak about happiness indirectly in relation to other mental phenomena, such as joy, engagement, and motivation. Indeed, according to Achor, happiness refers to the experience of positive emotions combined with much deeper feelings, including purpose and meaning (Achor, 2011, 2014).

Similarly, Martin Seligman–often referred to as the father of positive psychology–linked happiness to the following three components in his original authentic happiness theory (Seligman, 2011, 2011a):

  • Positive emotions
    Pleasure, warmth, comfort, and even rapture, as examples, create a “pleasant life,” as Seligman calls it (Seligman, 2011, p. 11).
  • Engagement
    Also known as flow, involves merging with the activity and losing one’s sense of self.
  • Meaning
    A “meaningful life” consists of belonging to, or serving, something more significant than the self (Seligman, 2011, p. 12).

When Seligman first wrote about the authentic happiness theory, he thought the goal of positive psychology was to pursue such happiness. However, his subsequent wellbeing theory evolved his approach, suggesting the “goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing” (Seligman, 2011, p. 13).

As such, while positive emotions, engagement, and meaning are essential, they are best combined with positive relationships and achievement. Together, they form part of Seligman’s far-reaching PERMA model and offer a path to a deeper level of flourishing and more profound happiness (Seligman, 2011).

In her book Positivity, Barbara Fredrickson also recognizes the problem of definition. She suggests the term ‘happiness’ is both murky and overused and better described in terms of feelings such as love, gratitude, and joy. Indeed, according to Fredrickson, happiness should, more usefully, be wrapped up in the concept of ‘positivity,’ where, as part of her broaden and build theory, each positive emotion supports and leads to others (Fredrickson, 2010).

While conceptually, happiness is tricky to define–in the workplace at least–in practical terms, it is intimately connected with staff motivation, deeper self-knowledge, spirituality, and finding meaning in tasks (Awada, 2019).

As a result, Achor rejects the traditional view that working harder leads to success and, ultimately, happiness—both in work and outside. Instead, happiness is relative to who we are and how we feel about our jobs and lives (Achor, 2011).

What Research Reveals About Happiness at Work

How to be happy at workAccording to research, these three dominant thoughts reveals the secrets to happiness at work.

1. Happiness in the workplace is essential

Research suggests that it improves sales, productivity, and accuracy while boosting health and quality of life. Despite a clear link between employee happiness and business outcomes, it needs to be taken more seriously (Achor, 2011).

2. Positive psychology

When Achor introduced positive psychology principles into KPMG, one of the big accounting companies, following the 2008 banking crisis, they saw an increase in life satisfaction, work optimism, perceived effectiveness in work, and a reduction in perceived stress. Moreover, the effect was not short-lived. Four months later, improvements to personal and professional happiness were maintained (Achor, 2014).

3. Job crafting

However, while research typically finds a positive link between happiness and productivity in the workplace, chasing it may leave us feeling less happy and even frustrated.

Instead, we may be better off focusing on crafting our jobs and living our lives to align with our values, creating long-term meaning and fulfillment (Seligman, 2011; Ryan & Deci, 2018).

2 Job Crafting Coaching Manuals [PDF]

Help others redesign their work. This manual and the accompanying client workbook outline a seven-session coaching trajectory for you, the practitioner, to expertly guide others through their own unique job crafting journey.

Advantages of Happiness in the Workplace

Happiness at work matters because happy workers are more engaged with their jobs and colleagues and work harder and smarter. In fact, a happy employee is good for everyone: their psychological and physical wellness is boosted, they interact better with customers, and they are more productive for their employer (McKee, 2014).

Research confirms the many advantages associated with happiness in the workplace, including (Rahmi, 2018; Thompson & Bruk-Lee, 2021):

Increased:

  • Productivity
  • Quality
  • Sales
  • Customer satisfaction
  • Creativity
  • Innovation
  • Adaptation
  • Flexibility

Decreased:

  • Financial losses
  • Absences
  • Worker stress

Ultimately, healthy and happy employees are more productive, produce the best goods, and offer customers more satisfying services (Rahmi, 2018).

Increasingly, research recognizes that workplace happiness can “significantly mediate the relationship between job demands and organizational outcomes” (Thompson & Bruk-Lee, 2021, p. 1419).

Happy Work & Life Balance

Happiness at workPsychologist Jacinta Jiménez (2021) believes that a single, universal, and ‘ideal’ work-life balance is a myth.

In her book, The Burnout Fix, she points out that while we should all be making time for silence and sanctuary, support, and connection, the time required for each varies. We are all unique, and so are our needs (Jiménez, 2021).

We vary in our circumstances, abilities, life experiences, work cultures, stressors, and what a successful sustainable life looks like. Work-life balance is whatever feels balanced to the individual (Jiménez, 2021).

Our article Work-Life Balance in Psychology: 12 Examples and Theories considers the multiple roles each of us plays: partner, parent, manager, team member, and teacher. Each one has unique needs and challenges and the potential to upset our life balance (Kalliath & Brough, 2008).

As a result, changes to any of the following can create an imbalance that brings unique demands (Guest, 2002):

  • The work environment
  • In life
  • In individual attitudes

Greater awareness of our many roles can help us anticipate how changes impact our lives and happiness.

In What Are Life Domains & How Can We Balance Them? we look at how we attempt to juggle each of the following five life domains (Vanderweele, 2017):

  • Spirituality
  • Family
  • Work
  • Health
  • Community

Sometimes it is necessary to say ‘No’ to new or changing demands. Other times, we must accept and acknowledge that we cannot do everything—we have limits. Furthermore, increasing focus on positive life domains and reducing attention on negative ones is a powerful strategy that creates a better life balance and improved wellbeing (Lee & Sirgy, 2018).

Ultimately, our goal should be to create a balance that works for our unique circumstances. As our lives evolve, so will our needs, and we must continually assess what the ideal looks like.

How to Be Happy at Work, Even if You Hate It

Research suggests that work happiness and life satisfaction are in the hands of the individual and the organization.

Firstly, it’s essential to recognize that happiness is an advantage at work, and rather than waiting for future successes, we can find it in the present. Secondly, by creating good habits that increase life satisfaction, you can train your brain and prepare it for higher levels of happiness (Achor, 2014).

Psychology recognizes that no matter whether you like or loathe your workplace, you can change the lens through which your brain views and assesses the world.

This can be done by

  • showing gratitude,
  • practicing kindness and compassion,
  • engaging in mindfulness, and
  • taking part in regular exercise.

In turn, we can learn to build positive emotions that impact our workplace happiness and overall life satisfaction (Achor, 2011, 2014; Seligman, 2011).

Research by Annie McKee and her team at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education found that to be genuinely engaged and happy, employees need (McKee, 2014):

  • A meaningful vision of the future
    When our personal vision is aligned with our organization’s vision, we feel engaged and part of its future.
  • A sense of purpose
    We need to feel part of something that matters. Working towards meaningful goals can both excite and engage us.
  • Great relationships
    The connections we form–or don’t–with our colleagues and boss are vital. When we experience them as close, trusting, and supportive, we are more willing to contribute to the team.

While team-building and fun days are valuable, profound, enduring engagement and satisfaction require a consistent environment where people can flourish (Seligman, 2011; McKee, 2014).

Research continues to highlight the benefits of positive psychology and the closely related concept of happiness in the workplace, including (Fredrickson, 2010; Donaldson et al., 2019; Ryan & Deci, 2018):

  • Setting and working toward goals
    Goals are powerful tools for motivating individuals and teams and increasing overall happiness.
  • Boosting positive emotions
    Creating a culture of gratitude, joy, optimism, hope, and other positive emotions can positively influence happiness.
  • Increasing intrinsic motivation
    Targeting intrinsic triggers and satisfying needs such as relatedness (or connection), autonomy (or control), and competence (or mastery) can have significant positive effects on happiness and wellbeing.
  • Awareness and use of strengths
    Knowing our strengths and finding or creating opportunities to use them improves performance and mental wellness.

6 Work Happiness TED Talks

There are plenty of TED Talks that can guide organizations and their employees in creating an environment, culture, and mindset more conducive to happiness:

1. The happy secret to better work

Shawn Achor’s talk is fast-moving and funny, taking the audience on a journey that inspires increased happiness and improved productivity in the workplace.

2. Grit: The power of passion and perseverance

Watched over 28 million times, Angela Lee Duckworth recognizes and explores the importance of grit to success and a happier life.

3. What makes us feel good about work?

Money is not what ultimately makes us happy at work. Instead, we need purpose, progress, and growth, explains Dan Ariely in this illuminating talk.

4. The new era of positive psychology

Martin Seligman, one of the most important people in positive psychology, talks us through its ability to help us flourish and improve positive emotions.

5. How to make work-life balance work

For many, achieving the ideal work-life balance can seem an almost impossible goal. In this talk, Nigel Marsh says that this task is too important to be left to the employer, and it is up to us to find the best balance between family, personal, and productive time.

6. Why having fun is the secret to a healthier life

We spend much of our lives at work, yet it often isn’t associated with having fun. Catherine Prices discusses the importance of “true fun” and how to weave playfulness into our day.

Finding Happiness at Work Quotes

The following quotes offer inspiration as our clients identify and build happiness in their workplace through living their values, finding purpose, and creating lasting connections (Robinson, 2022; Work quotes, n.d.):

“Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.”
– Rumi

“This is the real secret of life – to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”
– Alan Watts

“Goal setting is the most important aspect of all improvement and personal development plans. It is the key to all fulfillment and achievement.”
– Paul J. Meyer

“Earning happiness means doing good and working, not speculating and being lazy. Laziness may look inviting, but only work gives you true satisfaction.”
– Anne Frank

“Your purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your whole heart and soul to it.”
– Buddha

“Work without love is slavery.”
– Mother Teresa

“Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress. Working hard for something we love is called passion.”
– Simon Sinek

“To find out what one is fitted to do, and to secure an opportunity to do it, is the key to happiness.”
– John Dewey

“Happiness does not come from a job. It comes from knowing what you truly value and behaving in a way that’s consistent with those beliefs.”
– Mike Rowe

“Work hard, be yourself, and have fun!”
– Michelle Kwan

Best Resources From PositivePsychology.com

We have many resources available for coaches working with their clients to build a realistic and enduring work-life balance and the resilience to reduce workplace stress and experience more positive emotions.

Our free resources include:

  • Your Best Work Self
    This helpful tool supports professionals in identifying what fuels their passion and building the environment, relationships, and tasks that encourage happiness in the workplace.
  • Strengthening Ikigai in the Workplace
    A helpful worksheet for understanding what your clients enjoy doing, are good at, and can get paid for at work. The aim is to optimize performance, boost intrinsic motivation, and encourage a happier time in their chosen career.
  • Workplace Mindfulness
    Mindfulness positively impacts happiness across multiple life domains. This worksheet uses a set of simple questions that clients can ask themselves to help improve workplace satisfaction.

Another extremely useful resource:

Balancing Life Domains© is a coaching masterclass that will teach you how to help others effectively manage attention and energy between our most valued life domains, such as family, work, and leisure. This is taught by addressing the roles of attention, need fulfillment, and actions required to create life balance. Your clients will be given all the necessary tools to create a more balanced life through fun and engaging exercises and techniques.

Balancing Life Domains© Masterclass is exclusive to Life Navigation©, our comprehensive positive psychology certification program. As such, it can only be accessed through joining Life Navigation© and can not be purchased as a stand-alone masterclass.

A Take-Home Message

Happiness in the workplace is a serious business. It can have a dramatic effect on employee and organizational performance and boost wellbeing.

And yet, the concept of happiness, even for psychologists, remains unclear. However, whether easily defined or not, happiness in the workplace is intimately connected with other members of staff, our work, and our environment—it is not something experienced in isolation.

The effects of happiness at work are far-reaching: satisfied staff are less absent and more accurate, creative, and productive. And crucially, they are better able to handle stress, reducing absenteeism and improving mental wellbeing.

Beyond that, a happy workforce can successfully mediate the often challenging relationships between job demands and organizational outcomes.

Finding a successful work-life balance that works for us is crucial. There is no one-size-fits-all. We are all unique, and so are our circumstances. As a result, there will be times when we have to say ‘no’ to new opportunities and others when we may need to re-prioritize according to our evolving needs.

Why not try out some of the above tools and others we have available with your clients? A positive environment and helpful habits can create a more balanced lifestyle and improve our happiness inside and outside the workplace.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Meaning and Valued Living Exercises for free.

References

  • Achor, S. (2011). The happiness advantage. Random House.
  • Achor, S. (2014). The happiness dividend. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from https://hbr.org/2011/06/the-happiness-dividend
  • Awada, N. (2019). Happiness in the Workplace. International Journal of Innovative Technology and Exploring Engineering, 8(9S3), 1496-1500.
  • Donaldson, S. I., Lee, J. Y., & Donaldson, S. I. (2019). The Effectiveness of Positive Psychology Interventions in the Workplace: A Theory-Driven Evaluation Approach. In: Van Zyl, L., Rothmann Sr., S. (Eds) Theoretical Approaches to Multicultural Positive Psychological Interventions. Springer
  • Fredrickson, B. (2010). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to release your inner optimist and thrive. Richmond: Oneworld.
  • Guest, D. E. (2002). Perspectives on the study of work-life balance. Social Science Information, 41(2), 255–279.
  • Jiménez, J. M. (2021). The burnout fix overcome overwhelm, beat busy, and sustain success in the New World of Work. New York: McGraw Hill.
  • Kalliath, T., & Brough, P. (2008). Work-life balance: A review of the meaning of the balance construct. Journal of Management & Organization, 14(3), 323–327.
  • Lee, D. J., & Sirgy, M. J. (2018). What do people do to achieve work-life balance? A formative conceptualization to help develop a metric for large-scale quality of life surveys. Social Indicators Research, 138(3), 1–21.
  • McKee, A. (2014). Being happy at work matters. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from https://hbr.org/2014/11/being-happy-at-work-matters
  • Rahmi, F. (2018). Happiness at workplace. Proceedings of the International Conference of Mental Health, Neuroscience, and Cyber-psychology – Icometh-NCP, 2018.
  • Robinson, A. (2022). 71 best job satisfaction quotes for employees in 2022. Retrieved December 6, 2022, from https://teambuilding.com/blog/job-satisfaction-quotes
  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2018). Self-determination theory: basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: The Guilford Press.
  • Spicer, A. & Cederström, C. (2015). The research we’ve ignored about happiness at work. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from https://hbr.org/2015/07/the-research-weve-ignored-about-happiness-at-work
  • Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being and how to achieve them. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
  • Seligman, M. (2011a). Authentic happiness. North Sydney, N.S.W.: Random House Australia.
  • Tan, C. (2014). Search inside yourself: The unexpected path to achieving success, happiness (and world peace). New York: HarperOne.
  • Thompson, A., & Bruk-Lee, V. (2021). Employee happiness: Why we should care. Applied Research in Quality of Life, 16(4), 1419-1437.
  • Vanderweele, T. J. (2017). On the promotion of human flourishing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114(31), 8148–8156.
  • Work quotes (n.d.). Retrieved December 6, 2022, from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/work

Comments

What our readers think

  1. CarlaM.

    This is a great article. I believe all of us are always trying to do our best each day at work. Employees in a positive mood are more productive than those who are not. Employees who feel confident about their abilities and are able to focus on their tasks are more likely to be productive. These employees will be less likely to become distracted by negative thoughts or feelings about the workplace or about themselves. This will enable them to focus on achieving the goals set out by their bosses or supervisors without being distracted by negative thoughts regarding these goals or about themselves. One way I think will effectively help employees to be more productive is by giving them a room where they can concentrate and focus on their tasks, for example, an office which can be used whether for group meetings or just simple phone calls.

    Reply
  2. Josephine

    Wow! This is really a very engaging, inspiring & helpful article.
    Now, i realized this is what is gone & missing in our workplace.
    I really wish & hope to be an instrument to help my colleagues happy at work.
    How can I share this article to my manager?

    Reply
    • Nicole Celestine, Ph.D.

      Hi Josephine,

      Glad you liked this post. While we don’t currently have an option to download our posts, you are very welcome to share them with others. If you scroll to the end of the post and respond positively to the question ‘How useful was this article to you?’ several sharing options will become available to you.

      Hope this helps!

      – Nicole | Community Manager

      Reply
  3. Nandkumar Rane

    Excellent article on Happiness at work. Thanks for sharing. We are in the process of designing a program on Employee happiness at our organisation . Look forward to using some of the information and references given here for the same. Thank you so much.

    Reply
  4. Dr. Sophie Keller

    This is one the great article that guides people to be happier at work irrespective of what is happening in their lives. If you are happier at work you will be more productive and will show optimum growth in the coming time.

    Reply
  5. Dennis Davis

    Nice Blog!!! Thank you for sharing the information. Wonderful blog & good post. It’s really helpful for me.
    Happiness the most important for live healthy and long life. The Happiness Shot is the most preferred source of happy news, good news and positive news from around the world to spread hope, inspiration, and optimism.

    Reply
    • Nicole Celestine

      Hi Dennis,
      So glad you took something meaningful from this post. All the best living your own happy life!
      – Nicole | Community Manager

      Reply
  6. Maya Schmid

    Great information . Could I reshare this article on my website obviously with all your credentials and approval? Please do let me know. Best May a

    Reply
    • Nicole Celestine

      Hi Maya,
      Of course! Please feel free to link to us on your website. 🙂
      – Nicole | Community Manager

      Reply
  7. Hamza

    Just checking on the subject and found it. It is great.Will be sharing the ideas with collesgues.

    Reply
  8. Vidhya R.

    A wonderful piece on happiness! Thanks for sharing. Wish you happiness always! This article is very helpful to teach about how to create happy workplace to my students. Thank you!

    Reply

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