Humankind has long struggled to find the secret to living a happy life, but what about workplace happiness? Have you ever wondered how your employees feel at work?
Perhaps you’ve tried to create a fun and satisfying environment, with activities like foosball and ping pong or by offering free lunches and snacks. But if you haven’t found success, it may be because those perks focus more on downtime, rather than creating a productive work environment. Fun and games may not create sustainable happiness in the workplace, alongside high performance, so what does? And why should leaders care about workplace happiness anyway?
I like being happy, and I think most people do, but how often do we really think about what happiness is? In our personal lives, it may be a moment, maybe when the family is gathered around, when we realize that emotion bubbling up inside is happiness. Or it could be the sense of satisfaction that cascades over us after a hard fought accomplishment. We may think lovingly about a relationship that is deep and satisfying.
But managers must realize that their happiness may be different from the happiness of their employees. And, as an intangible, internal, and individual feeling, it seems almost impossible to create on behalf of someone else.
Researchers have spent a lot of time trying to understand exactly what happiness is, and how it affects us.
One definition of happiness, according to Happify—an online platform designed to improve mental wellbeing—is that it is the combination of how good you feel on a day to day basis (hedonia, or pleasure) and satisfaction with your life (eudaemonia). Scientists now suggest adding a third component to the estimation of happiness: your engagement related to feelings of commitment and participation in life.
Research collected by Happify states that happiness is 10% determined by circumstances, 50% influenced by biology, and 40% controlled by thoughts, actions, and behaviors. Those thoughts, actions, and behaviors can be developed, making happiness a skill. In other words, we can increase our happiness through practice.
Neuroscientists agree, and say certain behaviors, such as finding gratitude, labeling emotions, making a “good enough” decision, and touching others (appropriately) all boost happiness hormones in the brain.
Happiness may be a little like art: we know it when we feel it. While someone can’t make me happy, I can take actions to increase my own happiness. But are there other benefits to being happy?
Is experiencing happiness truly necessary? Maybe in our personal lives, but is workplace happiness really a prerequisite of high performance?
If nothing else, being happy is healthier than being unhappy. Studies show that happiness can protect your heart, strengthen your immune system, reduce stress, decrease aches and pains in the short-term and long-term, and even lengthen lives.
With more emphasis on mental well-being as well as physical health, happiness has become not just an individual pursuit, but one schools and businesses are tackling as well.
One of the most popular classes taught at Yale University is Psyc 157, Psychology and The Good Life, which tries to teach students how to be happier through lectures and behavioral change exercises. After facing the stress and anxiety of trying to get into college, students want to learn new behaviors to re-prioritize happiness, the professor said.
At Stanford Business School, teaching happiness involves helping students learn how to build better relationships. The class, nicknamed “Touchy-Feely” focuses on emotional intelligence skills: relationship building, communication, self-awareness and giving and receiving feedback. These abilities are essential to creating positive relationships at work—which also has a positive correlation with happiness. A Gallup poll indicated that close work friendships increase employee satisfaction by 50%.
Besides a healthier employee base, one that possesses emotional intelligence to navigate social interactions, what does a happy workforce yield?
Happy employees are 12% more productive than their grouchy counterparts. They also tend to be more creative and more collaborative. Why? It goes back again to physiology. Studies show that the brain functions better when people are happy.
Happiness researcher Shawn Achor says that we tend to get the relationship between happiness and success backward. “Happiness is perhaps the most misunderstood driver of performance,” he says in an article in Harvard Business Review:
“For one, most people believe that success precedes happiness…in fact, it works the other way around: People who cultivate a positive mindset perform better in the face of challenge. I call this the ‘happiness advantage’—every business outcome shows improvement when the brain is positive.”
Clearly there are advantages to boosting workplace happiness, yet so much of that creation is self-determined. How can employers make employees happy, sans foosball table?
Happiness engages the brain and connects people with a sense of purpose. Instead of trying to create a playground for grownups, employers should focus on what really matters: creating a culture that embodies collaborative environments where innovation thrives and where people want to work hard.
One of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes is called, A Nice Place to Visit. In it, a small-time crook is killed, only to find himself in a wonderful afterlife where everything was at his bidding. Eventually, the crook gets bored with winning at gambling and having effortless success. He complains to his “guide” that he’s so dissatisfied, he wishes he were in the “other place.” His guide says: “This IS the other place!” (Cue dramatic 1960s music.)
This reminds me that regardless of how often we dream of winning the lottery, quitting our jobs and sailing off into the sunset, as humans, we find fulfillment when we work hard. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says people find great satisfaction when they are in a state of flow, completely absorbed in the creative process. With athletes, we’d say they were in “The Zone”. Csikszentmihalyi describes it like this:
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Many companies have researched how to create fulfillment in employees and have enacted numerous policies and activities including providing regular employee feedback, offering meaningful benefits, investing in learning and development, incentivizing wellness and building in time for fun. But the focus on purposeful work needs to be a distinct part of the equation as well.
Creating a happy workplace involves looking at all aspects of your workplace system: hiring employees who are emotionally intelligent, who have a positive mindset, and then providing development and growth opportunities, teaching employees how to give and get feedback positively, and ensuring that there is an atmosphere of psychological safety, so employees feel encouraged to take the risks needed for creativity and innovation.
The feeling of happiness may be hard to describe, but it is worth pursuing, for both individuals and businesses. As we understand the benefits of workplace happiness and the conditions that contributes to it, we may not be able to make employees happy, but by providing a work environment that is fulfilling and challenging, that is collaborative and offers opportunity for “flow,”, we can help employees create their own happiness.
Pamela DeLoatch is a B2B technology writer specializing in creating marketing content for the HR industry. With a background as an HR generalist and specialist, she writes about the employee experience, engagement, diversity, HR leadership, culture and technology. Follow Pamela on Twitter @pameladel.
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