At Work – Is There a Right Kind of Happiness?

Despite countless studies that seem to show that humans do everything better when happier… the subject of happiness at work remains a surprisingly divisive subject.

Is happiness important? Does it matter at work? Isn’t it just about silliness or making people feel good all the time?

There’s a good deal of criticism of happiness at work — of both the concept and the approaches taken by some companies to “implementing” it… … so, is there a better way to think about happiness in the workplace, and move it from a series of gimmicks to a serious discussion about what drives human performance?

What people say about happiness at work…

“Many companies respond inappropriately to the employee engagement crisis by introducing office dogs, kegerators, and ping-pong tables into the work environment to make employees happy. However, happy is not the same thing as engaged. When employees are engaged, they trust senior leaders and feel an emotional connection to your company. Happy is a feeling people get when the office dog licks their face while they are drinking a beer. I can assure you that if you have a dysfunctional workplace culture, Fido is not going to stop your employees from quitting on you.”

This excerpt from an article by a renowned engagement expert sums up the most common (and easy) anti-happiness argument… There’s no disputing the sentiment of the quote — office dogs, ping-pong tables and a beer fridge are not the answer to developing a culture that will propel your business forward or indeed engage your staff… (although I’m not sure I’d ever feel happy if a dog was licking my face while I was drinking a beer).

Trying to “make people happy” is doomed to fail. You can’t make people happy.

Approaches to “implementing” happiness at work often follow similar lines — in this article, Corporate Rebels (who I really like by the way), express their own frustration at the way some approach happiness. … once again, I wouldn’t disagree with the sentiment — there are plenty of ways to make happiness something that people want to move away from… but “one-size fits all”, “forcing happiness”, or even “people being happy all the time”… aren’t about the subject of happiness at all, they’re about companies failing to understand people and what really motivates them, combined with a poor approach to change.

The assertion that “focusing on happiness is counter-productive” is incorrect. What they’re actually referring to “pursuing happiness” rather than focusing on it — and they’re quite different.

Pursuing happiness as an explicit goal does tend to result in people feeling less happy… but mostly because what most people believe will make them happy, actually doesn’t.

Focusing on happiness is something quite different — giving importance to how people feel, and understanding the impact of feelings rather than just what we think, opens up a whole host of opportunities to improve how our environment supports our ability to perform at our best.

Why do people see happiness this way?

Our attitudes towards the word happiness come partly from the way that many of us have come to regard it — that it is about feeling good all the time, hence beer and pizza on a Friday, or sticking a ping-pong table in the office. We also associate happiness with success or attainment… I’ll be happy when I get that next promotion, or that new car or a bigger house.

Shawn Achor’s research, made famous by his brilliant TED-talk below, suggests that happiness is a precursor to success — ultimately you could say that this is a virtuous circle… happier people have more success and that success further fuels their happiness.

There’s no doubt that achieving goals brings us happiness, but you’ll know from your own experience that whenever you’ve achieved a major life goal — like a promotion or treated yourself to that car you’ve wanted for ages — the positive feelings that arise subside relatively quickly. This is “hedonic adaptation” … put simply that we quickly adjust to our new circumstances and our happiness returns to previous levels.

The common theme in all the examples above seems to be the idea that happiness is binary… as though it’s all about “being happy” rather than being about how our levels of happiness (or indeed unhappiness) affect us.


David Bellamy
David Bellamy
DAVID Bellamy is Founder and CEO of Happiness Lab, a business dedicated to helping organizations to unlock the benefits of happiness at work. Happiness Lab’s unique technology platform offers companies a totally different lens through which to view the day-to-day experiences of employees - and represents his first venture into the world of technology development and disruption. Prior to Happiness Lab, David spent 18 years as a management consultant working on projects associated with “every conceivable organizational challenge”. His first book “Cultivating Organisational Happiness” is due out later in 2018.

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  1. David – I love your work to make clearer definitions and meanings about happiness at work. What I have found works best for me and my clients is the perspective that happiness is our natural buoyant nature when we have cleared out much of the past negative emotions that sit on top of our natural happiness. The happiness is from the inside out, not based on outer experiences or things which are temporary. It simply and naturally rises to the surface when we are present and relaxed.

    At work, I believe that ‘Have Fun, Do Good, Make Money’ is the right order. Fun meaning engaged, not stuck in or projecting negative emotion into the work environment. We can only do this when we are able to spend most of our time in our ‘happy’ place which is a place of non judgement, eagerness, interest curiosity and satisfaction. We are not making things or taking things personally and can stay focused with our colleagues on our shared purpose and common good.

    Thanks for this SUPER interesting and enlightening article!

    • Thanks Wendy… I think the work you’re doing will help for sure.
      What’s really key for me is embracing emotional state… tuning-in to how we feel and understanding both individually what’s going on for us and organisationally, understanding how people are doing… the awareness that comes from that can of course help the company make the right kind of changes, but also really helps cement the kind of work people like you do… accepting that stuff happens, that we’ll have a biological response, but that we have some choices about what happens next.
      Thanks again for taking the time to share your kind words and experience.

    • I’m SO glad you are supporting people to embrace their actual emotional state. This is such a critically needed skill and I for one am grateful that is key to your work.

  2. A very comprehensive piece David on happiness and engagement. You took me as a reader down a path of critically looking at many aspects of what this means and looks like in our workplaces and for ourselves. I come out with the words of balance and nimbleness for myself on the subject and what happiness means. Well done!

  3. David: First let me say that your article is one of the very few 3 pagers that I have read recently. Normally I drop out after a page and 1/2. Good article. An employer on a quest to make employees happy is on a fool’s errand. It isn’t even an employer’s job to “make” employees happy. It is the employer’s job to create an atmosphere and culture where an employee feels safe and appreciated and is properly compensated for the work and skills the employees bring to the relationship. One of the reasons that making and keeping employees happy is not an achievable goal is the very fact that they are all humans. Anytime there are two or more people in any kind of relationship (personal or professional) there will be periods of stress and discord. No employer/manager/leader can avoid that and during those times of stress, people are not happy. Determined to make your employees happy by putting in a beer tap? Forget it. Focus on making them feel appreciated and treat them fairly.

    • Thank you Ken… I’m often told I need to reduce the length of my articles (I’m trying), but I’m thrilled to hear I kept your interest – agree with your comments too.