Beyond Happiness at Work

In a recent post I mention the need for employee happiness in the workplace. The post prompted two insightful, yet separate conversations about the steadiness and the place of happiness at work.

The steadiness referred to the plausibility of feeling or having a sense happiness all the time throughout the organization. The other conversation centered on those who claim to be happy yet avoid negative people, feelings, conflict or challenges to their happiness. In a sense, the happiness is a façade.

Both people raise important points. When I or any other person talk about happiness at work, it’s important to distinguish what we mean. Admittedly, I’ve not made it clear.

What Is Happiness at Work?

Let’s toss out the word happiness. Yes, I want to take back my use of employee happiness. As Barb Fredrickson explains in Positivity, “It’s murky and overused,” and can be better described.

I want to take back my use of employee happiness

Like Fredrickson, I use joy or optimism as a way to describe what the work environment can be. From here on out, I’ll be more specific and use joy or optimism.

Can employees be joyful or optimistic? Absolutely. I advocate that managers today need to learn how to elicit such employee ways of being. It is, however, an individual choice. Still, given the unsatisfying mood in our organizations, talent issues, and a host of other organizational problems, managers can learn to counter the dismal mood hovering over companies through their leadership and create an optimistic work environment.

I advocate that managers today need to learn how to elicit such joy and optimism at work

Still, what is this belief of joy, or optimism at work?

Any of the positive attributions like joy or optimism doesn’t alone concern individuals – although they can certainly experience either at any given moment. Rather, when I mention joy or optimism I refer to what can be achieved at the group, team, or organizational level. It’s the mood of the immediate work environment.

Any of the following positive attributes are reasons for cultivating joy or optimism in the workplace:

  • Stronger solutions to problems
  • Availability of people with whom to partner
  • Efficiencies found and quality sustained or improved or better ways found to achieve them
  • Willingness to help each other
  • Increased creativity

To read more reasons, I recommend reading Sonja Lyubomirsky’s “The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?” Though it’s a scholarly paper, it’s a worthy read if you like this topic or positive psychology.

In short, joy or optimism is a factor of the team or organization’s culture. Regardless of how an employee feels – happy, joyful, optimistic or not – the culture promotes it. And it’s contagious. And it’s not: it can be fleeting. It can be throughout the organization. It can be found in pockets.

It is up to the manager to take on the leadership challenge of creating optimism in the workplace.

I do want employees to feel optimistic about their workplace, and the possibilities they can create from their work. I also want employees to experience joy with the opportunity to do meaningful work.

The chances of optimism or joy to manifest within employees do not predicated on the larger culture. Managers, in partnership with their teams, can create a micro-culture even if the larger culture doesn’t promote optimism.

Change Leader | Speaker | Writer Co-founder and CEO of ExchangeGain. Passionately explores the space where business & humanity intersect. Promoter of workplace optimism. Believes work can be a source of joy. Top ranked leadership blogger by Huffington Post. The Optimistic Workplace (AMACOM) out 2015

  • Alan Kay

    Thanks for this one Shawn. When I think of some of the clients I have worked with, especially manufacturing where simply staying in business is the main focus, the conversation about happiness is somewhat academic. Still, firms in that position miss the opportunity that your discussion presents.
    I’ve also worked in the education sector in several countries where negativity among staff is endemic (and amplified by their school boards, unions, parents, etc.). Unhappiness is deeply ingrained in the culture, yet they are charged with inspiring young people to learn!

    I also believe it’s a generational issue I’ve recently worked with teams who were in the 25-35 age range. When I talk with them about problem focus vs solution focus they often want to skip the learning about skipping over problem focus (central to the Solution Focus model). They get it about not making themselves unhappy.

    As you say, in the end it’s a leadership and culture issue.

  • Ryan Anderson

    Good post. The role of the workplace itself should not be overlooked as a factor in helping to foster optimism or crush it. Real estate efficiency and workplace standardization are important, but the role of the space in building trust among coworkers, expressing organizational values (beyond efficiency and cost containment), and acculturating new employees is often overlooked. 

  • Alison

    Excellent post!

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  • Nic

    Interesting post but i disagree with shying away from using the word happiness here.  Happiness is a very provocative word in the workplace and has much potential to positively disrupt the status quo – which if we are frank is often focused on using fear at the motivator.  

    Whilst I have nothing against words like “joy” and “optimism” they require much more effort to get people to engage with. Happiness is in such common usage – and in the main it is very useful as a door into the space of making workplaces better places to work! Happiness contains a good balance between “present affect” (emotionality) and “future goals” (outcome).  

    I don’t think that many people go to work to be “unhappy” but they also do not yet think of work as a source of happiness.  But this is the great potentiality of the word – as there is such a win-win here.  If organisations/leaders can get the point that flipping around the employer-employee contract – so employers think about how to “give” employees great jobs rather than how they can “get” great performance – then magically great performance will follow.  I just don’t think “joy” or “optimism” do this – joy sounds too over the top and optimism too internal (and perhaps occasionally ungrounded).

    Anyway i like the post and what you are up to – just a plea to not abandon the word “happiness” as Seligman has done as well as Fredrickson (though I rate Fredrickson’s empirical approach way more).

    You can check out what we are up to in this space at

  • Shawn

    Ryan, I love that you are bringing into the conversation the role of the physical work environment. I agree it has not given its due regarding its influence on culture, productivity and other organizational behaviors.

    Companies like Zappos, eBay, and many European companies are showing us the value of looking at the physical space as a source to drive culture.

  • Shawn

    Hi Alan, it is worrisome to me that employees reign themselves to be unhappy at work. In the end it’s a choice: 1) actively work to make the culture different – one that promotes optimism and creates joy, or 2) leave.

    Admittedly both are tough choices, hence, the resignation. But in today’s work environments and workforce, such a reality is a seriously limiting belief – to be resigned to suffer in a crappy work environment – and caps the businesses potential.

  • shawmu

    Thanks, Alison. 

  • There’s a more human way to do business.

    In the Social Age, it’s how we engage with customers, collaborators and strategic partners that matters; it’s how we create workplace optimism that sets us apart; it’s how we recruit, retain (and repel) employees that becomes our differentiator. This isn’t a “people first, profits second” movement, but a “profits as a direct result of putting people first” movement.

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