The Importance of Happiness at Work

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Today is the International Day of Happiness, which means that today people all over the world are spreading thoughts about what happiness means to them, as well as ideas for how to achieve and maintain happiness. In thinking about happiness, I wanted to share some of my own thoughts about happiness and the workplace.

What Is Happiness?

That’s the six-bajillion-dollar question, of course. Philosophers, poets, and barflies have been trying to figure it out since before philosophy, poetry, and bars were invented. I’m not going to pretend I can answer it in a single blog post.

What I do know for certain is that happiness exists. It takes many different forms – joy, contentment, satisfaction, elation, and all the subtle (and sometimes ineffable) variations on those themes. Physically speaking, happiness is correlated with better health, and while happiness won’t set a bone or give you the Heimlich maneuver, multiple studies have shown that it can help with things like heart problems and other conditions.

Beyond its existence, however, it’s hard to say much more about what happiness is. That’s because happiness is both entirely universal and utterly individual. It’s universal in that everybody feels happy at some point in their lives, and it’s a ubiquitous human desire to seek out happiness. It’s individual insofar as the things that make us happy depend on each of our own personal, quirky preferences and aspirations.

And that brings me to the importance of happiness at work.

Why Happiness at Work Matters

While in college, I briefly worked for a fast food restaurant in a mall food court, and my second week on the job, the new manager (who started a couple days after me) began making the lives of everyone who worked there completely miserable. He did things like changing schedules at the last minute and then yelling at people for being late, or publicly humiliating people for minor mistakes. By the time I found a new job about a month later, at least three-quarters of the other employees had already exited.

It seems pretty obvious that happy employees tend to stay with the same employer for a longer stretch of time, but there’s more to it than that. The “broaden-and-build” theory of positive emotions, developed by Barbara L. Frederickson, highlights evidence that emotions like joy and contentment, along with related feelings of love and interest, expand a person’s creative abilities, intellectual resources, and social relationships. With respect to the workplace specifically, a study by Charles Kerns and Kenneth Ko published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Organizational Leadership & Business highlighted three key outcomes of happiness and job performance:

  1. Happiness and performance tend to move in the same direction.
  2. High-performing employees produce satisfied customers.
  3. Therefore, happy employees result in satisfied customers.

For anyone who’s experienced the difference between smiling service and scowling service (i.e., everyone), the inference above seems self-evident. Nonetheless, it’s good to verify anecdotal experience with data whenever possible. (For those who want more on the topic, google “Affective Events Theory.”)

I’m glad to say that Terakeet takes these ideas to heart. As our About page says, “Our greatest asset is our people,” and that attitude is displayed through the company culture encouraging innovation, sharing ideas, and relying on each other to reach common goals. It also shows up in regular routines like weekly full-company Circle Up meetings where individuals get to “shout out” their colleagues for specific displays of Terakeet’s core values, as well as special events like last summer’s field days. And of course no discussion of happiness at Terakeet would be complete without mentioning the efforts of our wonderful office manager Martha, who keeps our hearts filled with a smile – and the snack jars filled with delicious treats!

How to Be Happy at Work

Knowing the importance of being happy at work is only part of the battle. Now that we’ve identified the goal, how can we achieve it?

Again, much of that depends on what works for each individual person. Still, there are a few things that seem to work for people across the board. Here are a few of those ideas.

Change Your Behavior

Happiness is an emotion, but acting positively is a decision. I’m not going to get all unicorns-frolicking-through-fields-of-sunflowers here – I’m not that kind of guy – but there is a certain efficacy in “faking it ‘til you make it.”

Even if you don’t feel particularly happy, choosing to smile, being polite, and asking genuine questions about how someone’s day is going can create a positive feedback loop. For one thing, there’s a physiological response to the act of smiling that can actually help induce happiness. Genuine expressions of gratitude also can help generate a feeling of happiness (perhaps that’s why “please” and “thank you” are considered “magic” words), and generosity can do the same thing. Furthermore, since people tend to respond similarly to how they are treated, adopting a positive attitude will likely result in positive responses from others, potentially making you feel better in the long run.

Stretch Your Legs (and Other Things)

There’s a strong correlation between physical activity and happiness. For example, participation in sports often leads to higher levels of satisfaction. More generally, exercise releases a flood of brain chemicals – endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, etc. – that help us feel pleasure, dull pain, and increase serenity. You don’t have to spend hours at the gym to get this effect either: As little as a five-minute walk can significantly improve your mood.

Mind-body practices are also great ways to feel better physically and help shift your disposition in a happier direction. The benefits of practices like yoga, tai chi, and mindfulness meditation have all been studied in medical contexts, and evidence shows that they each positively influence quality of life, which can lead to an overall increase in happiness. You might not be able to pull out a yoga mat at work, but running through a quick stretching routine or even just finding a quiet place to relax your mind for a few minutes can help you release stress and feel better.

Look at the Big Picture

If you’re anything like me, sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down by the sheer number of things you have to accomplish on a daily basis. Setting goals is an important part of achieving success. However, if your task list seems insurmountable, you may lose sight of the bigger picture, which can lead to reduced motivation. If it seems like this sort of thing is keeping you from being happier at work, it might be time to step back and get a wider view.

One approach is to develop a process in which you regularly assess daily activities with respect to longer-term ambitions. Methods such as David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” have become popular because they balance out the reality of needing to accomplish rote, often mundane daily tasks with strategic objectives and aspirations. Taking a more comprehensive view of things often provides context that can help you accomplish, and even learn to enjoy, the everyday struggles. This is why functions such as Terakeet’s recent team development day with Ahern, Murphy & Associates are important, because they help everyone take a collective breath before charging forward together.

Learn to Love the Pursuit

In the U.S., we grow up learning that “the pursuit of happiness” is an inalienable right, and in fact that same language has been internationalized in a U.N. human rights resolution. People might mock me for it, but my personal favorite example of this idea is a young Christian Bale singing the song “Santa Fe” in the early-90s Disney musical Newsies.

When you think about it, though, “the pursuit of happiness” is a funny phrase, because it implies that there’s some nebulous thing out there in the great wide-open that will give us happiness. The truth is that happiness is produced internally, and there isn’t any external person, object, or destination that can make someone happy.

There’s a psychological concept that demonstrates this point. The “hedonic treadmill” is the idea that obtaining a specific thing – an object, an amount of money, a position or title, etc. – does not provide lasting happiness. Humans quickly tend to tire of their accomplishments, and we turn to some new object of desire, thinking that it will make us happy. That is to say, we hop back on the treadmill looking for something new to provide happiness.

Recognizing this tendency, the important thing is to manage our expectations appropriately. It’s perfectly fine to pursue newer, bigger, or better things, but it’s critical to understand that the things themselves will only offer limited happiness. If we can find a way to enjoy the pursuit – whether we’re working on a big project, aiming for a promotion, or striving to meet customer expectations – rather than expecting some big change in our emotions at the end, we will likely be much happier.

Be Okay with Not Being Happy

The one big thing that a lot of professionals agree on is this: You can’t be happy all the time, and you shouldn’t try to be. It’s necessary to express grief when you’re sad, to experience pain and loss when they occur, and to work through problems as directly as possible without ignoring them or hoping they’ll go away on their own. These are all part of the human experience, and there’s no way to eliminate them completely.

In fact, trying to force yourself to be happy can paradoxically make you less happy. That’s not to say all of the advice above is bunk; doing those things certainly can help you be happier. But they won’t always work, and sometimes it requires long periods of recovery and even professional help to work through emotional problems.

Also, certain types of unhappiness can actually be useful, especially in the workplace. Discomfort and dissatisfaction can lead to new discoveries and inventions. Some economists even believe that a certain level of discontentment drives all human interaction. Whether this is true might be up for debate, but there’s no doubt that at some level a little bit of unhappiness is handy at times.

Final Thoughts on Happiness

I’m glad that the International Day of Happiness is on the first day of spring, at least here in the Northern Hemisphere. Spring is associated with new life, saying goodbye to the doldrums of winter’s seasonal affective disorder, and looking forward to more temperate weather. It’s a great time to think about what makes you happy and to refocus on doing those things.