The Importance of Happiness in the Workplace?

Many people feel that if they become successful at work, they will automatically become happy.

But according to Shawn Achor, founder and CEO of Good Think, Inc., that scenario should be reversed. It’s important to become happy, which will then help you become a success. Achor makes it his business to study the psychology of happiness in the workplace.

It’s important to organizations for employees to be happy, and not just for the employees themselves. “The greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged workforce,” Achor says. And happiness as a concept is poorly understood, inside and outside of the workplace. In his book, happiness is defined as “the joy we feel striving after our potential.” It occurs along the way to achieving one’s potential, not just when that potential has been achieved.“This definition is crucial for leaders to understand,” Achor says.

“Without it, happiness can create irrational optimists.” He suggests that what is needed is the cultivation of “rational optimism.” The latter “requires taking a realistic assessment of the present, both the bad and the good, while maintaining a belief that our behavior matters. Rose-colored glasses will not help, but an optimistic brain will help your team overcome the biggest challenges.”

People can also help fulfill their potential by better understanding the role of social support at work. The key to remember is that giving support is even better than receiving it. “In an era of do-more-with-less,” Achor says, “we need to stop lamenting how little social support we feel from managers, coworkers and friends, and start focusing our brain’s resources upon how we can increase the amount of social support we provide to the people in our lives. The greatest predictor of success and happiness at work is social support. And the greatest way to increase social support is to provide it to others.”

Achor was also the head teaching fellow for psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar’s happiness course at Harvard. He found that lessons learned there could also be applied to organizations. “In the working world,” he says, “working with leaders, I began to discover that some of the same principles that caused Harvard students to rise to the top were also the same principles used by leaders to become more successful. Those seven research principles became the basis for The Happiness Advantage.” Closely related to happiness is the concept of thriving. Gretchen Spreitzer, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, and her coauthors delineate this concept in their paper “Thriving at Work: Toward Its Measurement, Construct Validation, and Theoretical Refinement,” published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

“Thriving is like happiness in that it also involves the experience of positive emotions,” Spreitzer says. “But it is focused on a specific type of positive emotion—what we term as vitality or energy. When people are thriving in their work, they feel alive at work. Their work is literally fueling them with energy. But thriving is also more than positive emotions. It also includes a sense that one is growing, learning or getting better at what they are doing. This suggests that thriving is about making progress or having positive momentum rather than languishing or feeling stunted.”

Everyone at work can consciously help themselves to thrive more. Some basic strategies involve managing energy by sleeping well, eating a balanced diet that includes frequent high-protein snacks, and taking breaks, ideally every 90 minutes. But Spreitzer and her colleagues also found that the way people engaged in their work had an effect on how well they thrived. “When individuals engage their work in a way that helps others, learn new things, and find meaning in their work, they report higher levels of thriving,” she says. “So the challenge is for individuals to find ways to craft their work so they have more relational connections, more chances to try new things, and can see more of the impact in what they do.”

 

This research suggests that leaders can create the kind of workplaces that can help people thrive. Spreitzer says, “Leaders can (1) provide their people with more opportunities for decision making discretion, (2) share more information about the organization, its strategy, and competitors, (3) set and reinforce norms that promote civil and respectful behavior, and (4) offer performance feedback, especially about what is going well. When leaders create workplaces with these characteristics, their people feel like they can grow, develop, and thrive in their work.”

Fully engaged, thriving employees finish the day not depleted but, Spreitzer contends, “with energy for their family life, hobbies, and community service.”