International Happiness Day: What Makes (And Keeps) Us Happy At Work?

By Don Rheem

Six years ago, March 20th became The International Day of Happiness. A United Nations resolution emphasized the need for leaders to move beyond the constraints of GDP as a measure of a country’s well-being, and so declared this day a time to do so.

Earlier in the year, the UN released its first World Happiness Report as a part of a larger initiative to define a new economic paradigm that would include people’s happiness, not just their adjusted annual income.

Gallup’s World Poll and Global Emotions Report has provided most of the raw data behind efforts to capture a deeper understanding of what they call, “life’s intangibles … [that give] leaders a picture of well-being in their country and quantifies ‘what makes a life worth living.’”

There is a great deal of commensurate attention in the leadership and organizational culture genre about the role of happiness in nurturing high-performance cultures. This is clearly a move in the right direction, but I would argue that most leadership pundits have it backwards.

Is there a correlation between employee engagement and happiness? Sure, but happiness should never be the primary goal. Instead, by focusing on engagement, leadership can achieve employee happiness as well. While there is no question that happy employees are more likely to be satisfied at work, it is no guarantee that they will be fully engaged.

Leaders who try to make staff happy in order to improve performance will be disappointed in the long-term results. Many companies take the approach of fun company perks, like game zones, open bars, and wellness retreats. While it is exciting to offer fantastic benefits to employees, it is misguided to think “fun” by itself can nurture a healthy culture where employees are both productive and engaged.

Happiness is an Attitude, not a Behavior

Satisfaction and happiness are attitudes. Attitudes are mercurial and, as a result, they are not predictive of future conduct. Engagement, on the other hand, is a behavior that portends predictable performance over time. The goal should not be happy or satisfied staff, it should be engaged employees. Happiness and satisfaction are natural outcomes of engagement. A worker who is engaged is happy as a result of a felt sense of connection, fulfillment, and meaning derived either from the work itself or their connection to co-workers, their leader, and the mission and vision of the organization.

Satisfaction and happiness are attitudes. Engagement is a behavior. Click To Tweet

Strategically, a focus on the happiness construct must include a look at the relationships and emotional connections employees feel from their daily experience in the workplace, not simply from tactical steps to have more fun.

We all want employees who are working close to their full potential, a condition that results from workplace conditions that are fulfilling, have meaning, feel safe, and include predictable and consistent levels of validation and recognition.

The Workplace as Tribe

Engaging workplace conditions strongly influence us in many ways because most of us spend the majority of our waking hours at work. It looms large in our well-being. The job site can be a place where we feel physically and emotionally safe and secure, or it can be an emotional minefield, filled with dread and stress and psychic pain.

Leaders at every level of the enterprise have an immense opportunity to support a workplace that offers a rich source of social proximity, interaction, even friendships. A high-performance work culture is also a prosocial environment where employees feel a sense of teamwork, accomplishment, and meaning.

The people we work with are the new tribe for 21st century Homo sapiens, and our most effective allies in achieving positive personal and organizational outcomes. You could say that the way you calibrate happiness is equivalent to how you lead.


Don Rheem is a former congressional science advisor, CEO, and author of Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures with ForbesBooks. Learn more at DonRheem.com.

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