happiness at work title

Why Happiness at Work is a Brilliant Business Move

Last updated: 29th Aug 2016

Click to download the eBook

Is it possible that happiness at work could be a secret formula to business success?

Most of us grew up with the belief that if we work hard, we’ll be more successful. If we’re more successful, we’ll get paid more, which would mean we’d be able to afford more in life, then we’ll be happy. But recent studies in psychology and behavioural economics have shown that this conventional wisdom is actually backward: Happiness is the power source for success, not the other way around.

In the past 50 years, we’ve seen economic growth like we’ve never seen before.

The world economy is six times larger than it was a half a century ago and the global per capita GDP (gross domestic product) more than doubled despite a major increase in population.

As a result, we’re working harder than ever, but according to research published by former Harvard University president Derek Bok, we are no happier as a result. So what does it take to attain happiness at work? And does it really fuel success and performance at work?

Back to basics

A decade of research by Shawn Achor, author of “The Happiness Advantage” proves that happiness at work raises nearly every business and educational outcome: raising sales by 37%, productivity by 31%, and accuracy on tasks by 19%, as well as a myriad of health and quality of life improvements.

So what makes us happy? For most of us, we feel happy when our needs are met. Some needs are purely physiological, like having a Krispy Kreme donut, while others are more complex, like achieving job satisfaction or finding your soulmate.

American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can be effectively applied to personal happiness as well as that of the workplace. Maslow described human needs as ordered in a prepotent hierarchy—a pressing need would need to be mostly satisfied before someone would give their attention to the next highest need.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a classic model that has stood the test of time

Physiological needs and safety

In a United Nation’s World Happiness Report published in 2016, the top 10 countries which were the “happiest” in 2013-15 were as follows:

Source: UN World Happiness Report 2016

Source: UN World Happiness Report 2016

At the other end of the spectrum lie the following countries:

The least happy countries in the world

The least happy countries in the world

An interesting point to note is that GDP per capita was 25 times higher in the top 10 than in the bottom 10 countries. These are countries with phenomenal social security, long-term political stability and strong economies.

On the other hand, eight of the bottom 10 are in sub-Saharan Africa, while the remaining two are war-torn countries in the Middle East and South Asia. Judging by the data above, we can deduce that basic physiological needs and safety issues have a massive impact on the degree of happiness we feel, both personally and professionally.

In the workplace, however, physiological needs can mostly be met by fair remuneration, the simple availability of food and water or even a gym membership. Financial data and media giant Bloomberg is an excellent example. Each Bloomberg office around the world has a fully-stocked pantry, which allows their staff to meet their nutritional needs without having to leave the premises. This saves time but also gives staff a feeling of wellness and appreciation.

Happiness at work at Bloomberg

Happiness at work is a well-stocked pantry at Bloomberg (Picture courtesy of Glassdoor.com)

Google is also renown for having fantastic facilities for their staff.  Many firms nowadays also provide health-club memberships to promote active lifestyles. It is another incentive which has been popularised in recent years, as we spend longer hours, doing sedentary work.

Safety in the workplace would take form as good health insurance and a solid pension plan. We are living longer than ever before, so having an excellent health plan to maintain our body and mind is imperative.

And with long life comes a need for an excellent pension plan that will carry you through the years, post work. On average, a person’s working life lasts about 30 years, so we may now be looking at spending just as much or more years in retirement.


Just like in our personal lives, we desire friendship and a comfortable environment where we can be surrounded by people we get along with. We spend more of our waking hours with our colleagues than our families, so having an amicable and collegial work environment is imperative. This is a tricky aspect and something that managers need to balance well. Forming solid teams in which members complement each other in personality and abilities is key. It is a delicate balance and there are many factors in play but, when done right, it’s like a symphony – each individual part will harmoniously come together to yield a tremendous, conjoined result.

In my experience, a lot of what makes a company a good one is determined by how well one gets along with colleagues. You could be working for an awesome brand name, with a fantastic salary package, but if you can’t gel with your co-workers, every minute can be miserable.

We are by nature social beings and a huge part of what makes us happy is feeling love, appreciation and a sense of belonging. Like pieces of a puzzle, recruitment needs to be carried out in a careful manner so that the end product is a perfect fit.

Click to download the eBook

Esteem and self-actualisation

The higher rungs in this hierarchy are difficult to define and even harder to meet. But happiness at work, for many, means being able to meet these complex needs: appreciation, self-esteem, respect (self and by others) and a sense of achievement.

The ability to meet these needs could mean the difference between having a team of long-stayers or having an unstable workforce with transient staff.

Building a corporate culture which allows each individual to express freely one’s creativity, opinions and problem-solving abilities without fear of being judged or mocked, is essential. This will inspire individuals to do great work in a collaborative environment, which should translate into stronger business results.

Happiness is not an exact science

Happiness at work, like general contentment in life, is not an exact science. Further, its definition, as well as components to attain it, are unique and varying. It is a multi-faceted issue that involves individuals, corporations and governments, addressing all aspects of life, not just dollars and cents.

What makes happiness research such a complex study is that people can adapt to tremendous adversity and still be cheerful, while we can also have an enormous amount of everything including wealth and health, and still be miserable. So you can pay someone an enormous amount of money and provide excellent benefits but that person could be miserable at work, nonetheless.

As such, the correlation between happiness and economic growth is beginning to gain traction and governments and companies are taking it seriously.  For example, the kingdom of Bhutan uses “gross national happiness” as its preferred measure of progress while the United Nations issues the “World Happiness Report” to survey the state of global happiness.

Happiness is loosely correlated with income across countries (Source: The Economist)

Happiness is loosely correlated with income and possibly economic growth across countries (Source: The Economist)

Happiness at work

Given the individual and constantly-changing nature of happiness, a lot of the onus may seem to fall on the capability of the manager. The manager of a team needs to be able to read and understand each member’s needs on every level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to a satisfactory extent to keep good people for longer. It isn’t rocket science but it is time-consuming. But that’s what good managers and CEOs do for a vast majority of their work life — manage people. And a happy workforce is what will drive businesses forward and upward.

However, more importantly, we should be mindful that, at the end of the day, we are all responsible for our own happiness, be it at home or at work. We need to pursue happiness, instead of waiting for someone to drop it in our laps. Individual drive for success and happiness is an integral part of what makes it possible for a company to thrive. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Happiness is not a goal. It is a by-product of a life well lived.”

Author: Catherine Cheong

Catherine is a regular contributor to the EngageRocket blog, and has written for news organisations such as the Washington Post and Reuters. She is a corporate communications expert, having headed the PR and branding efforts of international asset management firms.

No Comments

Leave a Comment