work shows on red and purple carpet; photo by Joshua Coleman via Unsplash
January 23, 2020

Millennials gets blamed for a lot, but they deserve a big thank you for changing workplace dynamics. Their generation grew up alongside the self-help movement, and that contributed to their belief that work should not equal drudgery. Hurray!

Actually, many Millennials came of age during the start of the positive psychology movement, so they entered the workforce with an entirely new vocabulary that included work-life balance, emotional intelligence, flow, and CHOs (Chief Happiness Officers). For anyone who thinks this all sounds too touch-feely and not at all in the spirit of doing business, take a look at the research.

Research proves happiness helps the bottom line

Using the fields of psychology, sociology, and neuroscience, the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley has been studying “the science of a meaningful life” since 2001. An article published in Greater Good magazine outlines “The Four Keys to Happiness at Work.” The biggest takeaway for the naysayers is that happiness at work is “unambiguously good.” In fact, “Happier employees do better on all fronts, from day-to-day health to productivity to career advancement, and this consistently perks up the bottom line for the organization as a whole.” 

In The Happiness Advantage, author Shawn Anchor writes that a company with happy employees could increase sales by 37% and productivity by 31%. Based on corporate research, the iOpener Institute, a UK company offering leadership development programs and team coaching, estimates that happy employees are “twice as productive”; “six times more energized”; and “intend to stay twice as long in their organizations.” The research is clear: happiness at work benefits everyone.

people laughing at work; Photo by You X Ventures via Unsplash
The iOpener Institute estimates that happy employees are twice as productive.

Key pillars of happiness at work

Assistant Professor Kyle Ehrhardt, PhD, who teaches in the Business School, got interested in the question of satisfaction at work after working in “a challenging environment.” Ehrhardt said, “People felt uncomfortable, and the culture of the organization affected people and their work.” Ehrhardt now researches organizational behavior and workplace relationships. 

It’s not difficult to figure out what people can do to increase happiness at work. “People are satisfied when the job provides what they want or need,” Ehrhardt said. “In the past few decades, there have been shifts in what people want or need specifically, but the bottom line is about getting people what they want and need.”

Positive psychology research backs up Ehrhardt’s thoughts on the subject. The Greater Good Science Center has identified the four key pillars of happiness at work: “Purpose, Engagement, Resilience, and Kindness—or PERK.”

Purpose

“Our purpose is a reflection of our core values,” according to the Greater good article. To be happy at work, people need to align what they do for work with what they believe in. Interestingly, financial incentives only go so far. “There’s evidence that suggests if you go beyond a certain pay threshold, then money doesn’t increase your satisfaction,” Ehrhardt said. Actually, what employees really crave is a sense that what they’re doing is meaningful.

Career training has shifted over the decades, Ehrhardt explains, and purpose is something that Millennial and Gen Z generations have learned. “They should be looking for something that is interesting and reflects their passion,” Ehrhardt said. “You have individuals who really want to do things that make a difference in the world, things that are beneficial to humanity.”

Engagement

Engaged employees are happy employees. The Greater Good Science Center suggests people “fold in some playfulness, creativity, and levity.” Things that may seem like a waste of time—chatting by the water cooler, sharing funny cat videos, interrupting work for a brief walk—can actually increase fun and recharge people, allowing them to refocus on their activities. 

And when people really focus at work, they will ideally reach a state of flow. Positivepsychology.com summarized the state of flow in a 2019 article entitled “Happiness at Work”: “Flow occurs when we are mindful and focus on the task that we are doing in a given moment. It involves skills and intrinsic motivation and is described as exciting, euphoric, and to be providing a deep sense of pleasure.”

Resilience

Happiness is not a static state of being. Happy people and happy workers, in other words, will still experience moments of stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions. But happy people will “manage challenges at work with authenticity and grace,” as Greater Good puts it.

To be resilient at work, people should practice mindfulness, which is simply an awareness of being in the moment. Positivepsychology.com points to studies conducted by Harvard Medical School and the Bender Institute of Neuroimaging that show people who practice mindfulness and meditation before or after work “feel more connected to and more emotionally stable at work.” Other things that increase resilience are being authentic and detaching from work—so it makes good sense to leave work at work (don’t continue to check your phone and email).

Kindness

Supportive social bonds at work increase happiness, and kindness lays the foundation for stronger interpersonal connections. Civility, empathy, compassion, and gratitude are integral to kindness. Simple things like looking people in the eye, saying hello and goodbye, giving thanks, and providing immediate feedback all increase happiness. 

Ehrhardt believes it comes down to treating people as individuals: “You can’t treat human resources as cogs in a machine.” When you view each and every person as a unique individual, “this kind of understanding can only do positive things in terms of their happiness,” he said.

OECD chart on Countries with best work-life balance
Denmark, which rates No. 2 for work-life balance, follows the concept of Arbedjsglæde, which means happiness at work.

There’s a word for that—Arbedjsglæde!

If your culture has a word for something, then it’s probably important to you. Denmark has Arbedjsglæde. 

Pronounced “ah-bites-gleh-he,” the word means “happiness at work.” The Danes have the word, yes, but they also have the statistics to back up the spirit of Arbedjsglæde. According to The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Denmark ranks No. 2 for best work-life balance (Netherlands is No. 1).

Another Scandinavian country (and, incidentally, they all rank high in work-life balance) gives us the word ombuds, which is an official charged with representing the interests of the public. Did you know CU Denver has its very own Ombuds office

Melissa Connell, JD, director of the ombuds office, weighed in on the concept of Arbedjsglæde and how employees can achieve it. “People want to know that they are being valued and appreciated, and that they’re doing something useful,” Connell said. “That their work matters.”

This ties in with the P in PERK (Purpose). Employees can look specifically for careers and companies whose missions align with their personal values, but Connell also offers some guidelines for managers and supervisors. “The more flexibility we’re able to give people, the more they seem to appreciate that,” she said. “If you have a supervisor that understands that, you’re going to have a team that is more collaborative.”

Besides flexibility, Connell stresses that employees need to feel appreciated. “Be available if I have questions or concerns; if I make a mistake, provide a safe space for me to come to you,” she said. Employees need to feel they can approach their supervisors with ease.

Connell suggested feedback is another way employees report feeling appreciated. Positivepsychology.com agrees: “Decisive and immediate feedback are predictors of workplace happiness and job satisfaction.” Individual feedback actually improves the entire team’s happiness at work. “Studies have shown that employers or supervisors who regularly offer feedback and acknowledge efforts are more successful in having a happy team,” writes Positivepsychology.com.

As an employee, you should take an active role in creating your own happiness at work. Connell in the Ombuds office tells employees to practice self-care. “We encourage visitors to get outside, create appropriate boundaries, reach out to friends, decide when you’re going to stop looking at email at night—small tiny things they can do for themselves,” she said.

woman holding happy face balloon; photo by Lydia Nada via Unsplash
Research shows that happiness spreads from the individual to an entire social network.

Happiness is Contagious

In a TedTalk titled “Happiness at Work” by Alexander Kjerulf, he tells the story of a group of young nurses who completely changed their office culture, despite coming into a negative work environment. His anecdote underscores research showing that if supervisors don’t offer positive feedback, you can give it to yourself, or to co-workers. Kjerulf also does an admirable job of promoting Arbedjsglæde: “It not a coincidence that we have this word in the Scandinavian languages. We have a long tradition of focusing on happiness at work … We Danes, we need to take that word to the rest of the world.”

As employees and as managers, we owe it to ourselves—and to society—to promote happiness at work. If this sounds selfish, you may be ignoring the big picture. As Positivepsychology.com writes, “Happiness at work can spread like fire. Employees who feel pleasure in doing their work form a great example to others who are less motivated.” 

Happiness actually spreads exponentially, as illustrated in a research study titled, “Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network,” which concludes: “People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected. This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.”