In seeking “juicy” workplaces where my clients would excel, I realize that one size—or juiciness—doesn’t fit all. Some companies are known for their creativity and innovation, like Apple and Facebook. Others, like Google and Spotify, describe their workplaces as technology playgrounds. And others simply emphasize having fun, like Zappos. My goal is to match a client’s vision of happiness as an employee to a company’s commitment and approach to achieving it.
While working with Nannette Bowler, the innovative Director of the Department of Family Services in Fairfax County, VA., I was reminded of the importance of happiness in a healthy workplace. Using as a foundation the book First, Break All the Rules from the Gallup organization, she created a leadership academy to develop the next generation of leaders. Each class is divided into learning teams of five to six people that are then tasked with examining one of the department’s strategic goals or key initiatives.
One class was given the challenge to explore why happiness matters and what it would take to create a culture of happiness at the department.
Among the findings, a team noted that just talking about what contributes to happiness makes a person happy. That finding echoes the notion that what we focus our attention on influences our outlook. For example, if we observe many bad drivers on the road we feel negative about driving. But if we notice how many drivers use turn signals, obey speed limits and allow other drivers to merge into their lanes, we have a more positive view of driving. Nothing changed—it’s the same road with the same drivers—except what we paid attention to.
Data on happiness are compelling and not surprising. Shawn Anchor, author of The Happiness Advantage, quantified the benefits of a happy company. Customer service increases by 37%, productivity by 31% and accuracy on tasks improves by 19%. The UK-based iOpener Institute for People and Performance found that happy employees take fewer sick days, stay twice as long in their jobs as their least happy colleagues, spend twice as much time at work focused on what they are paid to do, and believe they are achieving their potential twice as much as least happy coworkers.
Back at Fairfax County’s Department of Family Services, the academy teams asked staff members what makes them happy at work. None of the respondents mentioned salary as a factor influencing their happiness. Instead, they cited doing work that mattered, being connected to their coworkers and being able to do work they were good at.
In fact, the research teams experienced the very phenomena they were studying. When an academy class graduates, the teams present their findings to the department’s leadership. Rather than tear the presentations apart, the leaders focus on acknowledging the teams’ excellent analyses and recommendations. Some recommendations are even incorporated into the department’s strategic plan or become part of the informal culture. For the teams investigating workplace happiness, they hit the happiness trifecta of meaningful work, connecting with colleagues and doing what they do well.
The teams identified ways to increase happiness at work that could be implemented right away with little or no cost. For example, taking a few minutes in the morning for a mindfulness exercise can help people feel more connected to work and each other. And simply offering to help colleagues with a task can spread positivity and encourage more helpfulness.
That impulse to “pay it forward” was underscored in a University of California-Berkeley study on happiness. Once a week for four weeks, participants reported their feelings and experiences of positive and negative behaviors, including behaviors they had done to others and that others had done to them. One group was instructed to extend kindnesses to some coworkers but not to those in the control group.
Those on the receiving end didn’t just appreciate the kindnesses, they paid them forward, engaging in three times more pro-social behaviors than those in the control group. And those who gave kindnesses scored higher than both the receivers and the control group on measures of job satisfaction and life contentment. The study concluded that workplace acts of kindness benefit the giver, receiver and the organizational climate.
Another way to increase happiness, at work or at home, is to eliminate things that contribute to discontent. More than a few of my clients have gone on news diets after a steady stream of discouraging current events made them depressed. We all know some “Debbie Downers,” but we shouldn’t feel compelled to spend time with them under their grey clouds. And if the thought of cleaning gutters, doing your taxes or weeding your garden puts you in a foul mood, keep in mind there are many people who will happily and efficiently undertake those tasks, albeit at a price.
When you recognize that you have a choice, you can take steps to choose happiness!