Is happiness something that can be achieved or is it far more elusive? Most people cannot separate the idea of being happy from how satisfied they are at work. Given the difficult economic conditions of the past few years, combined with expectations that employees must do more with much less, many find their jobs less than fulfilling.

In 2012, the Conference Board reported historic lows in job satisfaction among employees in the US and in the same year the Sloan Center on Aging & Work found only moderate satisfaction among employees in the UK.

With such shifts in satisfaction, research on happiness in the workplace is booming. In a March 2013 report, the Conference Board suggested that the study of happiness should include areas such as employee engagement, job satisfaction, and attachment to the organisation.

Here are a few things we know so far. The definition of happiness is expanding. When asked what makes them happy at work, employees list a variety of factors. As one might expect, sufficient pay and enough benefits to live comfortably feature. Once those basic needs are met, other factors play an integral role in employees’ happiness at work. Psychologists have identified three different pathways to this elusive state of mind:


Making a difference and contributing to a higher purpose. Employees want to be able to make a difference in the company or community and pursue work that has meaning. They want to be a part of something that has a vision and a larger purpose.

Using one’s talents. Many employees cite being able to use their skills and abilities and achieving results in their job as key factors related to their happiness at work. These employees say that they enjoy making unique contributions and adding value to the organisation. As importantly, employees want their supervisors and co -workers to recognise and acknowledge their contributions. In short, they want to use their talents to benefit the organisation.

Working in a positive environment. Employees want a positive work relationship with their boss, the absence of negative or toxic work elements, the necessary tools and resources to be productive and to be part of a positive team. Employees want to work in an environment where they can do their best work.

A happy and engaged workforce brings a positive return on investment for organisations and individuals. Shawn Achor, author of the Happiness Advantage, pulls together decades of research to show the positive impact of happiness on organisations. He notes that happiness at work increases sales, productivity and accuracy. Research also demonstrates that happiness has a positive effect on the health of employees, career success and perceptions about quality of life.

Organisations can and should implement activities to foster employee satisfaction. The Society of Human Resource Management advises that organisations can still improve employee satisfaction by focusing on creating a positive environment and motivating employees, despite the stress of a changing financial environment.

Employees themselves need to take control of their own happiness. Aristotle wrote that “Happiness depends upon ourselves” and, ultimately, the definition of happiness remains deeply personal. While we can detect patterns across groups of employees, each person defines what makes him/her happy. What constitutes happiness to one person may not constitute happiness to another. Rebecca Ray, senior vice-president at the Conference Board, notes; “Employees need to proactively think about how to add value to their organisations. They need to also be the master of their own destiny, continuously develop their skills and make their own happiness.”

The grass is not always greener however. Sonja Lyubomirsky, the author of The Myths of Happiness, points out that individuals adapt to the things that make them happy, but then strive for something different. Thus, what once made us happy, no longer makes us happy. She cites a seminal study that tracked managers’ satisfaction before and after a voluntary job change. The researchers found that the managers experienced a significant increase in job satisfaction immediately following the job change but quickly returned to the pre-move levels of satisfaction. Managers who did not change jobs experienced steady levels of satisfaction throughout the same period. As Lyubomirsky aptly points out: “Many of us are waiting for happiness.” She suggests that individuals do not take their jobs for granted and should reconsider what they appreciate in their current work situation.

Aeschylus, the Greek playwright, believed that “Happiness is a choice that requires effort at times”. Perhaps instead of waiting for happiness, we should focus on creating happiness for others and ourselves. I can be happy right now at work by …(fill in the blank).

Christine Riordan is the dean and a professor of management at the Daniels College of Business, University of Denver. She becomes the provost at the University of Kentucky in July 2013

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