If you asked people if they want to be happy, most would probably say yes. But if you asked if they knew how to be happy, the answers you’d get would likely be things that don’t actually lead to happiness. People want to be happy but are usually very bad at predicting what can make them happy long term. If you went on to ask people what would make them happy at work, you’d likely get the same types of inaccurate answers, and you may even get people who don’t think it is important to be happy at work. However, happiness at work is beneficial for both individual employees and organizations. So what can people and organizations do to increase happiness at work?

What makes people happy at work?

Some parts of what makes people happy at work are the same as what makes people happy in general. For example, stable genetic and personality factors influence happiness across all domains. Although these dispositional factors for higher happiness are always present, situational and behavioral factors specifically influence happiness at work. Some of the most salient factors that influence happiness at work include:

  • Satisfying psychological needs: People have higher emotional well-being on days when they experience the satisfaction of their basic psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Some jobs or tasks are likely more conducive to meeting each need, but if people can find different aspects of their job that address their needs, they will be happier.
  • Appropriate goals: Choosing the right type of goal and pursuing it can lead to more positive emotions. Research has shown that goals focusing on mastery rather than avoiding failure lead to more enjoyment, hope, and pride. These two types of goals could be related to similar tasks, but people’s emotions vary based on how they conceptualize success (i.e., mastering a skill versus not failing).
  • Using character strengths: People who use their character strengths at work have more positive emotions and are more engaged in their work.
  • Person-organization fit: People are happier when they work in an environment consistent with their personal values and goals. Having values aligned with your organization’s values makes it easier to identify with your work goals and find meaning in even mundane tasks.
  • Job characteristics: Aspects of the job itself can affect the satisfaction and happiness people derive from work. Work that includes important motivating job characteristics (feeling like a task is significant, using a variety of skills, completing a job from beginning to end, receiving feedback, and having autonomy) can increase happiness and satisfaction at work. However, there is an upper limit to the benefits of increasing motivating job characteristics. For example, there are diminishing returns to increasing one of the characteristics beyond a certain amount, and giving too much of something, like too much autonomy, can be demotivating.
  • Leadership: Effective leadership throughout the organization can impact employee attitudes. For example, authentic leadership and having trust in leadership can increase happiness at work by creating an environment that encourages fairness, integrity, and effective goal pursuit.
  • Organizational characteristics: Employees are happier in organizations where they feel that they are treated fairly, with respect, and are empowered to achieve. They are also happier when they feel proud of their company and have a sense of camaraderie with their coworkers. Further, the organization’s characteristics can affect the other things that make people happy listed above. For example, high-performance work practices (e.g., designing work for autonomous teams, being selective in hiring, sharing power with employees, and rewarding based on organizational performance) create an organizational structure that creates more opportunities for employees to satisfy their psychological needs.
  • Job crafting: If your current job does not provide what you need to be happy and engaged in work, you may have the ability to make changes yourself. Job crafting includes any changes people make to their tasks, their relationships with others, or how they mentally interpret their work. Job crafting is more individualized than organization-led job design, allowing people to choose what changes would most benefit them either in the environment or themselves. For example, people who love interacting with others can change their tasks by taking on more social responsibilities at their organization. If changing your role isn’t an option, you can also change your perspective. An example would be a maintenance worker at a hospital focusing on their contribution to patient health instead of the potentially tedious nature of their tasks.

What can employees do to increase their happiness?

Looking at the factors listed above, many are things that individuals can influence. For example, individuals can choose to set mastery goals for their tasks. Individuals can also find ways to utilize their strengths in creative ways, even in jobs where using a certain strength may not seem intuitive. Accountants may not want to be creative in calculations, but they could use creativity to design their workspace. Employees can also intentionally use job crafting to improve their role in their current organization.

Although employees can directly address many of the factors, the organization they work for exerts a strong influence on how conducive the work environment is to increasing happiness. If there is a truly poor fit between an individual and their current position, they can consider moving to an organization where the culture and climate are a better fit for them. However, changing jobs will not magically make people happier. Engaging in intentional activities to increase happiness is a large part of what really makes people happy.

What can employers do to encourage happiness?

If an organization wants to increase the likelihood that employees are happy, they can utilize training or situational engineering. Training based on positive psychology has successfully increased happiness. Organizations can use similar types of positive psychology interventions or training more specific to work to teach employees how to minimize dysfunctional thinking and increase happiness. Organizations can also use situational engineering to alter their structure and culture to be more conducive to the factors that encourage happiness. For example, developing effective leaders, incorporating motivating job characteristics into job design, encouraging employees to use their character strengths, and helping employees set appropriate goals would create an atmosphere that made it easier for employees to be happy.

Organizations can have a significant impact on their employees’ happiness. Encouraging happiness in employees is an important and beneficial goal, but employers should have realistic expectations for any type of intervention. Happiness is not created by the environment but by people’s perceptions of it. In a situation where one person derives meaning and joy, another person could be unhappy. Thus, it is the organization’s responsibility to create an environment that is conducive to happiness, but each individual is ultimately responsible for their own happiness.

To learn more...

To find out how happy you are right now, you can visit the free Happiness Indicator.

To discover your natural character strengths, take the True Tilt Personality Profile.

For a more thorough explanation of happiness or to learn why happiness is important in organizations, view our other blogs.