How to Find Elusive Happiness at Work


Is happiness at work important to you? I guess the answer is yes. It probably is very important. After all, we spend so much of our life working. But after a weekend, do you feel excited about going to work on a Monday morning or does the thought make you feel ill?

At the recent Fifth Annual European Investment Conference in Prague, organised by CFA Institute, Alexander Kjerulf told us what he thinks makes people happy at work. At this conference, where industry thought leaders addressed an audience of investment professionals on topics including the eurozone crisis and the latest investment techniques, it was an unusual session. The topic was just as far from the minds of delegates as it was close to their hearts. However, Kjerulf was well placed to show the audience the way, as he is the chief happiness officer of Woohoo inc. Yes, you read that right: He’s a chief happiness officer, and our happiness is very much his business.

Kjerulf started his presentation with a message of hope. For those who think that their work is such that they can never find happiness, Kjerulf showed a YouTube video of Valerie, who cleans the ladies’ toilets at the Charlotte airport in North Carolina, United States. In the video, you will see a joyful Valerie on top of her work. Not only is she happy, but her happiness also seems to infect those using “Valerie’s Happy Restroom.” Kjerulf’s point: You can find happiness at work regardless of what you do.

Kjerulf believes that many companies get it wrong when it comes to making employees happy. They try to create a happy workplace through things like pay raises, bonuses, complimentary gym membership, or healthcare, but he believes this is not the answer. Kjerulf explained that a salary is what you need to pay expenses to live your life, but a salary does not bring happiness at work; this is the distinction companies fail to make in creating a happy work environment.

Kjerulf’s thesis is that happiness in the workplace is created through three Rs: results, recognition, and relationships. He explained the following:

  • Results create happiness when you do a good job, accomplish things, achieve something, make a difference, and create value. School teachers find happiness when they see their students learning. Nurses find happiness when they see their patients improving. The same is true of professionals working in financial services. Kjerulf stated it is results, those “small meaningful successes,” that are a key source of happiness at work.
  • Recognition creates happiness when we praise each other for results. Kjerulf thinks that there are many different ways of “praising and recognising results,” whether it is in a congratulatory e-mail, an announcement in a meeting, or a picture on a notice board. One way to recognise results that Kjerulf likes is when you give someone a high five and say, “You rock!” To drive this point home, Kjerulf invited all the conference delegates to stand up and give three people a high five, which they (happily) did.
  • Relationships create happiness when you like others at your workplace, build connections, and have fun with them. Kjerulf stated that you ought to take coffee and lunch breaks with your colleagues to get to know them better. He believes you should use this time to talk about your personal lives, such as how you spent your weekend, how your kids are doing, and what your holiday plans are. Kjerulf added that when you meet your colleagues, greet each other with warmth and even emotion. “Relationships are not between coworkers; they are not between employees and bosses,” he said. “Relationships are between people.” To make sure his listeners understood this point, Kjerulf invited everyone in the audience stand up and greet each other with a warm “Good morning,” which, with only a few exceptions, they (happily) did.

Kjerulf stressed that happiness at work is different from job satisfaction. He sees job satisfaction as “what you think about your job,” which is more like a cost–benefit analysis of how you get paid compared with what the market may offer you, the number of days of holiday you have, the perks, the pension plan, and so on. Unlike job satisfaction, happiness at work is about “what you feel about your job.”

Kjerulf gave examples of companies that are getting things wrong in creating happiness at work, such as Foxconn. The mobile phone manufacturer made headlines when its employees were committing suicide by jumping from the roof of its facilities in China. Foxconn reportedly responded by putting nets on its building to prevent suicides.

Kjerulf also gave examples of companies that are getting things right in creating happiness at work, such as Southwest Airlines. This company tries to create a happy environment for its workers and allows them to express their happiness. He said that a passenger boarding a Southwest Airlines flight may open the overhead luggage compartment to find an air hostess squeezed in there to greet them.

Quoting different research studies and business leaders, Kjerulf argued that happiness at work is not just good for employees but it is also good for profitability. He emphasized that Southwest Airlines, which puts its employees first, has both happy employees and a long and distinguished track record of profitability.

Kjerulf’s presentation makes it hard to argue against the value of pursuing happiness at work — both for individuals and organisations. All you need to do is focus on results, recognition, and relationships.

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