Lesson 5 – Happiness in the Workplace


Last time we discussed the happiest man in the world, and the fact that he wasn’t just born that way, it has been a practice that he has refined and that has been studied by scientists over a long period. 

We also touched on mindfulness and I left you with a glimpse into happiness at work.  In this lesson we will delve further into happiness whilst we are earning a living, and which comes first – success or happiness?

Remember –

  • it takes 21 days to form a habit
  • and the formula for happiness is – H = G + C + T&A

Your thoughts and actions are the most important part of the change that you are wanting to make.  Be the change you want to see.

How do you feel you went in the past 3 weeks?

Happiness in the Workplace

Don’t be so busy making a living that you forget to make a life …

Dolly Parton

I want to start by making this really simple.  If you’re not happy in your work, be it your job, profession or the organisation you work for, there are one of two things you can do.  One, you can leave.  Two, you can change your attitude to it and make your working life and perhaps your workplace better.

Then, let me ask you one thing.  If you had a really important decision to make about the rest of your life, would you ask a 17 year old their opinion on your decision?  Because it is possible that you are living right now with a decision on a career or job that perhaps a 17 year old, or younger, made for you.

Most of us have to work to earn money to support ourselves and maybe loved ones.  It starts often before we leave school, doing part time work to get some pocket money.  This also helps to give us some independence and to start to learn about handling our own finances. 

These types of jobs may be a paper round (is there still such a thing?) or mowing lawns, or working in a fast food outlet, supermarket or retail store.  These jobs also get students through tertiary studies.  Then the day comes for many when a fulltime job is the norm. 

Whilst I acknowledge that many people now work outside of the confines of a ‘9 to 5 – 5 day a week’ job, many of us still work for thirty-eight to fifty or more hours a week doing either what we love or swapping hours for dollars. 

If you are going to be doing this from adolescence to retirement, surely you want to feel some sense of happiness around what you are doing?

The OECD Work-Life Balance report finds that in Australia 13% of employees work more than 50 hours a week, which is above the OECD average of 11%. 

An Australia Institute survey found that 24% of workers suffer negative health effects from working long hours.  Common sense tells us that working longer hours can impair physical and mental health, jeopardise ours and other’s safety and increase our stress levels. 

Obviously the longer people are at work, the less time they spend on personal care (eating, sleeping, etc) and leisure activities, which in Australia amounts to only 14.4 hours per day, which is less than the OECD average of 15 hours. 

So who do you think is responsible for your happiness at work?

It would be easy for me to say that you are.  But I know that workplaces are dynamic communities of differing cultures.  We each take our own background, upbringing, values, personalities and habits into work with us and we are confined in a space with others for many hours a day.  This creates a melting pot for all sorts of emotional clashes.  There are also many other factors at play.  

The Work Design Questionnaire (Frederick Morgeson and Stephen Humphrey, 2006) revealed, through a survey of 540 incumbents holding 243 distinct jobs, that there are 10 factors associated with happiness at work:

  • Workplace autonomy and the freedom to decide
  • Task variations and scope for creative ideas
  • Task significance
  • Recognition for work
  • Task difficulty
  • Professional skills and specialization
  • Social support within the workplace
  • Feedback from superiors
  • Environmental conditions at work
  • Business management and networking channels

Think about these 10 things in direct relation to your current job.  Take your time to reflect.

We can’t all work for companies like Google and McDonalds that hire Chief Happiness Officers who work on culture and motivation.  We need to do something for ourselves and to support and motivate our colleagues to be happier.  But, you say, I’ll be happier when I am more successful or when I earn more money.  

Have a think about it for a minute.  When have you thought this?

The old adage of becoming successful through sheer hard work, and happiness then being the end result of this success has been proven by happiness researcher Shawn Achor to be totally about-face.  He found that only 25% of success in a job is predicted by a person’s IQ.  The other 75% is predicted by a person’s levels of optimism, their social support and the ability to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat.

When you have any kind of success your brain registers it, but it doesn’t last, and then the goalpost moves.  So you get a promotion, then your brain starts to look for the next one.  Pay rise?  That money gets consumed then you are looking for another one.  Hit a productivity target – they raise the stakes and now you’ve got to perform even better.  So the happiness you’re waiting to feel is always hiding at the other side of that goalpost.

But that is not how brains work.  In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Achor writes that when your brain is positive it performs 31% more productively and intelligently than when it is negative, stressed or even neutral.  You are more creative and your energy levels rise.  

Sales people perform 37% better when they have a positive attitude, and doctors are 19% faster at coming up with a correct diagnosis of patients.  This is because when you are positive your brain is flooded with dopamine which activates the learning centres in your brain and makes you happier.

We have to reverse the formula and learn to become positive right now, in the present.  The gratitude and positive experience journaling that I talk about can re-wire your brain to become more positive by always scanning for positives instead of negatives.  The brain can be trained, but like your body, you have to work at it.

Statistics have shown that happiness in the workplace improves business profitability by 147%, and on the flipside, lost productivity through negative and toxic workplaces costs $1 trillion globally.  So imagine what effect each of us being happier in the workplace could have on the local and world economy, and our personal bank balances.

You could also start to decrease the external negativity in your life, starting first thing in the morning.  

Shawn Achor ran a study with Ariana Huffington on the negative effects of the morning news on people’s wellbeing throughout the day.  What they found was that people who exposed themselves to just three (3) minutes of news in the morning would be 27% more likely to report a bad day at work 6 to 8 hours later in the evening.  Interestingly, what type of effect would those people be having during the day on their colleagues and customers?

Dr Christine Carter from the University of California states that happiness is not just about getting what we want and doing what we like, but is the ability to access an array of positive emotions like optimism and gratitude and then implementing them into our lives.  She found that happiness at work was not the absence of negativity or stress, but rather having personal power to widen our perspective and bounce back from negatives.  

How many times have you had something really negative happen at work and then decide to call in sick the next day, or look on Seek for a new job?  How many times have you seen a colleague upset or stressed, then they take the following day off?

So what could you do differently?  Firstly, I think you can take responsibility for your own thoughts and feelings.  Have a look at what you can influence or change, and what you can’t.  

You could go and get another job.  But guess what?  You may be the problem, that common denominator, and then you would be taking that problem with you to the next workplace.  Maybe you need to work out where you are contributing to your workplace unhappiness, acknowledge it and then take steps to change it.

Ask for honest feedback from someone you like and respect.  Don’t challenge any negatives.  Accept them and ask for some help to change.

David Tomas created The Traffic Light Survey as a way of measuring happiness in the workplace.  Employers can ask the 3 simple questions below each day for a period, then average and analyse them to see patterns across a period.

  • What mood did you arrive in today?
  • What mood are you leaving in today?
  • On a scale of one to four, how much did you like the tasks you did today?

I’d like to suggest that you do this for yourself for a month (it’s only 20 working days).  At the end of it, have a look at the results and the patterns that your answers give.  It may just be that the results will give you the answer to whether you should look for another job, or maybe you are just in the wrong profession. 

As Stephen R Covey said “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster”.

Oprah Winfrey relates on one of her Super Soul Sunday podcasts a story from her early days in television in Chicago.  On her drive into work one morning she saw someone walking toward the studio wearing the uniform of the janitorial crew.  She stopped and offered the older gentleman a lift as she was going in the same direction.  He gladly accepted, and as they drove they got talking.  He explained that he had worked on the cleaning crew for the studio for many years, so Oprah asked him how he enjoyed his job. “Oh, I love working in television” he told her.


  • Keep up your Gratitude Journaling
  • Find 10 minutes a day to be mindful.  If you started with 5 minutes three weeks ago you are ready to expand.
  • Each work morning, before you get out of bed, do these three things:
    • Give thanks for the job you have and your opportunity to contribute
    • Set your intention for the workday – mentally think of how you will handle situations and what you need to do in the day
    • Smile
  • Then:
    • Don’t turn on the morning news.
  • Remember, mentally and emotionally lift up your work colleagues whenever you can:
    • a smile, a pat on the back, a word of recognition, 
    • focussing on what they are saying without formulating your response in your head
    • an email thanking them,
    • bringing them a coffee, or asking after their family.  

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