What is happiness at work


Happy at work cupWe Scandinavians have an advantage over the rest of the world: We have a word for happiness at work. In Danish (my native language) the word is arbejdsglæde, and while that quite rightly looks utterly unpronounceable to the rest of the world, it’s a concept that is deeply ingrained in Scandinavian work culture and one that most Nordic businesses focus on to some degree. Its also one reason why Scandinavian companies do so well and contributes to the success of companies like NOKIA, IKEA, Oticon (the world’s leading producer of hearing aids), Carlsberg, Ericsson etc…

“Arbejdsglæde” translates into English simply as work-happiness, and it’s that feeling you get when you:

  • Enjoy what you do
  • Do good work and feel proud of it
  • Work with nice people
  • Know that what you do is important
  • Are appreciated for your work
  • Take responsibility
  • Have fun at work
  • Are motivated and energized
  • Feel that you kick butt

Most of us already know that feeling. We’ve been there some of the time or even most of the time in our work lives. The question is: How do we get there some more.

And in case you’re wondering, arbejdsglæde is pronounced something like ah-bites-gleh-the.

So what is it, then?

What exactly is happiness at work? This question seems like a good place to start, and I’ve been working long and hard to come up with a definition of happiness at work, precisely because so many people ask me just that.

Working with clients, big and small, private and public, got me closer and closer to the answer, and after long deliberations I came up with what I believe is a concise, spot-on definition.

This will amaze you. Are you ready? Here it is:

Happiness at work is: A feeling of happiness derived from work

Boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

In fact, out of the three questions mentioned in the introduction (What? Why? How), What? is the least interesting because it turns out time after time, that though people may not have a pre-agreed dictionary definition of happiness at work, most people know when they are happy at work – and especially when they’re not. This makes a definition less crucial.

The thing is, happiness at work is an emotion. It comes from inside of you, and like all other emotions it is difficult to define, but inescapable once it’s present. Or not present. Can you define love or anger? It’s tricky. But when you’re feeling love or anger, you’re acutely aware of it, regardless of the lack of a formal definition.

Happy is as happy does

So while it may not matter much what happiness at work is, it matters immensely what it does to people – or what it’s absence does.

And fortunately it’s easy to say some things about what happines at work does to people. People who are happy at work generally:

  • Like the work they do
  • Like the people they work with
  • Feel energetic
  • Are motivated
  • Look forward to going to work
  • Trust each other
  • Go the extra mile

Conversely, people who are unhapy (or simply not happy) at work often:

  • Are cynical
  • Don’t care about co-workers
  • Dread work
  • Feel tired
  • Don’t trust co-workers
  • Do only as much as they have to

So while we may not be able to define happiness at work, we can still say some things about it.

Happiness at work is different for everyone

(picture of Allan and Soren)

Here’s Allan and Soren. They’re both males in their 30’s and work for the same advertising agency. They have similar backgrounds, but what makes them happy at work is wildly different.

  • Allan enjoys working closely with others, Soren prefers working alone
  • Allan hates writing reports, Soren loves it
  • Allan likes lots of new challenges, Soren prefers predicability
  • Allan likes risk, Soren tends to avoid it
  • Allan hates having to focus on only one project, Soren loves it

While there are definitely some things that make most people happy at work, we need to remember that happiness at work is different for everyone.

One persons happiness at work can be another’s living hell. That’s why happiness at work means treating everybody differently!

Happiness at work is infectious

It’s downright contagious. One determinedly happy employee can lift the spirits of an entire department. One happy executive can spread a positive mood in the whole organization.

The bad news is that unhappiness spreads itself faster than happiness, probably because humans are conditioned by evolutionary pressures to be more atuned to negative emotions. This makes fear and anger in the workplace more contagious than happiness, meaning businesses must work actively to spread happiess instead.

Happiness at work is long-term

It’s never about blowing off work that must be done, in order to have fun and be happy instead. It’s not just about being happy here and now – it’s happiness for today and tomorrow and next year and 10 years from now.

Happiness at work is an invitation

I have a coworker who takes it upon herself to act as the happiness police and it has had the result of creating an antagonistic attitude towards positive thining! I had to calm down one team member who was genuinely insulted by her attempts, because by constantly goading him to be happier she very much implied that his current life just wasn’t happy enough (and thus, the implication was, not worthwhile). Having someone try to control your “happiness??? can be a very unpleasant experience indeed!

You can’t force people to be happy! It’s that simple. The more you try to convince or pressure people to be happy at work, the less happy they will be.

People generally respond to emotional pressure by reacting oppositely. Which means that trying to force happiness on people will actually make them less happy! If you purposely or inadvertently create a mood at work where it’s right to be happy and wrong not to be, people will actively react against that. You may even risk making happiness at work a dirty word – something to be ridiculed and actively resisted.

That’s why happiness at work is an invitation. You can open the door, and invite people in – but you can’t push them through the door against their will. The more you try, the more they will cling to the door jamb, kicking and screaming.

Happiness at work is not eternal

The IT support department at the medical company Leo Pharma are a critical part of the organization. If they’re not picking up the phones, Leo’s 4.000 employees have nowhere to go with their IT-related questions. To ensure that the phones are always manned, a huge whiteboard with a space for each support-worker shows who’s on call at any time.

The IT department realizes, that people have good and bad days, so they set up a simple policy: When employees get in in the morning, they can place a green or a red magnetic tag next to their name. Green means “I’m having a good day”, a red marker means “I’m having a bad day.”

So if a co-worker storms in the door without saying good morning, places at red marker next to his name, and sits at his desk scowling at his computer, you don’t have to wonder “was it something I said?”

This policy does two things for the department:

  1. It makes it visible who is having a good or a bad day, and people with red markers are given a little space and leeway. If somebody puts up a red marker every day for a week this becomes visible, and steps can be taken to help that person.
  2. It makes it legal to have a bad day. We all have bad days, but if you have to hide it and pretend to be chipper, it takes longer to get out of the bad mood.

You can’t be happy at work every day. No matter how much you love your job, there’s still going to be bad days.

And it’s always OK to have a bad day at work.

It’s just that if you have more of the bad than the good days at work, then maybe it’s time to consider what that does to you, and what you can do about it…

Happiness at work is not pervasive

It’s almost impossible to find a job, where every single aspect makes you happy.

There will always be some boring tasks. Some co-workers you don’t like. Some unpleasant customers.

Happiness at work is not about eliminating all the bad stuff from your job. It’s about being happy at work even though all of these things are present. About building your skills to handle the bad stuff, and to create more and more good experiences at work.

Happiness at work is not about being ecstatic

One of the very first Happy at Work Workshops I did was for the Scandinavian logistics department of a large American car manufacturer. At the end of the workshop, I asked the participants to share their thoughts and one gentleman in his 50’s stood up to speak. He was formally dressed in a suit and tie (the only one in the group) and with his gray hair and glasses he looked every bit the accountant. Which in fact he was.

He’d been very quiet throughout of the workshop, but now he stood up to adress the group. He paused for a moment. “I want all of you to know,??? he said in a somber voice, “that I’m not as unhappy as I look.??? The room erupted in laughter.

The serious face, the somber voice, the quiet demeanor and the formal manner – that’s how this man looked when he was happy at work.

Happiness at work does not necessarily mean running around ecstatically all day long. You can sit at your desk, quietly doing you work, and be discreetly happy. You can be sitting in a hectic meeting arguing forcefully for your point of view and be happy.

10 thoughts on “What is happiness at work”

  1. Cheers to the refreshing outlook on the whole topic of getting more from your job, it’s good to read some insight into something more then just working more efficiently and productively for a change.

  2. (1) VALID HAPPINESS (including love, sense of beauty, symbiosis (good conscience, upholding justice, moral couraging, helping others, teaching

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