What makes people happy at work

Maria’s new job had it all: An organization with loads of money, interesting tasks, great salary, impressive offices, a french chef, a gym, free fruit, massages and a view out of her office windows that took your breath away.

Maria is an easy-going, attractive woman in her forties with a broad business background, but even in her first month at the new job she noticed that things were very wrong. As wealthy as the organization was, it still completely lacked human and social values. The workplace was plagued by distrust, infighting, slander, backstabbing, sexual harassment, lack of respect, repression and veiled threats.

She spent the second month pondering how she could change things. By the third month Maria realized that she probably wouldn’t be able to change much and that she might get crushed trying. She quit without having found a new job.

Maria is now a publishing editor, and is also responsible for HR and the work environment at her new workplace. Her salary may be lower, but her quality of life is much higher, and she told me: “I’m now a believer when it comes to happiness at work, and want to help spread the happy message.???

While all the traditional trappings of a good job don’t hurt, they’re just not enough. It doesn’t matter how nice your office, how large your salary or how good the food is, if the mood at the company is bad.

I think that some of the things we strive for at work (the title, salary, perks, etc.) aren’t the things that make us happy. I’m not saying that a high salary will make you unhappy, at least that never happened to me :o), but it won’t make you particularly happy either.

So what will? Let’s look at that.

Good relationships

In 2003 ServiceGruppen, a Danish IT service provider, bought up a small department from IBM and consequently took over ten of their IT technicians.

It all happened quickly and with plenty of open questions left for both the 100 existing employees of ServiceGruppen and for their ten new colleagues.

But one thing made a difference: On their first work day, each new employee was greeted with a bouquet of flowers. Remember, we’re talking about tough working men in their 40’s and 50’s , but this simple gesture made a huge difference for them, and they still remember it happily and talk about it to this day. The result: From the first moment, they felt a part of the company.

And that may be the most basic human needs: The need to belong. Our species has evolved very much in groups, and few of us can be happy unless we belong to well-functioning group.

Which brings us to relationships. When you ask employees what makes them happy at work, they consistently rate these things highest:

  • Nice co-workers
  • A good manager
  • Good communication
  • A sense of humor in the workplace

Each of which is a sign of good relations. A sign that people like each other and communicate well.

And remember: Good relations don’t have to stop with co-workers and managers, it can also apply to customers, suppliers, shareholders and the company’s community.

One company that gets the importance of relations, is Southwest Airlines. At Southwest Airlines, they hire people first for their personalities and secondly for their skills. Or as they put it: “Hire for attitude, train for skill”. To them a nice, fun and outgoing personality matters more than degrees or experience. The result: Southwest is not only a happy place to work, they’re also insanely efficient and profitable.


People love to make a difference. We all want to know, that what we do at work has contributed somehow – that it has meaning.

It can be either that we have contributed to the company’s success, or that the work we do somehow makes the world better. When we know that we contribute, we feel much better about work.

And almost any job has meaning.

  • You clean at a hospital? Well, without efficient cleaning, people get sick and die in hospitals.
  • You’re a teacher? You’re shaping the next generation.
  • You write software? You’re helping your customers become more efficient.
  • You’re a secretary? You’re making your co-worker’s more efficient

To find meaning in your job, ask yourself this: Who am I helping? Whose lives am I improving?

It’s true that with some jobs it gets tricky. If your company produces, say, land mines, it may be difficult to find meaning in that. And that makes it hard to be happy at work.


Thyra Frank is the leader of a home for the elderly. She is in her mid-fifties, outspoken, constantly cracks jokes and has a loud, infectious laugh. Working in the public sector means facing a certain set of constraints: Not much money, plenty of red tape and very little leeway. In the face of this, she has created what may be the best functioning home for the elderly in Denmark.

Her employees love working there, and the clients (the elderly) love living there. The only people who aren’t crazy about her work are the authorities, because she continues to flaunt the rules and do things her own way.

During her first christmas as a leader, her husband persuaded her to give the employees christmas presents. This is not normally done in the public sector, and the home had no buuget for it, so Thyra went to a local supermarket and bought a cheap bottle of red wine for each of her employees at her own expense. She also wrote a note to each of her employees, explaining what she enjoyed about working with that person.

It was such a small thing, but several of her employees ended up crying with joy. Not so much at the cheap bottle of wine, but at the positive recognition of the hand-written letter.

Recognition is vital, and it is extremely easy to give. It takes no time and it costs no money. And yet some companies seem to say that “as long as you hear nothing, you’re doing a good job.??? Well, that’s just not how people work, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard employees say “If only I got more recognition for the work I do.”

Recognize good work and bad – that makes people happy at work.


Southwest Airlines

A senior executive [at Southwest Airlines] spent a day working at the ticket counter and with the ground crew to have a better understanding of their roles. While she was helping direct a plane to the gate using those long orange directional devices, one of the seasoned ground crew members told her to rotate her wrists in a circular manner.

When she did this, the plane did a 360 degree turn! She began to scream thinking she had sent a confusing signal to the pilot. In reality, the ground crew had contacted the pilot and told them they had a “greeny??? directing the plane and that they wanted to have some fun with her. The pilot enthusiastically agreed to play along. (Told by Mary McMurtry from Southwest Airlines, featured in Ronald Culberson’s excellent newsletter)

When people are free to have fun and enjoy themselves at work, they are much happier. Some companies cultivate a very serious, business-like attitude in which fun is regarded as frivolous and something that detracts from real work. I could not disagree more and neither could Pat Kane who wrote the excellent book The Play Ethic. He talks about play rather than fun, but the point is the same:

Welcome to the play ethic. First of all, don’t take ‘play’ to mean anything idle, wasteful or frivolous. The trivialisation of play was the work ethic’s most lasting, and most regrettable achievement. This is ‘play’ as the great philosophers understood it: the experience of being an active, creative and fully autonomous person.

The play ethic is about having the confidence to be spontaneous, creative and empathetic across every area of you life – in relationships, in the community, in your cultural life, as well as paid employment. It’s about placing yourself, your passions and enthusiasms at the centre of your world.

So to call yourself a ‘player’, rather than a ‘worker’, is to immediately widen your conception of who you are and what you might be capable of doing. It is to dedicate yourself to realising your full human potential; to be active, not passive.

So that was a look at the most important factors, that make people happy at work. It really is that simple. Which is great news, because this means that almost any company can become a happy place to work. Everything needed is already present or can easily be found.

11 thoughts on “What makes people happy at work”

  1. Thank you! For taking up the task to make other people happy :)
    I couldn’t agree more with your points about what is important for a work place: a good atmosphere – cause it really does encourage employees to give more, which results in the costumers recieving more; and the whole thing goes around creating an upward expanding spiral.
    At my job, the staff-partys are a very important thing which I wouldn’t miss out on. And hey, I don’t know if that’s the reason for it, but our store has one of if not the highest excess in the district.

    Especially in this time where companys produce still more and more “mechanical animals”; employees who just do as they’re told like machines because human needs are underestimated and companies are driven by greed. And because work IS life for many people, work effects life.. – especially now your words are needed:)

  2. Laura: Good staff partys and other ways to discover the person inside the co-worker are crucial, and it’s good to hear that it works in your workplace.

    And thank you very much for the kind words.

  3. I love the touching story about Thyra Frank!

    Could you tell stories about ways to help create an environment where these things are valued in teh workplace?
    * Nice co-workers
    * A good manager
    * Good communication
    * A sense of humor in the workplace

    (Maybe it’s out of scope of what you’re writing about, or coming in a later chapter?)

    Also, could you tell a story about making meaning? I think it’s an incredibly important aspect of Happiness, and would love to hear stories about how leaders are making meaning in places or ways that you might not expect.


  4. Thanks again for the excellent tip. I’ve added a little about meaning and something about relationships at Southwest.

    Did that help?

  5. This is great, Alex! I’ve had the pleasure of working in a very happy and productive environment in the past and its key features were the following:
    (1) The people – I liked and respected the people I worked with and vice versa. It helped that we were a very small start-up so we worked very closely on a daily basis
    (2) The work itself was challenging, meaningful and interesting as we were creating a new software product that solved problems that we had experienced ourselves
    (3) We had fun! For example, when we tested the software, a lot of our test data involved little “insider jokes” known only to team members. We also had a big testing event where we invited some of our friends and family to test out the product – this was hard work, but we really enjoyed it
    (4) Efforts, big and small, were recognised within the team usually very informally with simple gestures such as an email circulated to the entire company thanking the person. After the first release of the product, everyone on the team was given a personalised portrait (a drawn caricature of the person along with a nickname that best described the person) and a CD with the product installation package on it. I still have both items!

    Note the strong similarities to the factors you mention as key to a happy workplace ;-)

    Keep up the good work!

  6. Hi,

    It is so ironic how these simple techniques are known, to make an organization a happier place to work in, but still we have a mass number of unhappy workers. Can I add on factor?

    I would like to add Self Actualization. With this people can identify what will really make them happy. Why I guess I’m saying this is because I read this and felt so trapped at my current job. It is a small office where even with a title you have no autonomy, and there is no room for growth.

    I was trying to identify ways to make this experience as meaningful as possible, but I keep getting the thought to leave. However where I am from there are not that many opportunities for creative people like me. So what is the solution? Leave here too, lol. I get that thought as well.

    I just wanted to leave a little comment, as I just could not resist. If these simple practices were considered here I guess things would be much better.

  7. Hi DD. Self actualization is key – it’s almost impossible to be happy at work if you don’t feel that you’re using yourself fully.

    I feel for you. A few years back I was trapped in a boring job in a boring part of the country. Fortunately a job offer brought me to Copenhagen

    Thanks for the comment and good luck with your work-happiness. Let me know what happens :o)

  8. Good idea to write a book on happiness at work. Good luck with it.

    A few remarks to challenge you in your approach.

    “And that may be the most basic human needs: The need to belong. Our species has evolved very much in groups, and few of us can be happy unless we belong to well-functioning group.”

    Check the Maslow Pyramid, it may be interesting to you to assess the human needs and may help support your remark.

    “The result: Southwest is not only a happy place to work, they


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