Using Strengths to Feel Happier at Work

It comes as no surprise that happier people are more productive in their work. In fact, studies have found that making people even temporarily happier increases production.

by Joe Hatcher Jr

Illustration by Goñi Montes, Decatur, USA

Aside from trying to hire happy people, what can a business do to increase the happiness of the people who work there? Ideas from two different areas of psychology can be useful in increasing happiness in the workplace.  The first idea, from John Gottman’s research on marital satisfaction, is that one’s happiness with one’s partner is affected by the ratio of positive to negative interactions. Couples that had five or ten positive interactions for every negative tended to stay married; those with more of an even ratio were more likely to part. This is a universal, applying to much more than marriage. How does your work setting rate in terms of positives and negatives?

Positives can consist of large elements like validation or recognition, or small things like flowers, a comfortable setting or ease of parking. It is often easy to add such things, and asking workers for suggestions is a good way to start. Since one negative requires about five positives to balance it off, it is also particularly important to identify and fix negatives. In one office setting in which I worked, a minor annoyance was that the pens issued by the office were of low quality and often didn’t work; the supervisor agreed to spend a bit more to have better pens and took away that negative.


A second idea comes from the field of positive psychology. Martin Seligman’s work in that field indicates that people are generally happier when they are able to work using their strengths rather than their weaknesses. Combining the two ideas presented above, have team members take the VIA Signature Strengths test and bring their top five strengths to your next meeting, and have each member read theirs to the group. The group then comments on the strengths of each member and then, importantly, adds other strengths that they have noticed about that individual. This is an exercise that has never failed in many different contexts. Happiness in the workplace is too important to leave unattended. An intentional effort to create positives and reduce negatives and to allow people to work in the ways that best suit their strengths can contribute to a happier, more productive workplace.

Because I Am Happy

by Seth AllcornCarrie M. Duncan

A happy workplace also means a safe and an enjoyable one. To create this leaders need to contain anxiety which affects their own work. This allows them to foster an environment where employees feel more able to express themselves and experience happiness.

Mission statements and strategic objectives often do not list happiness in the workplace as an explicit goal. Nonetheless, happiness at work is important to employees. Employees often report in surveys that they like their work but not their job. This can mean that employees like the people that they work with and gain satisfaction from the outcomes of their work, whether it is a service to others or making a product. What they often do not like is the feeling that managers and leaders treat them as objects that are subject to manipulation. Employees want to be treated as valuable people who are vital to the organization’s success.

Happiness at work can be associated with employees’ ability to maintain their sense of self while remaining committed to their beliefs and values. Employees who are able to express core aspects of their selves through work are more likely to feel connected to each other and their organization, and experience happiness at work. Leaders can create a workplace that is fun, playful and happy, but it requires a new, more reflective approach to leadership that makes the workplace a psychologically safe enough place to be playful, creative, and innovative. How can leaders promote happiness, a sense of pleasure, and even joy in the workplace? One way leaders can inspire a happy workplace is through containment. This means that leaders are able to experience anxiety without reacting impulsively or becoming overly controlling. Leaders may unwittingly deal with their own anxiety by asking or coercing employees into abandoning their beliefs and values. Coercion can take the form of unilateral, top-down decision-making that strips employees of their sense of worth and the joy that they have in their work. In this context, employees become alienated from themselves, each other and the organization. The capacity for containment begins with self-awareness. Leaders who are aware of their own anxiety, and that of their employees, can create a work environment where employees are not overwhelmed by anxiety, which can disrupt productivity. They do this by acknowledging how anxiety affects their own work as a leader, and the team that they are leading. Successful containment of anxiety helps leaders build and maintain an environment where employees feel connected to one another and are able to work together to solve problems, generate ideas and innovate.

Containment fosters two key aspects of happiness at work: a sense of psychological safety and playfulness. When leaders successfully contain anxiety, they foster an environment that reduces defensiveness among employees and establish a sense of psychological safety. In this kind of environment employees feel safe enough to express their ideas and values without fear of reprisal, and they are able to engage with each other to reflectively and non-defensively explore anxiety-provoking events. Employees are less afraid to take risks and experience a sense of joy in overcoming, and even creating, change. A psychologically safe workplace allows playfulness to emerge. Playfulness is the ability to imagine, explore new ideas, and move beyond the boundaries of the status quo. Employees are able to use humor as a way of managing anxiety and building connections with each other. A playful environment that sparks humor draws people together. Employees feel more able to express themselves in their work and experience a sense of happiness even when they face anxiety-provoking problems. Self-awareness on the part of leaders can help them contain anxiety on behalf of employees. Containment gives employees a space where they can productively manage anxieties. As a reflective approach to leadership, containment fosters a sense of psychological safety, which in turn promotes a playful spirit of creativity. Ultimately, these factors promote healthy group dynamics, better team performance and a happy workplace.


Published in the hard-copy of Work Style Magazine, Spring 2014