Does Happiness Matter at Work?

March 10, 2021

by Pam Boney


If someone asked you what made you happy, would you say work? Should you? The short answer is yes, happiness at work matters. However, some people have a mindset that work is what you have to do for money, and you can use the money to do things that make you happy. You “work to live.” Yet, some estimates indicate that people spend about 30% of their lives working. So, should people be resigned to not being happy for such a large part of their lives?

If you think you don’t have control over your workplace happiness because your employer doesn’t care about your happiness, you may be right that they don’t care, but they should. Happiness in general and happiness at work offer benefits to both employers and employees.

Why should employees care?

If you’re among the people who believe that happiness is something that happens outside of work, then you may want to reconsider. Employees who feel positive emotions at work have better performance evaluations, higher pay, and more support from their coworkers. Beyond higher work achievement, more money, and better personal relationships, positive emotions at work can help people better cope with organizational change. Adapting to change is especially important in today’s uncertain environment, where change has become the norm.


Why should employers care?

You might care about your happiness but remain convinced that your employer will never care about employees’ happiness. However, there is research that shows that most of the outcomes that organizations do care about are related to happiness.

  • Job performance: The only justification that employers should need to value happiness at work is that happier employees have higher job performance. That doesn’t just mean that employees are happy when they are successful; research has shown that happier people have higher task performance.
  • Creativity: Much research has shown that happiness is related to higher levels of creativity. Positive emotions broaden the scope of our awareness, which allows us to see a broader range of possibilities. Positivity opens people up to new ideas and new people, which allows a safe space for experimentation and playing with new ideas.
  • Proactive behaviors: Happy people are also more proactive, which means they take the initiative to improve existing processes and the organization as a whole. This additional time and effort dedicated to finding better ways of doing things can help push the organization forward.
  • Motivation: Happiness increases motivation and persistence by affecting the determinants of motivation. People feel motivated when they (1) feel confident that they are capable of succeeding, (2) believe success will lead to a reward, and (3) believe the reward is valuable. Happiness affects all three of these beliefs, making people more motivated to complete a task and earn the desired reward. The reward is not always monetary. Outcomes such as feeling competent or independent or helping someone can be valuable and motivating. This means that organizations don’t need an infinite amount of money to be able to give employees meaningful rewards.
  • Organizational citizenship behaviors: People experiencing positive emotions are more likely to complete work outside of their formal job duties to benefit the organization. These behaviors could include spending extra time helping coworkers, discussing the organization positively with others, and going above and beyond for the organization.
  • CollaborationResearch has shown that increasing positive emotions by even something as simple as mild flattery can make people more likely to resolve conflicts through collaboration. This tendency toward collaboration can help reduce competition within teams so that the team can move forward together.
  • Job satisfaction: Although job satisfaction is often conceptualized as synonymous with happiness with working conditions, job satisfaction is more about the mental evaluation of work than the feelings of happiness or contentment with work. However, it should come as no surprise that even though they aren’t interchangeable, happiness does predict job satisfaction. Job satisfaction is a positive outcome in itself, and it also predicts many essential work outcomes. For example, people with high job satisfaction are less likely to commit counterproductive work behaviors such as intentionally wasting time, stealing from the company, or having negative interactions with coworkers.

Should workers always be happy*?

No. Like most things, positive emotions need to be balanced. People cannot and should not strive to be happy all of the time. It is impossible, and too much happiness without some negative emotions is detrimental. Negative emotions have value and shouldn’t be avoided. Negative emotions are valuable because they help people take situations seriously and focus their attention and resources on solving a problem. Negative emotions also influence how people evaluate information. People in positive moods tend to rely on heuristics or mental shortcuts, more than people who are in negative moods. Using these mental shortcuts is less mentally demanding, so heuristics free mental space for analyzing other information. In familiar situations, relying on heuristics can be accurate and efficient, but in new or varied situations, these mental shortcuts are inaccurate. Thus, in novel or changing situations, more analytical processing associated with moderate negative emotions is needed.

Therefore, the appropriate emotionality is different for different kinds of situations. Still, people should always consider the balance between positive and negative emotions instead of choosing one or the other exclusively. For example, research in creativity indicates that high levels of positive emotions that are balanced with moderate negative emotions generate creativity. In this, and in many typical cases, the ratio of positive to negative should be skewed toward a higher amount of positive emotions, but a complete lack of negative emotions is detrimental.