Does your job spark joy?

We’re conflicted about how we feel about work.

More than 70% of us say we’re satisfied with our job and nearly just as many say work gives life meaning. At the same time, nearly half of us say we want to change our job in the near-term and 65% of us say we only work for financial reasons.

What’s going on here?

Working from home, the experience of living through a pandemic, and the ensuing wave of turnover at our places of work has caused workers from entry level to the C-Suite to take a hard look at what work means to us. Many of us are still trying to figure it out.

While this may bring to mind some overplayed tropes – like “live to work or work to live?” and “work/life balance” – it begs the serious question: are we happy at work? What does it mean if we’re not? And what are the advantages if we are?

It turns out that happiness is an enormous contributor to success at work.

“A large-scale study found that well-being predicts outstanding job performance,” a recent article from professors Paul Lester, Ed Diener and Martin Seligman in the MIT Sloan’s Management Review concludes.

In the study, researchers tracked nearly one million Army service members for five years. And even when researchers controlled for other factors that might contribute to performance, “soldiers who were the happiest and most optimistic went on to earn significantly more job performance awards across the next five years compared with those who were initially unhappy and pessimistic.”

Business leaders can harness this insight in their hiring, talent retention, team building and even in their own personal professional development.

Spotting top performers

While gauging a job candidate or employee’s happiness is subjective and therefore inherently difficult to pinpoint or measure, it should still be a component of businesses’ assessments.

Interview questions designed to uncover whether a candidate has an inherently optimistic or pessimistic perspective can be helpful. Internal employee surveys are another tool businesses can use to take the emotional temperature of their workforce.

Another side effect of happy employees is the contagion effect. Professors Lester, Diener and Seligman cite another study of 4,700 individuals over 20 years that confirmed that happiness is contagious within a defined social network.

Inspiring happiness amongst your whole team

Most employers would probably agree that every role would be ideally filled with a happy candidate, but, in reality, a significant portion of the workforce may not exude happiness and optimism on a daily basis. This is particularly true coming out of a two-year pandemic.

Two out of three U.S. workers say they sometimes experience depression and 40% of younger generations like millennials say they experience stress most of the time. Furthermore, a combination of different personalities often benefits the workplace.

 To inspire happiness amongst all employees, companies should develop an employee wellness program that addresses not only financial and physical well-being, but also mental and social well-being. Based on the needs of their employees, companies can mix an endless variety of initiatives and benefits, including equality in rewards, healthy lifestyle support, access to therapy, subsidized gym memberships, flexible work options, PTO for volunteering time, and teambuilding.

Focus on your own well-being

Leaders set the tone from the top and if you’re projecting pessimism and negativity it’s going to be difficult – if not impossible – to inspire happiness throughout the rest of the organization.

The five-year Army study surfaced a key takeaway for business leaders: “Employee well-being initiatives work best when confident leaders present the material and when senior leaders place significant emphasis on the overall effort.”

As you build out your organization’s wellness program, focus on your own happiness as well. Consider working with a wellness coach (studies show roughly one-third of CEOs today already work with this kind of resource). Take time for yourself to recharge. Remember what you love about work and try to tap into that on a regular basis.

Good management also inspires happiness 

Last but not least, don’t forget that managers have a major influence on the happiness of their direct reports.

Whether it’s empowering direct reports with delegation, providing regular encouragement and feedback, helping employees adapt to hybrid work, or infusing meaning into work, managers are perfectly positioned to cultivate a happier, more fulfilled team.

Don’t panic if you don’t have a team made up of 100% optimistic managers; instead, home in on the good ones you do have. Look for strong interpersonal skills, authenticity, a history of personal growth and someone who brings a sense of purpose to work. Elevate your good managers. Grow their team. Have them work with other managers and find ways to disperse their good habits, practices, ideas and enthusiasm throughout the company.

It’s important to remember, however, that good management all comes down to care and consideration for your colleagues and the culture you’re creating. Ultimately, anyone who brings a thoughtful and considerate attitude to work has the power to create a happier workplace.

The bottom line

While it may feel like happiness in the workplace is a luxury, it shouldn’t be. Happier employees and leaders do better work and inspire others to similarly embrace a more optimistic mindset. Put in the work to really spark joy within the workplace and everyone will benefit from the ROI.