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I will try to create more happiness and less unhappiness in the world around me


At work

Our happiness and work are related. Work can provide opportunities for many of the things that help to make us happy such as: connecting with others; learning and growing our skills; using our strengths; achieving our goals and finding meaning. Happy employees also help to make organisations more successful.

Whether we are an employee or a line manager, there are things we can all do to help make our workplaces happier.

Our psychological needs and well-being

Research suggests that there are three fundamental human needs that must be satisfied for us to function well and be healthy psychologically. These are: autonomy(the need to have choice over our behaviour and actions), mastery (the need to feel competent) and relatedness (the need to feel connected to and cared about by others).[1][2] The satisfaction of these needs has been shown to predict psychological well-being in a wide range of countries and different types of cultures.[3] As human beings we are all driven to ensure these needs are met. Indeed Deci and Ryan the psychologists that are best known for this research, liken these needs to "innate psychological nutriments" - things that nourish and sustain us.[1]

The extent to which our work can help to satisfy these needs will have a big influence on how much we enjoy our work and, since work of some sort is a large part of many people's lives, will influence how happy we are overall.[2][4]

For example, we might satisfy the need for mastery through using and developing our skills and our need for relatedness through the relationships we form with close colleagues. And the degree to which we feel autonomy has significant implications for how motivated we are and the fulfilment we experience in our jobs.[4]

These needs also have an influence on how productive we are, how willing we are to help others and to contribute beyond the confines of our job.[2][4] So, for those of us that supervise, manage or lead others, these needs have implications for how we motivate and reward our people and how we design the jobs and work in our organizations.

work as a source of happiness

In addition to meeting our basic psychological needs, work can be important source of other elements that contribute to happiness such as positive emotions, engagement, meaning, purpose and accomplishment.[5]

Emotions are part of being human and we don't leave them at home when we go to work. We will all experience a range of different positive and negative emotions over the course of very single working day.[6] Science is showing us that positive emotions are important, not just for how happy we feel. They can actually increase our capacity to generate ideas, increase the ways available to us to take action, and help build intellectual and social resources. They can also have an undoing effect on the impact of negative emotions.[6]

Given these benefits, positive emotions at work can facilitate both individual and organizational growth.

In terms of happiness, engagement means the experience we have when we are so absorbed in and focused on what we are doing that we loose sense of time, consciousness of ourselves and what is going on around us, aside from the task in hand. Usually tasks that engage us are challenging, at or just beyond our level of skill,[8] and so help fulfil our need for mastery. Another characteristic of engagement in this sense (or 'flow' as it is known) is that whilst we are experiencing we don't feel any emotion, but afterwards have a deep sense of gratification.[8] We can experience flow in activities such as our hobbies and clearly, for some of us there is the potential to experience flow at work.

Feeling a sense of meaning and purpose or that we are connected to something bigger and beyond ourselves is associated with being happier, more satisfied with life and having better psychological well-being. It is regarded as a key component of happiness4 of which one potential source is work.

Employees often talk of the desire to feel that their work makes a difference to others[9] or for the world and indeed there are increasing calls for organisations to be a force for positive social good or change as well as profit.[10][11]

Research shows that there are also ways that people can 'craft' their jobs in ways that help them find meaning at work. This isn't about changing core responsibilities but about how we approach and perform our duties and about doing more activities that we enjoy. The benefits of job crafting have been shown in a wide range of roles from cleaners through to executives.[12]

Human beings are goal directed and some definitions of well-being include accomplishment.[5] Many of us are used to goals being set as part of our work, be these for our individual performance, that of our team, or the organisation as a whole. It is important for happiness that we set and choose goals that are personally intrinsically motivating (see below) and help us meet our basic psychological needs.[2] The extent to which we can see alignment between these goals and our work, will contribute to how happy we feel.

The Action for Happiness Keys to Happier Living, are about ways that help to increase happiness and indeed are ways to directly or indirectly satisfy our basic human needs. We can apply the keys in the different domains of our lives, including work.

why happiness at work matters

Freud said that work and love are the cornerstones of being human. As work is a very big part of most people's lives, it can significantly impact how happy we are overall. Yet how many of us think work detracts rather than adds to happiness?

We are familiar with terms such as 'Blue Monday' or Thank God it's Friday', suggesting that we feel happier when we are not at work. And indeed a recent study showed this to be the case.[6][13] If our aim is to increase happiness and reduce misery, then happiness at work is an important issue for us as individuals and as groups or organisations.

Research shows that happier workers are more liked by their colleagues and co-workers, earn more money, are seen as performing better and as having more fresh ideas than their less happy colleagues. They stay with their employers for longer, are more likely to contribute beyond the requirements of their job and help out colleagues, have fewer sick days and are more punctual.[14][15][16]

And it doesn't stop there. Our psychological well-being can impact on our physical health, which again can impact our ability to perform at work. And our happiness spreads to others - within work, at home and in our communities.[18]

So, if work can satisfy our psychological needs and other factors which are essential to our happiness (see above), as well as provide us with an income, and happier workers have many advantages over those who are less happy, it seems that increasing happiness in the workplace can pay for everyone - employees, leaders, trustees or shareholders alike.[15] And in more than just financial ways.

As work plays such a central role in adult lives, so unemployment can have severely detrimental effects on our happiness.[19] Indeed, for individuals it can be so damaging, through loss of self-esteem, insecurity, loss of social connections as well as the financial impact, that they never recover their pre-unemployment levels of happiness.[14]This has a ripple effect on our communities and societies.[19] Perhaps an increased focus on happiness (and the consequences of unhappiness) will mean that organisations think differently about redundancy and find new and creative ways to avoid it or cushion it's impact.

Employee engagement

Employee engagement has received a lot of attention by employers in recent years. It has a variety of definitions such as 'going the extra mile at work' or 'a set of positive attitudes and behaviours enabling high job performance[20][21],or 'being fully involved and enthusiastic about your work'.[13]

There are strong links between employee engagement at work and organisation performance.[20][21][22]Yet studies show that the number of highly engaged employees is low.[20][21] Indeed the importance of employee engagement has been recognized as an issue for the UK economy.[20]

Whilst the concept employee engagement overlaps with engagement as a component of individual happiness it is not the same. Employee engagement models generally have not considered the full range of elements that contribute to happiness.[13]Indeed some researchers have argued that high engagement in this sense can have costs for employees.[22] With increasing knowledge from the science of positive psychology perhaps it is time to broaden the focus to 'positive engagement' or 'workplace happiness', for example including enjoyment, challenge and meaning at work.[13] There are now a few examples of successful organisations that are putting happiness at their core.[23]

Work and motivation

The emergence of research on our basic psychological needs has implications for the way we think about our motivation in relation to work and its impact on how happy we feel. It also has implications for our organisations and their leaders in terms of the way they seek to motivate and reward people and other considerations such as the culture in the workplace, the design of jobs and the development of supervisors and managers.

Motivation is what moves us to act, think and develop.Psychologists Deci and Ryan discovered that there are different types of motivation, which lead to different degrees of well-being. Indeed they say that for our well-being, the type of motivation is more important than the amount of motivation we have.

According to Deci and Ryan, different types of motivation are on a continuum, at one end is 'intrinsic' motivation and at the other, 'extrinsic'. [4] When we are intrinsically motivated we do things for their own sake, because we find the activity itself interesting and satisfying. When we are extrinsically motivated we do things because they lead to something else (e.g. to get money or avoid punishment).[4]

The more likely something satisfies our basic psychological needs the more likely we are to be intrinsically motivated to do it and the greater the impact on our well-being.[4] In relation to work, our needs to be autonomous (i.e. to choose what we do) and have mastery (the urge to develop our skills in ways that matter to us) are especially important (since our need for relatedness is very often met outside of work).[11]

At work (as in other aspects of life), of course there will be things we have to do that we don't find intrinsically satisfying. So having a sense of meaning and purpose is also an important motivator, since if we aren't fully intrinsically motivated to do our tasks, this moves us closer along the continuum towards it, [11] One way in which we may find meaning in our work is in being able to see the ways it contributes to the well-being of others, [24] or makes a positive difference in the world.[23]

In many scientific studies, autonomous motivation (intrinsic motivation or close to it) has been shown to lead to higher levels of positive emotion, better understanding, productivity and performance at our jobs (especially tasks that have any degree of complexity or require some element of creative thinking), more persistence and higher levels of helping others. Importantly, it is strongly associated with greater psychological well-being and lower levels of burn-out. [4][24] Further studies are showing that for some roles (particularly those that are less complex), a combination of both intrinsic and motivation to help others can lead to greatest productivity and performance.[24]

increasing happiness at work

So what are the implications of this new scientific research and theories of motivation?

Whilst money is important for achieving a basic standard of living, as individuals we need to become more aware of the factors that really brings us happiness. This includes knowing what motivates us and gives meaning and purpose in our lives, over and above extrinsic factors such as wealth, status, having the latest 'hot list' possessions or fame.[2] As well as how we'd like to develop our skills and strengths. And research is showing that we can take responsibility for consciously deciding to find ways to get more from our work.[23]

The Action for Happiness Keys to Happier Living will help you think about what brings happiness in your life as a whole andwill help you to explore ways in which you can increase it at work.

For employers the growing body of evidence from positive psychology, the economics of happiness and related disciplines, is starting to provide a roadmap for the ways we motivate, develop and reward our employees, train managers and the cultures of our organizations. It seems that there may be ways that we can simultanelously improve the happiness and well-being of our people, make a difference in the world and achieve our financial and other performance targets.[11][23]

Whilst the subject of organization and job re-design can be complicated, as a manager there are some simple actions you can take to start to make a difference.


1 Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. (2000). The "what" and "why" of goal pursuits " Human needs and the self-determination of behaviour. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227- 268.

2 Ryan, R.M., Huta, V & Deci, E.L. (2008). Living well: A self-determination theory perspective on Eudaimonia. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9, 139-170.

3 Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development and health. Canadian Psychology,49, 182-185.

4 Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. (2008). Facilitating optimal motivation and psychological well-being across life's domains. Canadian Psychology,49, 14-23.

5 Seligman, M.E.P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. NY:Free Press

6 Ryan, R.M., Bernstein, J.H. & Brown, K.W. (2010). Weekends, work and well-being: Psychological need satisfactions and day of the week effects on mood, vitality and physical symptoms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 29, 95-122.

7 Sekerka, L. & Fredrickson, B.L. (2010). Working positively toward transformative cooperation. In P.A. Linley, S. Harrington & N. Garcea (Eds), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work. NY: Oxford University Press

8 Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness. London: Nicolas Brealey

9 Grant, A.M. (2007). Relational job design and the motivation to make a prosocial difference. Academy of Management Review, 32, 393-417.

10 Linley,P.A., N.Garcea, & Harrington, S. (2011). Organizational applications of positive psychology: taking stock and a research roadmap for the future. In K.M.Sheldon, Kashdan,T.B. & Steger,M.F. Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward. NY: Oxford University Press.

11 Pink,D.H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. London: Penguin

12 Wrzesniewski, A. (2003). Finding positive meaning in work. In K.S.Cameron, Dutton,J.E. & Quinn, R.E. (Eds). Positive Organization Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline. CA: Berrett-Koehler; See also Wrzesniewski, A., Berg, J.M. & Dutton, J.E. (2010, June) Turn the job you have into the one you want. Harvard Business Review.

13 Stairs, M. & Galpin, M. (2010) Positive engagement: from employee engagement to workplace happiness. In P.A. Linley, S. Harrington & N. Garcea (Eds), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work. NY: Oxford University Press

14 Diener, E. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking The Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Oxford: Blackwell.

15 Judge, T.A., Thoresen, C.J., Bono, J.E. & Patton, G.K. (2001).The job satisfaction-job performance relationship: A qualitative and quantitative review. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 376-407

16 Oswald, A.J., Proto, E. & Sgroi, D. (2008). Happiness and productivity. Warwick Economic Research Papers. No. 882, Department of Economics, Warwick University.

17 Wright, T.A. (2010). More than meets the eye: The role of employee well-being in organizational research. In P.A. Linley, S. Harrington & N. Garcea (Eds), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work. NY: Oxford University Press

18 Fowler,J., & Christakis,N. (2009) Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. British Medical Journal, 338 pp. 1-13

19 Layard, R.L. (2011). Happiness: Lessons from a new science. London :Penguin

20 MacLeod, D. and Clarke,N. (2009) Engaging for Success: enhancing performance through employee engagement. A report to Government Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. London, United Kingdom: Crown copyright

21 MacLeod, D. and Brady, C. (2008) The Extra Mile: How to engage your people to win. Harlow, Great Britain: Pearson Education Limited/FT Prentice-Hall;

22 George, J.M. (2011). The wider context, costs and benefits of work engagement. European Journal of Work & Organizational Psychology, 20, 53-59.

23 Linley,P.A., N.Garcea, & Harrington, S. (2011). Organizational applications of positive psychology: taking stock and a research roadmap for the future. In K.M.Sheldon, Kashdan,T.B. & Steger,M.F. Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward. NY: Oxford University Press.

24 Grant,A.M. (2008). Does intrinsic motivation fuel the prosocial fire? Motivational synergy in predicting persistence, performance and productivity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 48-58.


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