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The Top Five Factors for Happiness at Work

written by Guest Author 13 March 2009

By Timothy Sharp

Dr. Timothy Sharp

Timothy Sharp

Prof. Timothy Sharp, Ph.D., M.Psychol., B.Sc.(Hons) (www.drhappy.com.au) is founder and Chief Happiness Officer of The Happiness Institute. He’s a clinical and coaching psychologist, holding two concurrent academic appointments as Adjunct Professor at UTS School of Business and RMIT School of Health Sciences. He’s also one of Australia’s leading consultants and most sought after speakers, as well as the best selling author of “The Happiness Handbook” and “100 Ways to Happiness: a guide for busy people.”


“Contributors to Your Happiness at Work?”

I recently surveyed the people on one of my databases (those who have specifically expressed an interest in applying the principles of positive psychology within the workplace) and I asked them, quite simply, what they considered to be the top three contributors to happiness at work.  Interestingly, their responses were remarkably consistent. Although the about fifty respondents used slightly different words, the core issues were similar.

Factor #1 – Leadership and Values

First, employees at all levels and across a range of different industries agreed on leadership as important for happiness at work. Respondents repeatedly noted how important it was for the organization as a whole to have clear values and for all who work within the organization to have respect for these values.

One respondent highlighted this by emphasizing her desire that all employees – especially those in positions of authority and leadership – “walked the talk,” and she provided a telling example suggesting that if an employer or organization is ostensibly encouraging staff to seek a balance between work and life that’s it’s not necessarily consistent to send emails at 2a.m.!

As referred to in several chapters of Cameron, Dutton, and Quinn’s wonderful Positive Organizational Scholarship, leadership, therefore, includes clarity of purpose, structure, consistency of behavior, and even better and more positive induction programs.

Factor #2 – Effective, Clear Communication

Following this, but separate enough to warrant its own heading, was the theme of effective and clear communication, especially from management. Although this was indubitably considered an important variable by many if not most of those who responded to the survey, it was also very clear that the theme of communication extended far beyond just the basics of assertiveness.

When people talked about communication they also referred to a desire to have one’s opinions listened to and taken seriously. For example, one respondent referred to the importance of “listening to staff, really hearing what they say, even if it is not what the manager wants to hear.” This point seemed to me to go towards issues of trust and respect.

Once again, this is entirely consistent with several research streams within positive psychology including several of the chapters in Dutton and Ragins’ “Exploring Positive Relationships at Work” as well as Christopher Peterson’s famous summary of positive psychology in three words…”other people matter.”

Factor #3 – Being Thanked and Appreciated

Additionally, employees want to not just be valued as important members of the team and of the organization but, also to be told, frequently and appropriately, that they’re valued.  A dominant theme was “being thanked and appreciated.” Many respondents referred to this in one way or other with specific comments including a desire to more often see or hear about managers and colleagues openly congratulating and/or “sending emails around about wins or efforts by people” as well as the potential benefits that could be associated with “more frequently acknowledging the little achievements that everyone does each day.”

To my eyes, this wonderfully reinforced what we know from Robert Emmons’ inspiring work on appreciation and gratitude as well as Marcial Losada’s famous ratio pointing to the benefits of providing a significantly higher proportion of positive feedback than negative (starting at 3:1 and ostensibly 4 or 5:1).

Factor #4 – Strengths

The fourth theme to emerge from the survey indirectly and sometimes very directly revealed the number of people who are increasingly becoming aware of the importance of and benefits associated with identifying and more fully utilizing the strengths of each and every employee.

Responses referred to the desire to have one’s “skills used more” and the desire to receive more “adequate training leading to the prospect of advancement within the organization.” This is entirely consistent with one of the most exciting areas of positive psychology in which problems and deficits are not ignored but, and this is an important but, strengths, qualities, and attributes receive a far greater proportion of our attention. As has been suggested by Marcus Buckingham and others, there’s little doubt that the return on investment is far greater when individuals and organizations focus more on utilizing strengths, as opposed to just fixing weaknesses.

Factor #5 – Fun

And finally, there was general agreement that most workplaces would benefit from encouraging, fostering, and reinforcing a “more fun and light atmosphere,” one in which there was more “regular use of humor.” Every respondent, in one way or other, seemed to recognize the relationship between happiness at work and productivity: this wasn’t a group of people who just wanted to “muck around.” Those who responded seemed very ambitious and hard working, but they also seemed to inherently understand that when employees are having fun, they’re also more energized; when people are happy and enjoying themselves (at least some or most of the time) then they’re more productive and nicer to be around (an issue well summarized in Gostick and Christoper’s “The Levity Effect”).

In Summary

The results of the survey are, quite interestingly, remarkably consistent with the findings from the science of positive psychology and reassuringly, they’re also very consistent with what we, here at The Happiness Institute (www.thehappinessinstitute.com) teach people to do each and every day. Some people out there are already doing it, and that’s great; for others, there’s no reason you can’t aim towards doing more of these things and I can guarantee that if you do…you’ll reap the rewards.



Buckingham, M (2007). Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance. NY: Free Press.

Cameron,K., Dutton, J. & Quinn, R. (Eds.) Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline, pp. 296-308. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.

Dutton, J. & Ragins, B. Eds. (2007). Exploring Positive Relationships at Work: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation (Lea’s Organization and Management). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Emmons, R. (2007) Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Boston: Houghton Mifflan Company.

Gostick, A. and Christoper, S. (2008) “The Levity Effect.” New Jersey; John Wiley & Sons.

Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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Kirsten Cronlund 13 March 2009 - 9:35 pm

Thanks for this article, Timothy, and welcome to PPND.

I wonder if you could talk more about what people identified as valuable in their leaders. Was it emotional intelligence competencies, like empathy and self-awareness, or was it more things like fairness and justice?

Kirsten Cronlund

Laura 17 March 2009 - 4:04 pm

Sounds exactly like what students are looking for in their favourite classrooms too!

Senia Maymin 19 March 2009 - 12:38 pm


Thank you for this great article! I’m delighted that your sample showed the frequent appreciation and the fun factors. I think those are so crucial – but in a sense, those are both factors that are hard to create without either it coming naturally or without deliberately planning for these vibes in the office.

Much thanks, and welcome to PPND!

Nicholas Hall 19 March 2009 - 2:18 pm

Hi Tim,
This is a very clear, succinct, and applicable article. As the manager of a small department, I am on the constant lookout for ways of engaging my staff and making it a better place to work. Secretly, I want to make it “fun,” but then I think “how can I do that in a serious way?” What I see here is that it doesn’t need to be serious at all. In fact, the more humor and levity, the better the workplace… and maybe I can do that by regularly ‘communicating’ the ‘appreciation’ I have for their unique ‘strengths.’ Plus, maybe being a more humorous leader that walks the talk of strengths, communication, and appreciation as well… that could really liven things up around here, and make us more productive as well.

Timothy T.C. So 19 March 2009 - 3:26 pm

Hi Tim –

Welcome to PPND! Thanks for your sharing and I enjoy reading this insightful piece very much!
Re factor #5 – FUN, I have once spoken to a lawyer about this and his response was a bit negative, something like ‘no one in our profession would think law firm is a place for ‘fun”. Any thoughts on this?

Best, Timothy


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