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Delivering Happiness: Zappos and Positive Psychology (Book Review)

written by Jeremy McCarthy 7 June 2010

Jeremy McCarthy, MAPP '09, is the Group Director of Spa for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group leading their internationally acclaimed luxury spa division featuring 44 world-class spa projects open or under development worldwide. Jeremy's blog is The Psychology of Wellbeing, and he teaches courses and offers a free webinar on Positive Leadership. He has also authored the book, The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing: A Guide to the Science of Holistic Healing. Like The Psychology of Wellbeing on Facebook or follow Jeremy on Twitter (@jeremycc). Full bio. Jeremy's articles are here.

Delivering HappinessIn Delivering Happiness, Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, opens the door and lets anyone interested come in and learn about the secrets to his company’s success. This is not the first door he’s opened. Zappos regularly allows people to come into their offices for extensive tours of the facilities. They’ll also send a free copy of their “culture book,” which they claim to be key to their success, to anyone who asks for it. And last month, they broadcast their employee meeting over the web to anyone who wanted to listen in (if you missed it, you can watch the recording here.) In fact, Zappos has recently created a whole new branch of their organization, ZapposInsights, which is dedicated to sharing with the world the secret sauce that makes Zappos such an amazing place to work. (You can read more about this on my Psychology of Wellbeing blog today: “Why Zappos is the Workplace Utopia of the 21st Century”.)

BOOK REVIEW: Hsieh, T. (2010). Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose. New York: Business Plus.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos

Tony Hsieh,
CEO of Zappos

It is hard to understand why any CEO would be willing to invite colleagues and competitors alike to learn how to re-create the culture that has been at the root of the company’s success. But reading Delivering Happiness, which is autobiographical in nature, you follow Hsieh (pronounced “Shay”) on his path from a quest for profits to passion and finally to purpose. If your goal is more profits, sharing your ideas with competitors is a horrible idea. But if you want to change the world, you have to let people in, argues Hsieh.

Many people don’t realize that Hsieh was already a success story before he founded Zappos. He co-founded an internet start-up called LinkExchange at the height of the dot com boom and sold it to Microsoft for $265 million. It turns out that getting filthy stinking rich while doing something you are not passionate about is a good way to learn that wealth and happiness do not necessarily go hand in hand. It helped Hsieh realize he needed something more.

Zappos VIPZappos evolved out of Hsieh’s quest for meaning. While selling shoes online may not seem, at first glance, like the most meaningful of business models, to Hsieh, the product and the platform are irrelevant. Tony Hsieh is delivering happiness to customers and employees. For him, the company is not about shoes at all: it is about a culture of happiness and the very best in customer service. His hope is that one day, no one will even remember that Zappos started as a shoe company. It will simply be the place to go to get whatever you need, efficiently, and in a way that brings a little more joy into peoples’ lives.

But Hsieh seems not to be content with the mission of dominating the planet in customer service. He has found a way to create a workplace that is fun and engaging and brings meaning to employees and customers. He wants to be a role model for changing the way the world works. He recently said that Zappos is “starting a movement” by showing others how to create the culture that has turned Zappos customers and clients alike into loyal, raving fans.

The book is not, by the way, specifically about positive psychology. In fact, positive psychology is not mentioned as influencing the business until page 229 (of a 244 page book). On the other hand, Hsieh devotes the last chapter to his own studies of positive psychology and how they have informed a lot of his decisions. By including that chapter, Hsieh makes this the most prominent public example of the application of positive psychology to a business. In the ten years of its existence, Zappos created enough value to be bought by Amazon for $1.2 billion (Source: Techcrunch and New York Times). As a case study, Zappos is a success story of astronomical proportions, which means that while Hsieh is revolutionizing the way we look at work, he might also be revolutionizing the way we look at positive psychology.

Note: You may be able to get a free copy of Delivering Happiness. Zappos has generously provided me with an extra advance paperback copy of the book to give away to one of my readers. I will randomly select a winner from among the comments on this blog and my Psychology of Wellbeing blog to receive a free copy. Commenting on both blogs will increase your chances. Winner will be selected and notified on June 21.



Editor’s Note: For almost all book reviews on PPND, including this one, a copy of the book is provided to us by the publisher or author.

Hsieh, T. (2010). Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose. New York: Business Plus.

Tony Hsieh courtesy of Laughing Squid
Everyone is a VIP on the Zappos tour courtesy of Robert Scoble

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Dan Bowling 7 June 2010 - 3:34 pm

Jeremy, great book review. I have heard a lot about Tony and fully endorse his philosophy of happiness in the workplace (the working title of my book if I ever get around to working on it again). Always enjoy your posts, particularly your shameful marketing attempt to drive people to your blog!!!
(Where I am headed right now because I want to win the free book!)

Tim 7 June 2010 - 5:06 pm

Thanks Jeremy,
It’s wonderful to hear about a workplace where the employees happiness matters to the boss. Thanks very much for the review.
All the best,

MMcBride 8 June 2010 - 2:53 am

I have read about Hsieh and saw an interview with him. What an inspiring example of what business can do. I believe that it isn’t so much what your “product or service” is, but always it is the intention behind it that make all the difference. Here is wishing Hsieh all the best at helping the world see things differently and appreciate what Positive Psychology can offer. And a big THANKS, Jeremy, for all the helpful links!

MMcBride 8 June 2010 - 2:55 am

I have read about Hsieh and saw an interview with him. What an inspiring example of what business can do. I believe that it isn’t so much what your “product or service” is, but always it is the intention behind it that make all the difference. Here is wishing Hsieh all the best at helping the world see things differently and appreciate what Positive Psychology can offer. And a big THANKS, Jeremy, for all the helpful links!

P.S. I would by “psyched” to get the free book, but that’s not why I commented 🙂

oz 8 June 2010 - 4:29 am

Jeremy – so what was your big takeaway from the book – something you didn’t know about. Perhaps something that PP doesn’t know about?

Thought I’d ask a nice question for once – not that I’m angling for the book

iseult 8 June 2010 - 7:30 am

Would love to know more about how the company got started along positive psychology lines, what they did different from other companies and how they treat their employees. I wonder how the company is structured and how they aim to make their profits along ethical lines, as I assume integrity plays a role in positive psychology. If I get the book, perhaps I will understand this better and could devise a similar company. Very exciting stuff indeed.

Jeremy McCarthy 8 June 2010 - 7:31 am

Dan, thanks for your comments (in spite of my transparent attempt to lure you in with a free book offer!) Would love to hear more feedback from you once you have a chance to read the book.

Jeremy McCarthy 8 June 2010 - 7:38 am

Good question Oz (and nice to see your softer side :-))
I wrote about some of my takeaways in my blog, but I think what is most surprising/interesting to me is the way their culture is created out of freedom rather than rules or guidelines. The best example of this is their culture book when they decided to throw away the traditional employee manual and just ask each of their employees to write something from the heart about their experience at Zappos. There is no editing and employees could share the good and the bad of working at Zappos (like anywhere else, there is both.) What better way to orient a new employee than to have him/her learn from the other employees who are already there and what their experience has been. I imagine because they share these stories so publicly they get the opposite of the watercooler effect at most companies. Rather than it being “cool” to complain about the company while standing around the watercooler, the coolest people are the ones who are truly living and connecting with the virtues of the company (not only at work but in their personal lives.)

Another example of this freedom came when they were laying people off due to the economy. Things were pretty bad and employees asked if they were still allowed to tweet and blog about things that were going on at Zappos. Tony’s social media policy never changed–it has one rule: “Be honest and use your best judgement.”

Most businesses run based on fear and put rules in place to try and control for the possible bad things that can happen. This is an example of a business that expects the best from their people and gives them the freedom to achieve it.

Jeremy McCarthy 8 June 2010 - 7:40 am

Iseult, Thanks for your comment. I’m very careful any time I write a book review to not give away too much of the content of the book so that it does not become redundant to someone who reads it or has read it. If you have a chance, read the book. The answers to your questions will be answered, and it is not a dry business book, but a great story of a man who has tried many things, had many failures and had many spectacular successes. Zappos is by no means perfect, but there is a lot that we can learn from Hsieh’s out-of-the-box approach to business.

Jadegirl 8 June 2010 - 8:28 am


It all resonates with me, particularly because I work in a large organization that has some very restrictive policies for employees. I see the dependency and passivity that generates – and what a lack of dignity and respect it shows for people’s talents and contributions!

So in addition to angling for a book, and with apologies for going off-topic, I’d like to know – is Tony single? 😉

Jason M. 8 June 2010 - 10:25 am

Definitely looking forward to this read. I’ve been interested for some time in the Zappos story, but I have yet to make it to their HQ for a tour…something on my list next time I’m in Vegas. I’m especially curious to see if there are any architectural manifestations of the culture aside from wacky cubicle personal decorating and the employee throne.

I’m also interested in the idea of play at work, but more than total zany, goof-off kinda play, how can one engender the type of totally-in-the-zone, “flow” type team behavior that you feel and experience such as when playing a highly competitive game of volleyball? There is absolutely intensity, a commitment to a result, interdependence, and when things are really working, a unique buzz of happiness like no other.

Denis 8 June 2010 - 10:38 am

I’d love to learn more about why other companies can’t (or choose not to) embody this kind of business methodology. “Delivering Happiness” definitely looks like it will be an interesting read.

oz 8 June 2010 - 3:11 pm

Jeremy – a simple question. Does zappos create happy people or do happy people gravitate to zappos?

I suspect the latter.

Ultimately happiness comes from within – not happy at work – change your attitude or change your job

Jeremy McCarthy 9 June 2010 - 10:23 am

Jadegirl, I forwarded your question on to Tony himself via Twitter. I haven’t gotten an answer yet . . . I’ll keep you posted if I get an answer!

Jeremy McCarthy 9 June 2010 - 10:28 am

Oz,”change your attitude or change your job” is easier said than done, and certainly there are some conditions in which it is easier to find happiness than others. I don’t think there are “happy people” and “unhappy people” per se but even if I were to accept your theory, it would be a question of the chicken or the egg. In other words are you suggesting that a group of happy people all happened to start working at Zappos and created an entirely new working culture? Or isn’t it more likely that a certain culture has been established that attracts, and keeps the happiest people. The truth is probably both, but either way, there is value in learning about the conditions that create the phenomenon.

Amanda Horne 10 June 2010 - 7:03 am

Hi Jeremy – it’s great to hear about Zappos. Thank you! Is this an example of someone who has great commonsense and was applying ‘positive psychology’ to his organisation without consciously applying the research and interventions or without knowing about that field until later?? Sounds like Hsieh knew what to do, and didn’t need the scientists to guide him.


Jeremy McCarthy 10 June 2010 - 8:31 am

Great question Amanda,

Like many people Tony knew what it was like to be unhappy at work and he wanted to change that. Personally, he did have a fascination with understanding happiness and so he did read a lot of the literature from positive psychology and has thought a lot about how to apply it. I wouldn’t say he didn’t need anyone to guide him. In the book he talks about a lot of mistakes he made along the way and lessons that he learned. His interest in understanding happiness and the research in positive psychology have definitely helped inform a lot of his decisions.

I think one aspect that may make Tony unique is his ability to avoid the “golden handcuffs”. Several times in his history Tony has sacrificed what would bring him the most money for what he felt would bring him the most meaning or happiness. Those are tough decisions to make and most people become trapped in the most economically comfortable position they can get to, even though it may not be fulfilling to them. I wonder what makes one person sacrifice wealth and security for a chance at meaning and happiness when so many cannot?

Ryan 14 June 2010 - 12:47 am

Thanks for the review Jeremy. I’ve been looking for positive/organizational psych reads, and this one is moving to the front of the line!

Louisa Jewell 31 August 2010 - 4:58 pm

Hi Jeremy,
I had the pleasure of meeting Tony here in Toronto. To answer Oz’s question, Zappos’ philosophy is to hire people that are aligned with the corporate culture. They design behavioural questions and make observations throughout the entire hiring process to see if people ‘fit’. He doesn’t care if you have a PhD from Harvard on the subject and are the best in your field- If you don’t ‘fit’, you don’t get hired. He even asks the bus driver who drives the candidates from the hotel to Zappos for their interview. If he was not treated well by the candidate, regardless of whether they did stellar in the interview, they are not hired. So if Zappos is a ‘happy culture’ then maybe happiness begets happiness.
Thanks for a great review.

Jeremy McCarthy 1 September 2010 - 8:34 am

HI Louisa, that is a great point. Early in my management career I used to “override” the decision of my human resources department or my assistant manager if I liked a candidate. I felt that since I was the most senior person I could make a better decision and I had a hard time letting a candidate (that I really liked) go just because someone in our HR office didn’t like them. Over the years I realized that this strategy did not help me separate the wheat from the chaff, and I had to change my ways. I actually increased the number of interviews and any one of those interviewers had veto power on a candidate. I wanted to make sure only the best got through.

I think a lot of managers (myself included) look at job applicants like they are a lump of clay and we overestimate our own ability to mold them into the worker that we want them to be. But years later, we find we are still stuck with a lump of clay. Now I try to find the people that are going to be superstars on day one. A lot of candidates know how to shine in an interview, so judging how they treat the bus driver (or the receptionist in Human Resources) is a good way to see their true colors.

Louisa Jewell 2 September 2010 - 10:08 am

Thanks so much for sharing your personal experience with this. Zappos just replaced their beloved Alfred (the CFO) with a new CFO (he wanted to move back to the Bay area). They scanned many comments about all the candidates. All of the comments had to do with fit. So they picked a CFO who had both the credentials and fit – according to many people at all levels who interviewed or interacted with him. It is nice to see that they don’t just do this with lower levele candidates. They do it right to the top!

Jeremy McCarthy 2 September 2010 - 10:31 am

Actually what would have been better would be to see them promoting someone from within. Because managers get to know the weaknesses of their employees there is a tendency to always think there is a better candidate “somewhere out there” than the resources they already have. But obviously there isn’t always an internal candidate and I love the idea of “fit” being a critical selection criterion. It ties in well with Jim Collins’ idea of “first who, then what” i.e. get the right group of people together and only then decide what is the right strategy to execute against.

Louisa Jewell 2 September 2010 - 10:46 am

They sort of hired within. They hired someone from Amazon (the current owners of Zappos). They still operate as a separate company so not sure that counts! I agree, I think it’s good to hire from within because if offers those in the company an opportunity to move into higher level roles.

Counselling Southampton 26 September 2011 - 4:58 am

This is very inspiring. It is really true that for every action we take, we should ensure that it is not against our will because this can bring happiness to a person. If we think positively then, we’ll come up a positive result. It is just a matter of believing the power of mind.

Marcus 6 February 2015 - 7:28 am

Great article, looks like a good read.

Bren Murphy 20 March 2016 - 2:24 am

Hi Jeremy,
Thanks for a wonderful introduction and some really positive referrals – it is a pleasure to take in your experience and knowledge on your blog.
Bren Murphy
Personal Coaching Sydney


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