Smile: You’re in the happiness business

How joy is essential to any successful company


“We can’t always be having fun. Fun couldn’t be one of our values. It’s unprofessional. We don’t want slides and games in the office. We aren’t Google.”

Each of the statements in this quote — from a workshop we held recently — reveal beliefs about how you might feel about your business. We often experience pushback from clients when we ask them to explore what happiness means to their culture. It regularly comes up when we discuss values.

Values are the behaviours that drive business relationships. They are a critical part of who you are and help to define your culture. So why are we so afraid of fun in the workplace? Why are words like play, joy, and happiness used for some companies but not for others?

What I hear when clients say that there is no real role for happiness in business is their belief that work must be serious, demanding and difficult in order to achieve results. I’ve even known clients to say that employee happiness is irrelevant when it comes to meeting goals. They believe success in business is an outcome (hitting targets, selling the business) rather than seeing it as a journey, one that could be enjoyable and beneficial for everyone connected to the company.

In The How of Happiness, Sonya Lyubomirsky defines happiness as:

“the experience of joy, contentment or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful and worthwhile”

Happiness is a way of being — not an outcome in itself.

When we set up Within we wanted to enshrine our philosophy of the importance of happiness into the foundations of our business. We agreed four core values and a guiding vision to help us understand what the business should feel like as we grew. It was very important to have a core value around ‘fun’ since we had all been working for many years in a sector that was demanding, negative, and often left us feeling undervalued. So the value of “Make change fun” was agreed by our partners. To us it’s about making the journey enjoyable for our partners and clients. If change is fun, it will be something to move towards, inspiring and more creative.

Our vision contains several statements including “I’m on an adventure”. It reminds our partners that growth comes with twists and turns. The context of adventure allows us to enjoy growth and see challenges as ways of learning.

Other businesses have similar views. Zappos’ purpose is to “live and deliver WOW” and drives its culture on ten core values — including “be adventurous” and “create fun and a little weirdness”. They understand that the experience of the brand is what makes them valuable. CEO Tony Hsieh stresses that the key to the brand’s success is the culture:

“Our philosophy is that we’re willing to make short-term sacrifices (including lost revenue and profits) if we believe that the long-term benefits are worth it. Protecting the company culture and sticking to core values is a long term benefit.”

In 2009 Amazon acquired Zappos in a deal worth $1.2 billion. While some entrepreneurs might see this as the ultimate success, Hsieh sees this simply as a milestone in the Zappos story:

“People, employees or customers, can really sense your passion about something. Your number-one goal really shouldn’t be money. It should be something you are passionate about, something that has meaning. Then the money will follow.”

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While not every brand is passionate about increasing joy in customers lives, as humans we are all looking for happiness.

The Dalai Lama says — “everyone wants to be happy. No one wants to suffer”. Yet we accept suffering as a norm behaviour in our jobs. “I’m so busy — you have to work hard — no pain no gain — kill the competition” — these have been the mantras of our time in business. We are martyrs to our own suffering and have developed the belief that this is what success feels like. Yet a recent study by the University of Warwick revealed that happy people are 12% more productive. So while we have been telling ourselves that being successful at work should be hard, the opposite is true — the more we enjoy our work, the better we will perform.

Productivity is also linked to the flow state described by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is a state of concentration. You have experienced this before — perhaps playing a sport, writing, playing music, or at work when you get deep into any task. The result is a feeling of losing time and being fully present in what you are doing. It is a place of joy — a blissful satisfaction. In flow we have the ability to achieve great things by entering a state of pure creativity.

An environment that encourages play and personal development will benefit from this state. We encourage flow when we balance our skill with the challenge we face. Building our skills as challenges increase keeps us in flow more often — and it is here we will be our happiest at work and most productive.

In his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman predicts that this element of happiness will become more valuable than profit:

“Enjoying the state of flow on the job will soon overtake material reward as the principle reason for working. Corporations that promote this state for their employees will overtake corporations that rely only on monetary reward”

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Happiness will benefit every business — from increasing value and productivity to delivering on the behaviours that drive your culture forward. Most importantly, a focus on happiness will help you create a business that feels great to be involved in as it grows. Here are some important things to keep in mind:

A happy business needs leadership

The culture of any company is developed by the leadership. How does your leadership team embody the values of the business? What do they do to reinforce behaviours that encourage wellbeing and creativity? How do they walk the talk? Creating a fun and fulfilling place to work does not mean having video games and and a keg in the canteen. You decide what joy means for the culture, and what the desired behaviour set is based on your values.

Share your vision of growth

I asked a group of founders and managers of creative agencies what they believed success looked like for their business. The first response from one participant in the session was “35% growth”. I asked where that figure came from — he said it was “what investors expected”. If we define growth of our business purely on turnover or profit to meet other people’s expectations we quickly lose sight of where we are going and why. Having a vision for growth should be about what the business looks and feels like as we succeed, not a target or spreadsheet of numbers. What is your vision and how do you share this with your people — employees and customers? Why is this important to you?

Develop your people

We know from flow that the balance between challenge and skill increases the chance of an optimum state. Personal development is key — what strategy do you have for learning in the business? What resources do you commit to encourage learning and demonstrate how important it is to your culture? How do you support failure as a learning process?

Understand the impact

Asking people if they are happy is subjective without context. What measures might you put in place to better understand flow? How might you take regular pulse surveys to discover what makes people feel most productive and aligned in the business? And what do you have in place to acknowledge feedback from your team when thinks aren’t working so well?

Remember: happiness is a way of being, not an outcome. Why wouldn’t you want to create a business around that?

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