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Happiness at Work

By Dr Hugh Stirling - Health & Science Writer, Doctor & One5 Health Blog Editor

This week is International Week of Happiness at Work, an initiative started by two Dutch entrepreneurs Maartje Wolff and Fennande van der Meulen, to raise awareness of the importance of happiness at work, both for employees and employers.


The happiness – health connection


At first glance, happiness appears to be a subjective, rather un-scientific concept. Universally desirable but often intangible, the pursuit of happiness is what motivates many people to get out of bed each morning. In fact, a great deal of research has been done not only into the quantification of happiness [1][2], but also its impact on health. That good health generally leads to greater happiness seems intuitive (and is also scientifically proven [3][4]), but what about the other way around?


It turns out the association between physical health and happiness actually works in both directions. Greater levels of ‘subjective wellbeing’ (happiness) may have protective effects against certain diseases [5]. Happiness is also generally associated with reduced mortality (risk of death) in prospective observational studies, as well as reduced overall morbidity (disease burden) and improved prognosis in a limited number of health conditions [6]. Happiness, and optimism specifically, is also positively associated with longevity [7] whereas subjective unhappiness, including greater levels of stress, anxiety and depression are generally associated with the opposite effect [5][6][7]. So, whilst further research is needed, the association between greater happiness and better health is increasingly clear, and therefore highly relevant to preventive healthcare.


Happiness at work: a win-win for everyone


Most adults spend the majority of their time at work, so it follows that improving happiness at work (and overall happiness by default) will positively impact our health. Happiness at work means happiness outside work, as individuals are more likely to have time and energy to focus on other important areas of their life, such as personal relationships or parenting. According to the Happy Office, an organisation also founded by Wolff and van der Meulen in 2015, happy employees are also more likely to contribute positively to society in other ways, such as volunteering and charity work [8]. And for employers, the benefits add up too. According to the Happiness at Work Week website, ‘… happy employees… are more productive, flexible, resilient, creative, make happier customers and work better with their colleagues’ [9]. So important are these concepts, that many multi-national corporations work with Happy Office to improve their organisational work-culture, leading to greater employee job-satisfaction and productivity [8].


What does happiness at work look like?


According to the Happy Office website, happiness at work comprises four key pillars – purpose, people, progress and positivity – applicable to both organisations and individuals when assessing their current state of happiness at work. Let’s explore these from an individual perspective:


Purpose – A feeling that one’s work is useful and contributes to a greater purpose.


People – Positive connection with others in the workplace. The space to be oneself, feel appreciated and feeling able to speak out when necessary.


Progress – Making progress in meaningful work, achieving results that feel important to the individual, with autonomy and responsibility.


Positivity – Having fun with colleagues, creation of a positive atmosphere free from fear, shame or ridicule, which in turn leads to greater creativity, cooperation and productivity


For a more detailed explanation of these concepts and what constitutes happiness at work, please see the Happy Office website here.


The International Week of Happiness at Work manifesto states that happiness at work is also about creating workplaces that ‘stimulate fun, appreciation, positive feedback, awesome challenges, trust, meaningful results and owning responsibilities’, whilst doing away with ‘unnecessary rules, power, complicated processes and procedures, absenteeism, unmotivated colleagues and terrible managers’ [10]. To read the full manifesto and consider how you or your organisation might take steps to improve happiness at work, please see the International Week of Happiness at Work website.


The Bottom Line

  • Research increasingly shows that there is a bidirectional association between greater levels of happiness and improved health. The healthier we are, the happier we are likely to be, especially as we get older. Conversely, happiness has protective effects against certain disease risks, improves prognosis in a limited number of conditions and lowers overall mortality risk.

  • Adults spend the majority of their time at work, so it follows that happiness at work leads to greater happiness in general, together with associated health benefits. Improving happiness at work should therefore be a priority for both individuals, employers and preventive health practitioners.

  • The International Week of Happiness at Work website has lots of further useful information, including ideas for how support the initiative with colleagues or start a conversation about happiness at work in your workplace.


If you’re feeling unhappy at work, it may be worth considering what steps you could take to change this in your current workplace, or consider alternative employment options, or seek professional career coaching for further guidance.



Useful Links:


The happiness-health connection, Healthline

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/happiness-and-health


International Week of Happiness at Work

https://internationalweekofhappinessatwork.com/


Happy Office – Helping organisations design a culture of job satisfaction, vitality and positivity.

https://happyoffice.nl/?lang=en



References


[1] M. Holder, "Measuring Happiness: How can we measure it?," Psychology Today, May 2017. [Online]. Available: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-happiness-doctor/201705/measuring-happiness-how-can-we-measure-it.


[2] C. Barrington-Leigh, "How do we measure happiness?," Psychology Today, May 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-economics-happiness/201905/how-do-we-measure-happiness.


[3] D. Coyle, "Happiness and Health," Healthline, Aug 2017. [Online]. Available: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/happiness-and-health.


[4] T. Rutledge, "Health is the secret to happiness," Psychology Today, Sept 2022. [Online]. Available: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-healthy-journey/202209/health-is-the-secret-happiness.


[5] A. Steptoe, "Subjective wellbeing, health, and ageing," The Lancet, vol. 385, no. 9968, pp. 640-648, 2014.


[6] A. Steptoe, "Happiness and Health," Annual Review of Public Health, vol. 1, no. 40, pp. 339-359, 2019.


[7] L. O. Lee, "Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in 2 epidemiologic cohorts of men and women," PNAS: Biological Sciences, vol. 116, no. 37, pp. 18357-18362, 2019.


[8] Happy Office, "A positive work culture leads to a flourishing team," Happy Office, [Online]. Available: https://happyoffice.nl/?lang=en. [Accessed Sept 2022].


[9] International Week of Happiness at Work, "Why and what?," International Week of Happiness at Work, [Online]. Available: https://internationalweekofhappinessatwork.com/why/. [Accessed Sept 2022].


[10] International Week of Happiness at Work, "Happiness at work. The norm not the exception," International Week of Happiness at Work, [Online]. Available: https://internationalweekofhappinessatwork.com/manifesto/. [Accessed Sept 2022].