Five ways to embed a culture of happiness

Five ways to embed a culture of happiness

Just as every person has a personality, every single organization on the planet already has a culture. But what people really mean when they say they want to embed culture at work is that they want to create a positive culture.  One that, combined with the people and the products or services that are sold, makes for an entity that is bigger, stronger and more impactful than the sum of its parts. In my view, the route to achieving this elusive mix and cultivating it into whatever shape it may turn out to be, is best served by an ethos that supports and nurtures a concept that is an almost universal goal – happiness.

While happiness is something that everyone has experienced, I sometimes find it surprising how watered down and insincere it can become once applied in the workplace.  I’ve seen many corporations take a dehumanized approach, ignoring relationships to instead install quirky decorations or host lavish social events. But these changes are superficial and for the most part, ineffective. A distrustful and dissatisfied employee cannot be bought with a beanbag and a gym membership. We need to take a wider view of what the fundamental drivers are for a happy organization and truly understand what makes for a good job. With this in place, positive cultures thrive.

Even given positive psychology’s relative infancy, there is a growing body of scientific research around communication, motivation and wellbeing which give us strong indicators on the points to focus on for a happy culture. Here are the big five: Connect, Be fair, Empower, Challenge, and Inspire.


People love to work together. The key word is ‘together’. Togetherness requires a climate of trust, and the willingness to listen. But connection requires more than just putting people in the same room., an online appliance retailer, goes beyond the norm in encouraging its employees to connect. As well as employing a dedicated team to provide a variety of free events, it also pays half the cost of any social endeavor involving five or more employees. Research shows that social relationships are strongly linked to wellbeing, to such an extent that many academic consider them a basic psychological need. meets this need; six out of seven of their employees report that people go out of their way to help each other, and the majority says that they love their jobs.

Be fair…

Fairness can be a common blind spot in the dog-eat-dog world of business. But when people feel their workplace is unfair, they become worried about being exploited or become disinterested. After all, why help a company that doesn’t help me?

Jim Goodnight, CEO of SAS, understands the need to treat employees fairly and allay their worries. In the wake of the economic crisis of 2008 when many feared for their jobs, he made a rather bold promise that none of SAS’s 13,000 employees would be made redundant. This commitment to look after employees in the bad times as well as the good, took the issue of job security off the table and allowed people to simply get on with their jobs, revitalized the workforce. Goodnight describes the effect; “suddenly we cut out huge amounts of chatter, concern, and worry.” Did SAS end up making anyone redundant through the downturn?  No it didn’t.  What it did manage, however, was to report record profits in 2009.


While there is joy in a job well done, there are few things more frustrating than feeling we could do a good job if only we were allowed to get on with it. People need to feel in control. In fact, a sense of helplessness is one of the main factors in depression. In contrast, people who have a sense of ownership with their work are far more motivated, creative, productive and happy than those forced to work by rewards and punishments.

Buurtzorg, a non-profit designed around the idea of autonomy, was founded just eight years ago but has since grown to become the primary deliverer of home care in the Netherlands. Small teams of nurses are encouraged to be autonomous, deciding on their own training needs, staff recruitment and allocating their budget. Instead of middle management, Buurtzorg has coaches to empower and assist the teams. Coaches have no responsibility and no power over teams. They do not receive a bonus if a team does well and do not get punished if things aren’t working well. Buurtzorg could be used by academics studying Self Determination Theory to prove that autonomous and intrinsically motivated individuals have greater self-esteem, better interpersonal relationships and higher wellbeing. The company has grown from a standing start in 2007 to over 6,500 nurses in 2013 all with just a small back office staff of 35 people.


What great accomplishments would be achieved without a sense of challenge? Many psychologists argue that it is impossible to thrive at work without the opportunity to learn new skills. We all have a tendency to acclimatize to new situations, no longer feeling excited or satisfied about things that used to make us happy. challenges its staff to develop by rewarding them with pay increases after successful training. But this training is not compulsory. Workers can become certified in skill-sets of their choice, so they are challenged to develop in ways that appeal to them.

By allowing employees to shape their job roles, provides staff with job variety and prevents the ‘hedonic adaption’ of acclimatization. When people succeed at challenges they feel an increased sense of competence and believe they are progressing towards their goals, both of which are strongly related to wellbeing.’s Goal Development Department also holds ‘recognition lunches’ to celebrate the success of individuals, making the most of the accomplishment as an opportunity for people to feel respected, rewarded and part of the team.


We all want to do work that makes a difference. Believing our actions make a positive contribution to the world engenders a sense of purpose, vitalizing us with increased engagement, motivation and creativity. One method of inspiring people is to stick to moral values, even in the face of seemingly reducing profits. Larry Merlo, CEO of CVS Caremark, recently made the company’s values clear by deciding to stop selling tobacco in their stores. By asserting that the company prioritized public health over short-term profits, CVS Caremark inspirationally declared their purpose to be beneficial to society.

Researchers have found the fulfillment of ‘purpose’ goals, as opposed to ‘profit’ goals, result in higher levels of satisfaction and wellbeing, and lower levels of anxiety and depression. People both want to work for, and enjoy working for, companies that make a difference. Companies that benefit society and perform worthwhile work have happier cultures and better staff-retention.

So there you have it. Connect, be fair, empower, challenge and inspire.  Certainly a wider remit than offering a mandatory quiz night and redecorating the staff room, but one that gets to the heart of what it takes to build a positive culture that is as unique and special as your business.

What do you think about these insights? Have you used any of these approaches to create a culture of happiness? Of the “big five,” which one would you introduce first: Connect, Be fair, Empower, Challenge, or Inspire? Please share your thoughts or experience by commenting on social media.

Photo Credit: Adapted from FlickR photo by Hopeful

About the Author

Avatar photo
Nic Marks

Faculty Nic Marks is the founding director of Happiness Works, a company that focuses on science-based, responsive analytics to kickstart new ways to happiness and productivity within the workplace. Nic is also a fellow of the UK think-tank, the new economics foundation (nef) and a board member of Action for Happiness. He is perhaps best known for his trailblazing work on the Happy Planet Index, National Accounts of Well-being and the Five Ways to Well-being which is used extensively within health and education institutions as well as within governmental policy.