All Work, No Play? Breaking Barriers to Individual and Organizational Happiness


What is happiness?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines happiness as a state of well-being and contentment — and it’s something most people want to feel more of.

According to Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, when people from all over the world were asked what they wanted most from life – happiness was number one. Going back a bit further, Aristotle declared it to be sunnum bonum, “the chief good.”

What’s fascinating about happiness is how much impact we have on our own. As philosopher William James said, “The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude.” The great mind of William Shakespeare weighed in with, “For there is neither good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

If it is true that we can improve our own happiness, the next logical question is HOW?

This is the question both individuals and organizations will want to ask. The Harvard Business Review published that happy people are 31 per cent more productive, have 37 per cent higher sales and are three times more creative.

Therefore, much is to be gained by understanding the factors that drive individual happiness and how they can be transferred into the workplace.

4 Ways to Achieve Individual Happiness

Here are some of the most effective ways to boost your individual happiness — starting today:

  1. Find Time for Fun: Look to the toddlers in your life if you’ve forgotten the art of play and the pure uninhibited joy it brings. Find time to dance, sing out loud, make a painting, have a playdate with a friend or dig your toes in the sand. Studies have shown that people who have fun are 20 times more likely to be happy.
  2. Nourish your Social Garden: A friend once infamously told me that she planned to weed her social garden. Besides its hilarity and wisdom, what resonates most about this phrase is that our relationships with others have an incredible impact on our happiness. Positive psychologists Diener and Seligman conducted a study that showed out of a person’s 24 character strengths, those that best predict life satisfaction are the interpersonal ones. Focus on the important interpersonal relationships in your life and make time for coffee dates, long walks, pub outings and book clubs. Also, don’t forget to add to your social garden; making a new friend feels great and opens you up to new experiences and perspectives.
  3. Reminisce About the Good Old Days: When we think about the past, our positive memories are amplified. Meaning that when we relive the good times, we actually experience stronger positive emotions than when we lived through the actual event. With this in mind, we should gather and store the memories we treasure through journals, photographs, home videos and old stories to keep those happy times living on.
  4. Be Generous: A powerful source of happiness comes from giving—in its many forms: love and appreciation to others, time and money to a cause you care about, smiles and an uplifting attitude to the world. Through these actions you will experience the joy of knowing you have enriched others’ lives. As Winston Churchill coined beautifully, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

Happiness at Work

Knowing how to increase individual happiness sets the stage for how to bring more happiness into a place where many of us spend more than 60 per cent of our waking hours — the workplace.

A recent Gallup survey shows that over half of US workers regularly work at least 50 hours per week. People spend an increasing amount of time at work or doing work remotely. (Be honest — how many of us check work messages right up until bedtime?) Consequently, it’s increasingly important that organizations consider the happiness levels of their employees.

When you think back to the times in your life when you were happiest, you’ll likely reminisce on moments you were engaged in play. So why is it that when it comes to play in the workplace, many of us view it as an interruption, distraction or even a lost cause?

Why Play Works in the Workplace

Imagine a workplace where play was viewed as a benefit — as a means of creating a thriving environment filled with joy, laughter and fun. Psychologist Dr. Stuart Brown states, “When employees have the opportunity to play, they increase their productivity, engagement, and morale.” Brown’s assertions are supported by research that illustrates how play can lessen stress, boost creativity, and enhance job satisfaction.

Many organizations such as Google, LinkedIn, and IDEO are noticing the benefits of fostering workplaces that integrate play as a key component in their work cultures. In fact, Tim Brown, IDEO CEO, says play is mandatory in his workplace. The global design firm’s Toy Lab provides creativity and play with a focus on shared spaces to encourage co-creation.

4 Ways to Put Happiness to Work

For those of us who don’t work for organizations like Google and IDEO, how can we integrate play into the workplace? Here are a few ways based on what we know about boosting individual happiness:

  1. Host Office Olympics: You might recall the episode from The Office where, in the absence of Michael Scott, the employees host their own Olympics filled with competitive games. Although this episode was comedic entertainment, the concept is a great method to encourage play and team morale. Rally your team together and throw your own Olympics with games such as office Ping-Pong, desk chair soccer or paper plane javelin.
  2. Personalize the Workplace: Adding touches of your organization’s culture in the workplace makes happy memories stay fresh in your employees’ minds. Take time to frame photos from social events and special moments your company has celebrated. And don’t shy away from displaying trophies or awards; these are a source of pride and a shared bond of working towards a common goal. Also, a kudos wall where employees can post notes of appreciation to others is a perfect visual reminder that people are recognized and valued.
  3. Take Events Outside: Step outside your office walls and nourish your social garden. Organized events provide opportunities to build team cohesion and increase engagement. The most successful team events are ones that don’t feel like a typical day at the office. Opt for a cooking class, visit an escape room, paint a mural or attend a sports game. For best results, try to plan a different event each time and brainstorm ideas with your team.
  4. Volunteer: We’ve all heard that volunteering is good for an employer’s brand. While possibly true, volunteering is much more than that; it’s a valuable way to increase happiness through generosity. Volunteering together boosts cooperation, supports company values, and positively impacts mental and physical health. Alternatively, let each employee choose their own cause to support, with paid time off, to pursue volunteer work that fuels their passion.

When organizations unleash the power of boosting happiness into the lives of their employees, they can reap the benefits of a more productive, engaged and sustained workforce.

As McDonald’s has infamously listed on its menus around the world, “Smiles are free,” so why not help put them on the faces of your employees today?



Robin Turnill, CPHR is founder and CEO and Mia McCannel is an HR consultant at Pivot HR Services.

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