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Six Steps to Making Happiness a Competitive Advantage for Your Organization

Simply put, happy employees perform better. Studies have shown that increased employee well-being results in increased performance and productivity for employees’ companies or organizations, along with positive benefits for the individual employees. It’s a win-win, if the company knows how to unleash this powerful competitive advantage.

Competitive advantage can be achieved due to cost advantages or by differentiation of any product or service in natural resources, people, patents, brand equity and reputation, or by processes that add unique and significant value to customers’ lives—advantages that can’t easily be duplicated by competitors. And, by adding significant value to clients’ lives that helps them confront and conquer their problems, client loyalty – and the positive “word of mouth” marketing and repeat business that it engenders – is enhanced. At Zappos, for example, 75% of orders are from repeat customers. At Amazon, in a 1999 letter to shareholders, the percentage of orders placed by repeat customers was 73%.

Now many people think of happiness as just a series of pleasures—fun, parties, peak experiences, our favorite food and drink, sex, and even drugs. But, if we are honest with ourselves, the feelings of happiness we feel during these pleasures end soon after the activity ends. When the pleasure ends, even the most ecstasy-producing pleasures, our feelings of happiness end soon after. These are really only shortcuts to happiness—easy to do—but they only last often for minutes or hours—very short-term in duration. In fact, recently, neuroscientists in their study of brain function have located our happiness center:  the left pre-frontal cortex—and are working to ways to just stimulate that area directly—and skip all the pleasures—so we can feel instantly happy. But even this strategy of happiness being a left-brainer still only generates short-lasting, short-term feelings of joy.

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We all need some pleasures in our lives. Otherwise, life would just be an unending series of Wednesdays. But this type of short-term pleasure is not what we mean when we say “I just want to be happy.” And it is not what Aristotle meant when he said: “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”  Nor is it what the Dalai Lama meant when he said:”…the very motion of our life is towards happiness.” And it is most definitely not what we wish for our children when we say “I just want them to be happy.”

Instead, all of these familiar and popular pleasures are really just appetizers—just short-term “shortcuts” to happiness that we all love—but that don’t last and that don’t fill our need to contribute—to matter.

For real, sustainable levels of happiness and fulfillment, we need to move beyond a short-term often myopic focus on only the easy pleasures—keep them in our lives, but within limits—to something more lasting and more meaningful.

If you think about your life for a moment, there are five states of well-being that we often turn to experts to assist us in achieving. We need the medical profession to help us sustain our physical well-being, the psychiatric community for help with our mental well-being, financial professionals to help us achieve and sustain financial well-being. With over 3,400 recognized religions worldwide, there is no shortage of spiritual leaders and gurus to help us with our spiritual well-being. And, for our emotional well-being, we also need experts to illuminate the paths for us to follow so we can flourish and thrive and live the happiest and most meaningful and fulfilling life possible for us.

Getting serious about happiness is one of those best paths that companies and organizations can choose to follow to help each employee achieve the highest levels of emotional well-being possible—and to allow their company to reap the substantial benefits from a happier employee base.

And, the last decade and more of positive psychology research into happiness and how to achieve and sustain it in our lives has illuminated some facts. First, the serious pursuit of happiness is an active, not a passive pursuit. The famous bluebird of happiness may alight on our shoulder every once in awhile and bless us with joy, but we don’t have to passively wait for this chance occurrence. Instead, we can take positive action to lastingly increase our levels of happiness and well-being. Second, since approximately 50% of our happiness potential is predetermined at birth by our genetic inheritance (this has been proven by over 100 studies involving identical twins), and another 10% is due to our current environment and our upbringing, we have the remaining 40% of our potential that we can positively affect by intentionally and consciously thinking, acting, and living our lives in certain proven ways—and by doing so more frequently both at home and at work.

Employees typically spend, on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use survey of 2012, 54% of their waking hours either at work or commuting to and from work, whether working at home or in the office. So companies and organizations can have an enormous effect—and can take primary responsibility for—the happiness and well-being of their most valued assets—their employees. Zappos, for example, is all about delivering happiness—both to customers and to employees.

Here is a six-step strategy to guide companies to be successful at making happiness a competitive advantage:

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1. Share the Knowledge

Not everyone knows what the new science of positive psychology has proven about the paths to achieve lasting happiness—not all companies and not all employees. The first step to making happiness a competitive advantage is to insure that all stakeholders know what long-term, lifelong happiness actually is—and the major strategies necessary to achieve it. This imperative knowledge can be shared in various ways including reading giving employees and their families gifts of books and videos.

Then, when the scientific knowledge of how to live a happier  and more fulfilling life has been absorbed, and really only then, individual employees can be expected to begin to implement these strategies both in their personal life and in their workplace—if, and only if, the company chooses to value this knowledge and the strategies and actions needed.

2. Rollout a Campaign

Whether via a series of department or team meetings facilitated by managers—including a mix of lecture, reading assignments, and action application to daily life, a combination of big-tent speaking events delivered in person or via technology, activities, videos, and possible  access to a virtual personal coach, companies need to make sure 100% of the employees learn the strategies necessary to flourish and thrive—so they can add them to their day-to-day lives intentionally and more frequently, and thus increase the amount of positive emotion in their lives.

3. Model the Way

Employees pay close attention to what senior executives and managers say – and even more attention to what they do. When it comes to leadership, actions do speak louder than words. M.P. Mueller, founder of Door Number 3, an indie ad agency, says:  “Any workplace can be fun, but it needs to come from the top…be prepared to put in some effort.” Credibility is based on leaders doing what they say they will do – and setting the example for the company by speaking and behaving in accordance with company values is one of the most visible strategies for executives to use to communicate their values and their strategies. As Richard Branson reminds, “Lead by listening. Get feedback you’re your staff and customers on a regular basis. Be visible.” Learning about and acting in proven ways about happiness and increased well-being is no different in this respect. Any values-based initiative can only be real if the managers from the C-level suites on down act in ways that reinforce the message.

4. Instill in the Culture

Every company has its own unique culture—whether by design or by happenstance. And the company culture is important. As Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, says, “Our whole belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff like delivering great customer service or building a long-term enduring brand will just happen naturally on its own.” The importance of happiness—of increasing emotional well-being—can best be realized when the company makes changes to the various internal “systems” to be certain the message and desired attitudes and behaviors are reinforced at all times to the workforce. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, makes thinking about what each employee’s goals are and what keeps he or she happy a part of the hiring decision. By aligning the hiring and termination systems, the communications system, the performance evaluation system, and the compensation, recognition, and rewards systems with a set of company values that include and embrace the value of employee well-being, companies can set the tone and drive attitudes and behaviors they desire. And that will result in higher levels of performance and productivity. As Branson says “Driven, enthusiastic team members will be your best assets…” and this can be simply due to them flourishing and thriving and being happier as a result. Also remember that happiness has been demonstrated to be contagious for a distance of up to three degrees of separation. These positive emotions can spread throughout social networks—and throughout a culture—in much the same way as smoking cessation and obesity have been proven to do.

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5. Find the Meaning

Especially in large, multinational corporations, employees at all levels often find it difficult to be clear on how what they do each day contributes to the company’s success and to the company’s customers. Deriving a strong sense of meaning and purpose from what we do in our lives – from the contributions we make to the world – is one of the lifelong proven strategies to almost guarantee a happy and fulfilled life. And companies can help greatly with this by making sure the all employees are clear how their work fits into the benefits the company and its customers receive from the work each employee does. The Ritz-Carlton redefined housekeepers as “the Michelangelos of housekeeping.” Nordstrom is renowned for their service. Bricklayers can be seen as “building homes” instead of “laying bricks.” Nurses are “crafting a cocoon of care,” not just taking vitals and dispensing meds. Amazon prides itself on “the customer experience.” Managers at all levels in all organizations can help employees “connect the dots” between the results of their efforts and their work and the company’s results – whether it’s higher product quality, improved customer service, better financial results – and can emphasize how customers benefit from using the company’s products or services that everyone helps create. This improved feeling of depth, meaning, and purpose can increase feelings of well-being—and stimulate performance and productivity.

6. Measure the Results

It’s been said, “what gets measured, gets done.” It’s true for all types of performance and all constituencies—from financial to products to services to executives to managers to employees. And it’s true for employee well-being as well. Establish tracking mechanisms to ensure all employees have absorbed and internalized the knowledge of how to flourish and thrive. Look for opportunities to quantify improved results due to increased motivation, energy, creativity, teamwork, responsiveness, and health—all of these attributes can be activated and increased simply by being happier. Adjust your employee well-being—increasing strategies as needed exactly as you would for any other corporate initiative.

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By implementing these six strategies into the culture of your company or organization, your loyal employees, your company, and you personally can reap potentially substantial benefits.

For  individual employees, a composite of various studies by leading psychologists, including David Myers and Sonja Lyubomirsky, have concluded that happy people have been proven to be “…strikingly energetic, decisive, flexible, creative and sociable. Compared to unhappy people, they are more trusting, more loving, more responsive. Happy people tolerate more frustration. They are less likely to be abusive and are more lenient. They are more loving and forgiving and less likely to exaggerate slight criticism. They are more willing to help those in need. Their body’s immune system fights disease more effectively—stressed and depressed people are more vulnerable to various illnesses.”

For companies and organizations of all types, simply striving to have happier employees can therefore also lead to significant benefits. Studies by University of Nevada researcher Tom Wright show happy employees can increase performance and productivity by 10-25%, they are less likely to leave their job, are superior decision makers, have better interpersonal behaviors, have higher levels of job satisfaction, and are even more likely to have better cardiovascular health. In addition, studies at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, have also shown that unhappy people are “unlikely” to find happiness at work. In light of these findings, perhaps companies would be well-served to focus equally on optimizing the well-being of individual employees in addition to the work already in progress to improve happiness in the workplace.

Although certainly not all inhabitants of C-level suites around the world agree, if you view the company as a home away from home—and truly care about the welfare and well-being of employees, then the competitive advantage gained can be one of the sweetest benefits from any corporate strategy in existence. M. P. Mueller summarizes this nicely by saying “…if you give people permission to bring their personalities to work, they’ll be happier. And happy people are more productive.”

Perhaps Tony Hsieh of Zappos says it best:  “If you really just think about how to make customers happy and how to make employees happy, that actually in today’s world ends up being good for business.” This sentiment is echoed by Richard Branson of Virgin Group who summarizes his rules for good business by saying:  “Your employees are your best asset. Happy employees make for happy customers.”


BY, Henry S. Miller is the author of The Serious Pursuit of Happiness:  Everything You Need to Flourish and Thrive and Inspiration for the Pursuit of Happiness:  Wisdom to Guide your Journey to a Better Life. He is also the creator of the online membership program Get SERIOUS About Your Happiness:  20 Transformational Tools for Turbulent Times.

Henry S. Miller, President of The Henry Miller Group

As President of The Henry Miller Group, he is a speaker, trainer, and consultant helping organizations improve their performance and productivity specifically by increasing employee well-being. In prior careers, Henry was a Senior Consultant for the Tom Peters Company training and coaching senior management teams worldwide in leadership, and his initial career in corporate America was with IBM. [image courtesy: @dell]

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