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  • Writer's pictureRiikka

Wellbeing is bigger than happiness

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

‘Use your budget to bring happiness to our team’

‘Ensure that we offer happiness at Company X’

‘You will be responsible for the happiness and development of our people’

Are these job ads for an HR Manager or the Lilac Fairy? It's trendy for companies to promote a culture of happiness but these kind of criteria give me a rash.

Not because I’m an agent of Evil and wish everyone was more miserable. But because fad-happiness becomes a vague magic potion, based on limited understanding of what actually creates a thriving workplace for people and drives performance. It makes us focus on the sprinklings of positivity instead of the deeper aspects of company culture. And expect one mere mortal to be accountable for others’ happiness.

In fact the populariser of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, came to realise it is not happiness we should be aiming for, but well-being. Validated by research, this is made of

  1. positive emotion, yes, but also:

  2. engagement (meant here as the flow state)

  3. positive relationships

  4. meaning

  5. accomplishment

These are the ingredients that deliver more innovation and learning, more holistic rather than narrow thinking, better mental health, increased resilience - what I assume those Happy companies are looking for. And that makes companies perform better.

When the idea of positive emotion gets over-simplified, there is an emphasis on mood.

We get ‘Happiness surveys’ asking questions like ‘how are you feeling today’ or ‘how satisfied are you with work’ which have been shown to only measure the person’s mood at the moment of being asked the question. Not actual job satisfaction. If my pet toad died that morning I’m going to say ‘Terrible'. You still don't know how I feel about work.

Or we get a spotlight on company events, birthday treats, and perks like nice coffee. Now, these things do have importance. My point is, on their own they aren’t a magic fix. By all means do them, but invest more of your effort on building real well-being.

Then there’s the tall order imposed on managers to make other people happy. Our moods and feelings are influenced by multiple factors including temperament and life history. No outside person can control all of that - most of us are barely able to do that for ourselves.


How to create real wellbeing

The good news is, those 5 ingredients that make up well-being we can stir up at organisation level. This gives you a more nourishing experience than just the happiness frosting. Here’s some quick ideas how to get started.

1. Positive emotion

Have conversations about What Went Well. You can do this peer-to-peer, manager-to-employee and vice versa - with anyone you are working with.

Simply find ways to slip that question into any conversation.

  • OK so the project failed, but what did we do well?

  • What have you been pleased about this week?

  • What’s been your proudest achievement this year?

  • …and why?

2. Engagement (Flow)

The state of flow comes from merging with the activity you are engaged in. That requires 2 things: concentration and the use of your highest talents. Unlike positive emotions, there is no easy fix. This is where it gets more involved.


Have employees and teams got an environment where they can immerse their attention on the task at hand? For some the pandemic and working from home has made concentration easier, for others with busy households or lack of space it’s the opposite.

  • Help individuals notice and consider what helps them concentrate. Then support them achieving those conditions, as much as possible.

    • At the moment it could be allowing them to come back to the office sooner (within government guidelines), continuing remote working, or getting them equipment they need at home. Or encouraging them to work flexible times that suit them best, whether that be at 6am or 11pm.

For example, I’ve realised I concentrate best when I avoid hot desking and cafes and have one dedicated space to work. My back needs to be to a wall. I do best if I start working straight away in the morning at breakfast, without the chance of anything else getting into my head. Working with others, I get into flow when we are keeping pace and the content is challenging enough to keep me on my toes.

Using your talents

This comes back to performance and development conversations, helping team members understand their strengths and ensuring they are doing work that plays to those. It also needs to be challenging enough.

  • You can start by asking people to think about when they last were 'in the zone'. That gives you and them clues about what kind of tasks/ topics/ contexts they should be spending more time on.

3. Relationships

Doing things for and with other people. This is where those company events and birthday celebrations play a role but don’t forget the supreme importance of day-to-day interactions.

  • Are people making the time to connect with colleagues, to the extent they each want to? This differs for the more introverted and extroverted.

  • Invest in the quality of interactions you have with people. Maybe you spend a moment having a chat even when you’re really busy. Maybe you show interest and really listen.

4. Meaning

Being part of something bigger than yourself. Doing something of significance. Again highly individual. For one person this comes simply from being part of a team. Another needs to feel they are saving the world.

Direct Line Group’s purpose statement includes ‘to help people carry on with their lives’. That was made real during the 2015/16 floods while I worked with them. Insurance genuinely helped people who they lost their homes. Stories were shared with employees and they saw how they played a part in helping those individual customers, even in roles more distant from the frontline.

We’ve seen this with delivery drivers lately, who perhaps we wouldn’t have said 6 months ago were doing a deeply meaningful job.

  • A good place to start is asking the question, having the conversation about meaning. If there’s an element of a person’s role that gives them meaning, it’s good to know about it so you don’t, for example, unintentionally take it away.

  • Another is sharing the real stories of the impact your business is making to customers/ end-users, even just sharing customer feedback with everyone.

5. Accomplishment

People want to achieve things for their own sake.

  • What obstacle can you remove today so that people are able to complete and finish things?

  • Help people set goals that are big enough and motivating for them.


If you’re still hankering after that quick and easy pulse survey, why not ask 5 questions:

  1. How often have you felt positive at work in the last week?

  2. How often in the past week have you felt in a state of flow/ in the zone at work?

  3. How happy are you with your relationships with colleagues?

  4. My work gives me a sense of purpose. [Agree - Disagree scale]

  5. I am able to achieve things at work. [Agree - Disagree scale]

When you pay attention to these 5 areas instead of just happy vibes, you are bringing to life wholesome wellbeing and reaping the benefits of better learning, collaboration, creativity, cognitive breadth, mental health and bounce-back-ability. When has that been more important?


Like support setting a wellbeing strategy or initiatives? Call us on 01444 483 070 or email


Source: Seligman, Martin (2010), Flourish.

Photo: Alex Rosario on Unsplash

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