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Why Happiness Matters at Work

Jan. 24, 2024
How EHS professionals can use the power of happiness to transform workplace safety.

Happiness is important to many of us personally, and it can also have an impact on the success of our professional lives.

The emotion happiness is strongly correlated with positive factors, such as increased productivity, more creativity, strong problem-solving skills, and positive connection and collaboration. All these things make a workplace safer, more efficient and more profitable.

More importantly, research suggests that happiness is the cause of these positive factors, not the other way around. If you want to be successful, focus on being happy. It may sound easier said than done, but happiness can impact and improve workplace safety. Let’s start by exploring the concept of happiness and how safety professionals can harness the power of happiness to transform workplaces.

What is happiness, and why is it important?

I was trained as an economist, a field that studies human behavior under scarcity. To predict behavior, we use the concept of an Econ. An Econ is a 100% rational human being who makes only logical decisions based on reason and is completely uninfluenced by emotions (think of the character Spock in “Star Trek”).

Econs aren’t real people; they don’t reflect how real people behave in everyday situations. However, they can help us understand our values and the ways we make decisions in our very messy, less than ideal, emotional day-to-day lives.

One of the most important economic theories, the efficient-market hypothesis, is largely based upon the fact that individuals are Econs who make rational decisions based on all relevant information that is in line with their self-interest.

But even an Econ has many choices. Do they want to have more free time or work and earn more money? Do they want to invest in health or entertainment? Do they want to spend money on family and friends or save it for themselves? The choices are endless.

How does an Econ choose? By calculating which combination of choices results in the highest utility.


The above graph visualizes how much free time versus work time you want to have in your life is an individual choice. Are you an all work and no play person who spends every minute of every day working, minus the necessary time for biological needs? Or, are you an all play and no work kind of person?

Most of us are usually somewhere in between. But how do you choose where to plot yourself on the graph?

Econs know if they consume more of something, like free time, that the utility they get out of the next unit is diminishing. For example, if you are very thirsty, the first cold drink you have is going to taste heavenly. The second is still good but less so.

In the end, you have to add a lot of extra consumption to add to the pleasure, hence the curved utility line. The Econ optimizes by choosing the combination of free time and work time where the indifference curve and option line intersect.

Translating this model into language real human beings use, we can say that utility is another word for happiness. Humans make choices because they think the outcome will create the most happiness for them. But what is happiness?

Since even Econs, who are supposedly not driven by emotions, need the utility concept to make choices, we must be clear on the meaning of happiness. The eighteenth-century radical philosopher Jeremy Bentham first developed the idea that striving to experience positive emotions (e.g., happiness) is what matters in your life and, therefore, should guide your decisions. Similarly, Paul Dolan defines happiness in his book, Happiness by Design, as “experiences of pleasure and purpose over time.” Both pleasure and purpose can give you positive feelings.

Of course, more is not always better. A lot of people like watching TV to relax, but how do you feel when you’ve been watching TV all day? Or, the opposite: How do you feel when you’ve been getting things done and haven’t had a single moment for yourself?

Everyone has their own unique balance of pleasure and purpose, but there’s a general idea that can guide us: If you have a lot more purpose than pleasure, it might be a good idea to spend more time on activities that bring you joy. On the flip side, if you have a lot more pleasure than purpose, it could be beneficial to focus more on meaningful pursuits. Thus, blending pleasure with purpose in your unique proportions is your recipe for happiness.

Why is the concept of happiness essential for safety professionals?

There is an inverse relationship regarding happiness that humans do not always understand intuitively. A lot of people think they’ll be happy when they get the job, the salary or the specific accomplishment they’ve worked for.

Take someone who was immensely successful: oil titan John D. Rockefeller. He was considered the wealthiest American of all time, but even in his old age, he was still busy working on projects and managing investments. At one point, a journalist asked him, “Mr. Rockefeller, you’re still working a lot—why? How much money do you need?” He famously responded with, “Just a little bit more.”

Rockefeller believed this idea that just a little more will make you happy. But when you get more, you want more; it’s like an addiction. If people are addicted to a substance, over time they will need more and more to keep feeling that rush of euphoria. Interestingly, the inverse is true with happiness. It’s easier to reach goals when you’re already in a state of well-being and contentment.

Why should you, as an EHS professional, care about happiness? Because it can help you focus on your individual goals and move the needle for your organization.

If there’s a goal you would like to reach, such as having zero incidents on your jobsite or no environmental spills, you need to make changes to get there. One approach is to maximize the focus on that goal by being strict and controlling, perhaps even blaming or shaming people. This will probably get you some results, sure.

However, research indicates that if you are able to accomplish a higher state of well-being by creating an environment of happiness, then you will get better and more consistent positive results. Researchers also found that a 10% increase in well-being can simultaneously decrease absenteeism by 25%. Creativity will be much higher, teams will be more collaborative and people will remain in their positions longer. In other words, if workers are happy, you’ll have less turnover and be better positioned to reach your desired end results.

Thus, happiness and well-being are not just good for individual employees; rather, creating a happy and positive work environment is tantamount to building successful organizations.

What are happiness drivers?

If happiness is so important in the workplace, how do we cultivate it? Also, is happiness an end state or a temporary state of being?

To answer these questions, we need to look at another dimension and divide happiness into two categories: remembered (or evaluated) and experienced. This involves different parts of the brain—feeling and sensing versus memory and fantasy.

For many people, there is a big difference between these two. If, for example, you call someone during the day at work and ask them how they are doing, they might say they feel stressed, in conflict or negative. However, if you ask them how they are doing at a later time, they might tell you they love their job and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Therefore, happiness is something that you evaluate over time and something that you experience in every moment. Both experiences exist, so it’s important to understand the context.

Happiness is an end result for an individual experiencing positive emotions. The big question is: How do you determine if a given experience causes you to feel positively or negatively?  To become happy, you must focus on happiness drivers, or things that create positive emotions.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor in the of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, has explored this topic. Her research shows that about 50% of your emotions (negative and positive) are determined by your genetics, personality and past experiences—things you can’t necessarily change. While this is a large percentage, it still means you have control of half of your well-being.

Of that, 40% comes from intentional activities. These are the things we decide about our life and things we intentionally do, such as our field of work we or who we choose as a partner. The remaining 10% is the environment you live in, which is also largely under your control. These are happiness drivers that we should review so we can determine what circumstances make people  happy.

Many say that money, knowledge, fame or something else makes people happy. But as we have seen, striving for those things can become almost an addiction. That's because even if you get that promotion or house, you aren’t guaranteed to be happy.

Take money, for example. Data tells us that the first $25,000 is very important for happiness because it covers your necessities; it is also the level where money can buy freedom, time and choice. But  the correlation between money and happiness peaks around $75,000. Any earning above that sees only a slight increase of happiness.

Eventually, there comes a point where while income increases, happiness actually decreases. And the point where the happiness gains in income disappear isn’t in the millions; it’s around $200,000, according to recent research.

One of the things that truly makes people happy, according to the research, is the number of meaningful relationships someone has. People who interact on a deeper level, and operate with honesty, openness and authenticity are generally very happy.

How does happiness transform the role of safety?

Now that we understand more about what happiness is, what makes people happier and what doesn’t, let’s apply it to safety.

If we know that making connections with people at a meaningful level—without stress and blame—is important, then safety professionals need to spend less time on administrative and procedural work. They need to walk the factory floor, jobsite or other workplace environment to see what workers are doing and talk to them. Then, they must take those concerns to management so they can be addressed. This shows workers that you are listening and value them for their insights and contributions as well as care about their safety.

Prioritize getting out of the office, watching workers and talking with them. This is not to say you neglect your other responsibilities but that you make the time to inspire and connect with people. You are demonstrating that being with your people, and where the work happens, is a priority and key to improving safety—not an afterthought or an inconvenience.

To do this, you need to also have the right tools and processes in place. This means not having to put out fires daily by conducting safety reporting, incident investigations, or dealing with other known safety problems such as slips, trips and falls. Instead, you can focus on improving workplace safety.

Learn how workers do their jobs, watch for actions that might put them at risk of injury and offer alternatives. It may seem inconvenient to stop work, but redesigning procedures saves time and money in the long term. For example, engineering controls to reduce strain on the back can reduce risk of ergonomic injury, improve workers’ productivity and give them a literal bounce in their step. When workers feel better, their outlook toward work (and life) changes. This is just one way that safety can improve workers happiness—and it creates a domino effect.

If workers aren’t getting hurt, then more workers are able to show up and do their job. That means fewer days off work due to injury. That means less scrambling to maintain safe staffing levels and better team morale. That means the money that was being spent on workers’ compensation claims can instead go toward new personal protective equipment, technology or safety programs to address other areas of concern.

Instead, safety can improve in more and different ways because efforts and dollars go farther. Safety professionals can also have an easier time talking about budgets with management and gaining buy-in at all levels. Plus, a company that is a great place to work can more easily withstand some of the current challenges, such as labor shortages.

Shifting the focus to happiness will make EHS professionals more creative by putting them in a better position to look for waste or overburden, which can lead to employee injuries, burnout or turnover.


As a society, we focus on happiness—and for good reason. Happiness is a mindset that can yield real benefits for our minds, bodies and spirits. It’s important to prioritize happiness at work, too.

By creating environments that put the happiness of workers first, you will find your workplace to be more efficient, productive and better positioned to reach important safety goals, such as zero incidents. A safer workplace makes for a better workplace for all, but perhaps especially for safety professionals who toil tirelessly each and every day.

Sjoerd Nanninga is co-founder of Unite-X, a provider of safety software that helps manufacturing organizations achieve Operational Safety Excellence (OSE) and encourages continuous improvement.

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