Creating Happiness at Work

Topic(s): culture, employee satisfaction
Publication: Harvard Business Review (FEB 2012)
Article: The Science Behind the Smile
Authors: Gardiner Morse
Reviewed by: Liz Brashier

In a recent interview with psychologist Daniel Gilbert, Morse (2012) examines new research into an investigation of happiness from a scientific perspective.  Happiness, long considered to be a topic better suited for philosophers or writers, is now moving into the realm of data analysis and scientific query, and Gilbert fills us in on what this new work might mean for our understanding of happiness.


You might be wondering if it’s even possible to measure something as personal and subjective as happiness. Gilbert gives us a resounding “yes” before delving into various methodologies for assessment. Across the various academic disciplines researching happiness, including neuroscience and psychology, important findings appear to be emerging. On the whole, we don’t seem to be that good at predicting what will make us happy over time. As studies reveal, we tend to overestimate the value of “happy” events in making us happy while we overestimate the value of “unhappy” events in making us sad. A break-up, the start of an exciting job, or a failing grade on exam don’t make us anywhere near as happy or unhappy as we predict. So why is that? According to Gilbert, we are excellent at finding good in any situation – we are naturals at wanting to feel happy despite our circumstances. On the flip side, when great things happen, we’re good at “snapping back to reality” quickly, and we enjoy the moment while staying realistic. Gilbert calls this concept of finding the best in bad situations a form of “synthetic happiness.” It’s what we create for ourselves when bad things happen; real, or natural happiness, is what we experience when good things happen.


So what does all of this mean for an organization? Employees function best when they are challenged, which creates a sense of natural happiness and fulfillment. Reward and respect – not punishment – is best for producing happy employees. Also, the frequency, rather than the intensity, of our happy experiences is much more meaningful in creating happiness – focus on a constant stream of good experiences for employees instead of one big reward every so often.

So go to work with a smile, challenge and reward employees, and remember that the “bad” things we experience on the job will have much less of an effect on your happiness than you think!


Morse, G. (2012). The science behind the smile. Harvard Business Review, 90, 84-90.

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