An increasing body of evidence from positive psychology experts the likes of Richard Davidson, Shawn Achor, Barbara Frederickson and others confirm a simple fact: Happy people are better workers. And that translates to good business outcomes.

Yet most of us are still afraid of accepting the notion that "feelings" belong in the workplace. While we're wired for experiencing positive emotions in romantic relationships, and at home with our spouses and children, the workplace is where we hide our true emotions. Just grin and bear it when stress or conflict comes knocking, right?


Positive feelings at work lead to increased creativity, resilience, optimism, motivation, and that overused term straight out of old-school HR: employee engagement.

Actually, I'm fine with the term employee engagement. It defines a high-performing company culture invested in creating the kind of work environment that will release discretionary effort in its people. You can't beat that with a stick.

The Research Boils It Down to 3 Things

In Annie McKee's popular HBR piece, "Being Happy at Work Matters," her research team concluded that to be fully engaged and happy, virtually everyone wants three things:

  1. A meaningful vision of the future.
  2. A sense of purpose.
  3. Great relationships.

The extensive research and decades of experience with leaders is also the basis for McKee's soon to be released How to be Happy at Work. She makes the most compelling case yet that happiness -- and the full engagement that comes with it -- is more important than ever in today's workplace.

1. A meaningful vision of the future.

Her research team found that most people want to be able to see a compelling vision of the future and know how they fit in. This requires strong leaders able to link the organizational vision to people's personal visions, then communicating that vision consistently.

Sharada Bhansali, co-founder of AccountantsWorld -- a leader in cloud solutions for accountants -- knows this too well. She has worked with the same group of engineers since the company first launched nearly two decades ago. Her secret to retaining talent includes keeping her staff connected to the organization's goals to keep them mentally and emotionally engaged.

She tells Forbes, "Our staff knows that we had a well-defined mission for creating AccountantsWorld. I work with our employees personally to keep people informed and excited about our mission and technology. This genuine enthusiasm has fostered more loyalty than financial compensation and perks ever could alone. When employees believe in the work they are doing, both work and the workplace becomes more meaningful."

2. A sense of purpose.

McKee writes that "people want to feel as if their work matters, and that their contributions help to achieve something really important."

In Give and Take, famed Wharton professor and author Adam Grant says that when people find purpose in their work it will not only improve that person's happiness, it will boost productivity. So, give the people what they want -- purpose. How exactly do you do that?

According to Grant, allow employees the chance to connect with and meet the people they are serving. Having employees meet customers or end users firsthand so they can see the human impact their work makes is the greatest motivator, even if limited to a few minutes.

3. Great relationships.

In McKee's research, close, trusting and supportive relationships lend to strong collaboration and are critically important to people's state of mind at work, whatever their level, status, or position.

Another important research bears pointing out. In Sigal Barsade and Olivia A. O'Neill's study on "companionate love," they concluded that companies that build an emotional culture founded on the relational elements of warmth, affection, and connection led to better performance.

Here's Barsade in the Harvard Business Review:

Whole Foods Market has a set of management principles that begin with 'Love' and PepsiCo lists 'caring' as its first guiding principle on its website. Zappos also explicitly focuses on caring as part of its values: 'We are more than a team though...we are a family. We watch out for each other, care for each other and go above and beyond for each other'.


McKee drills home the point when she states, "Added up, brain science and our organizational research are in fact debunking the old myths: emotions matter a lot at work. Happiness is important. To be fully engaged, people need vision, meaning, purpose, and resonant relationships."