For my first Occupation: Human column, I wrote about happiness in the workplace and offered some ideas for encouraging this basic human desire. But what exactly is happiness, anyway?

What is "happiness", exactly?

French philosophers have thoughts on this. American scientists joke that the secret of happiness is to "Make someone else really, really rich." But generally, we know happiness as the wonderful feeling that comes when circumstances are good. But this definition contains the seeds of its own demise: no matter what, the good feelings fade, and thus we have the oh-so-human sine wave of emotion:

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Most people seek the peaks, especially when we are young.

Some people, instead of just seeking the peaks, start riding the wave. That approach certainly has its thrills. As a startup guy, I can attest to that. But let's be honest--being on the emotional rollercoaster is painful. Coming down from a peak doesn't feel good. Climbing up from a low is hard. We can't get away with broadening the definition so much that is loses its meaning.

Real happiness has to be intuitive and simple. So if happiness isn't the peaks, and it's not the thrill of the ups and downs, what is it?

Real, dependable and lasting happiness is not related to where we each are on the emotional curve. Instead, real happiness is the presence of two qualities that are not dependent on our current (and ever-changing) emotional state.

These two qualities are:

  1. Clarity
  2. Connectedness

These are the two qualities that bring context to our emotional state. If I am experiencing these qualities, then I am happy. If I am not experiencing both qualities, then even if I am temporarily overjoyed, I'm not genuinely happy.

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Clarity

Clarity means seeing things as they are, without illusion. In a business context, being clear means if a project is in trouble or the company is going bankrupt, you can see the reasons why. The situation doesn't feel good and work is hard. The team might fail, people might lose their jobs. But without clarity, there is no way to get out of the mess.

In the midst of a business disaster three years ago, Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, showed incredible clarity. He and his team had made several premature changes to their much-loved brand and business model, and customers rebelled. Netflix lost 800,000 subscribers, shares plummeted 77 percent. Wall Street analysts called for Reed to step down.

No one involved would call those the happy days at Netflix, but Reed and his team maintained clarity around the situation. They saw how what they had done impacted their customers. And, in an incredibly honest blog post, Reed admitted his mistakes, and the Netflix team rolled back their changes.

These are the kind of mistakes many companies never recover from, but just over a year later, Netflix was back on its feet with 40 million subscribers and a 566 percent boost in stock price.

Even if your circumstances are painful or unsuccessful, if you have clarity, the sharpness of your perception is fundamentally good. If you are clear, you can be happy.

Connectedness

In a professional situation, nothing happens in a vacuum. Even the most reclusive, introverted businessperson has customers and a network of people to collaborate with. Connectedness means having a network to draw support from, whether it's your colleagues, family, customers or even society.

Entrepreneurs regularly seek the support of fellow professionals. Bart Loring, CEO of Full Contact, recently wrote about the special bond that forms between startup CEOs:

You know how at the end of an NFL game, the quarterbacks who should despise each other, end up hugging it out? There is the NFL Starting QB fraternity? It's like that with CEOs.

Like with clarity, being connected does not exclude you from tough times. But, because connectedness is not tied to an emotional state, if you are connected, you have the support you need to get through anything.

Douglas Conant brought Campbell's Soup from rock-bottom to top-performer by connecting with his employees. When he became CEO in 2001, Campbell's was in rough shape. In the previous year, the company's stock had lost half of its market value, and employees' attitudes had plummeted alongside. Conant knew that before he could rebuild the brand, he'd need to rebuild trust between leadership and staff.

Conant started by addressing what he calls the four cylinders: employee's need to feel loved, make a living, learn, and feel like they're a part of something important. Conant began writing hand-written notes to 20 employees each day. His notes were genuine, acknowledging specific contributions. He also set up a leadership training program, making it a priority to provide feedback on homework within 24 hours. By 2010, employee engagement was at an all-time high, sales were up, and the company was outperforming the S&P 500.

Am I Happy at Work?

At last we have a definition of happiness at work that is not dependant on feeling good, or feeling the speed of change. Having identified clarity and connectedness as the basic requirements for real and meaningful happiness, we can ask ourselves, "Am I happy at work?"

The two follow-up questions to that one are "Do I have clarity about my work?" and "Am I connected at work?"

Here are some questions to explore Clarity, the first quality of happiness:

  • Do you understand how your personal work contributes to the team and the company? Does that contribution seem meaningful?
  • Even in a fast-moving environment, is there a basic structure or organizing principle to your work? Do you know your company mission or values?
  • Are you constantly on guard for, or caught off guard by, the unexpected?
  • Do customers make requests or demands that seem crazy?
  • Do competitors come out of nowhere and surprise your team?
  • Do the comments of your executive team make sense, or do you feel like they are hiding something?

Here are some questions to explore Connected, the second quality of happiness:

  • Do you like the people you work with?
  • Do you enjoy meeting with your customers?
  • Can you be yourself at work, or do you have a separate personality for when you are on the job?
  • Are you harassed, bullied or teased at work?
  • Can you talk frankly about your professional life with your manager?
  • Can you disagree with your peers or bosses without fearing repercussion?

If we think about it carefully, and over enough time to even out the swings of normal human emotion, we can get to a balanced evaluation of how happy we are at work. From there, we can appreciate how lucky we are, or we can start to take actions to be more clear or more connected.

We will start examining clarity, getting clear and being clear in difficult situations, in the next Occupation: Human post.