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Why Happiness Alone Is NOT Enough Anymore

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*Originally Published in AAE 

What is the secret sauce to organizational success? Teams have chased employee happiness, added subscriptions to Calm in the benefits package, and tinkered between hybrid and remote  — all in the hopes of increasing employee engagement and retaining their best employees. However, even as companies pour significant sums of money into the happiness jar —employee engagement rates aren’t blowing us away; in fact, they are dropping.

Even as more organizations jump on the wellness and happiness bandwagon, employee engagement has taken a nosedive, hitting its lowest ebb since June 2022 (APA). Retention rates have suffered, thanks to the rise of trends like “quiet quitting” and the “Great Resignation.” Burnout has soared to levels higher than those experienced during the pandemic. And happiness levels are down 9%, declining at a rate 10x faster than the previous three years.

So, what’d we miss? The truth is happiness isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, nor is it enough to lead to sustainable professional and organizational success. Instead, happiness is just one piece of the puzzle, and the pursuit of happiness alone sometimes steers us into the murky waters of unrealistic expectations and toxic positivity. Instead of having “good vibes only” policies and quelling “negative talk,” organizations need to embrace tensions, encourage “real-talk” around topics like mental health, and go beyond happiness to become resilient and grounded.

When the world was 2020’d, the chaos and disruption brought about by forces beyond our control have left many grappling with fear, uncertainty, doubt, and a stark exposure of systemic issues lurking beneath the surface. Pay inequalities, diversity inconsistencies, a lack of balance, and workplaces treating employees like mere numbers—all these red flags are waving. Put simply, the way we work isn’t working anymore. So what happens next? As leaders, it’s time we peel back the layers and discover what truly lies at the core so that we can create workplaces that go beyond the check-the-box initiatives to discover what it means to be whole and human at work and in life.

Here are three ways leaders can move beyond happiness to become the architects and archaeologists of thriving people and workplaces

1. Start by asking: What’s in it for me? And what’s in it for all?

There have been significant shifts in how we work and live over the past few years. What’s most important to us as individuals and to the organization as a whole is different now than in BC (Before Covid). There is a need for a new social contract that is mutually beneficial for both the employee (ME) and the organization (WE). This means asking these questions at the same time. Whether you’re an employer or an employee, when we prioritize what’s most important to ourselves first, then align it to how we actively work/live, we’ll not only be living more fulfilling and healthier lives, the odds are that we’ll be doing it together.

When employees feel cared for, they are 3.2 times more likely to be happy at work and 3.7 times more likely to recommend their company to others, according to LinkedIn research. By answering both of these questions, we can humanize work. 

2. Create environments of belonging: evolve transactional relationships into meaningful ones

Everyone is fighting a battle that you know nothing about, so choosing kindness is not only an easy choice; it’s the human choice. The simple gesture of asking, “Are you okay?” or “How are you doing?” can go a long way in creating greater connection within your organization. A sense of belonging and meaningful connections are at the top of what’s needed for sustainable happiness (coming in second to purpose). It has been reported that 77% of employees say the most significant factor in determining job satisfaction is building meaningful relationships with colleagues. When people are supported as individuals, teams/customers are supported, and businesses are more successful.

As we nurture and care for ourselves and each other, we become better employees, organizations, communities, and even family members and friends. 

3. Light happiness + humanity: focus on doing the right things for people.

When we cultivate people ecosystems in a way that brings happiness, embraces wholeness, and nurtures new ways to feel more human at work, the benefits are a more motivated, productive, and healthier workforce. When leaders encourage others to bring their whole selves and unique perspectives to each situation, solutions are created, innovation happens, and diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging flow more naturally. One study found that 71% of those who are able to be authentic at work feel more confident, 60% feel more engaged, and 46% feel happier. Truly inclusive work environments allow everyone to feel valued, welcomed and represented. These are workplaces where employees are seen and treated as the assets they truly are, not as a number or expense. When done correctly, it’s not only the “RIGHT THING TO DO,” it also creates more profits and purpose in the world, and THAT’S when happiness and humanity come alive.

To truly thrive, we need to stop throwing happiness dollars at the wall to see what sticks. Instead, let’s embrace humanity and foster environments that nurture not just happiness but also purpose, connections, and what it means to be more human at work. Moving beyond happiness will carry us through the storms of uncertainty and set the stage for sustainable workplaces where people can show up to do their best work as their best selves.

Are you looking to bring inspiration + humor to your next event? Jenn Lim's authentic real-talk approach + decades of experience in people, culture, and org design guide leaders at all levels on how to live more meaningful lives.