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What Causes Happiness?

What Causes Happiness?

What causes happiness? Is it all down to our genes? Is it due to external conditions or is it partly down to us, and therefore really our own choice?

This is the first of three articles in which we discuss happiness in the workplace. It introduces some basic insights into what causes happiness, and considers whether or not we can choose to be happier. The second article asks: can being a happy person help make you more successful at work? The final article looks at finding ways to be happy at work.

Defining happiness
What causes happiness?

Martin Seligman

A good point to start would be to understand what we mean by happiness. Leading positive psychologist Martin Seligman suggests that happiness itself is a scientifically unwieldy term. To clarify its meaning he proposes three distinct routes to a happiness definition.

  • Positive emotion and pleasure (the pleasant life)
  • Engagement of your unique strengths doing productive things (the engaged life)
  • Meaning: finding ways to serve and contribute (the meaningful life)

He argues that the most satisfied people are those who orient their pursuits towards all three, with the greatest weighting carried by engagement and meaning.

What Causes Happiness? Is it Your Choice?

Happiness is good for you! Being happy may have a lot of advantages, but if we can’t do anything about our level of happiness then, whilst it is nice to know, it’s not particularly useful. The interesting findings from recent research are that whilst a part of our happiness is determined by our genes (around 50%), only about 10% is related to our circumstances, and significantly 40% is down to our choices.

Significant elements of happiness are down to the way we think and behave. It seems we can choose to be happier!

Combining this insight with Seligman’s definition of happiness suggests that we should choose to build activities into what we do. Especially those that integrate:

  • Pleasure and enjoyment
  • Engagement and productivity
  • Meaning and enduring significance


In the workplace it helps to do things which we enjoy. Amidst all the things we have to do, make sure we find time for things we want to do. Include things that make us feel good in what we do.

This initially may seem a simple, even perhaps trivial suggestion, but think about how often we allow our work life to become filled with frustrations and activity which we don’t enjoy doing. Don’t allow a day to go by without doing some of the things that you enjoy!


Secondly, we should spend more time on things that engage us, that use our strengths productively. We are all good at some things, each of us has a unique set of strengths, yet we may not be using them effectively or indeed, spending much time getting better at what we’re good at.


By this we mean something that is lasting, not something we have to put up with! So thirdly, we should try to do things that we’re good at but which are also meaningful, and ideally significant to us. When meaning and significance are linked with what we can achieve using our strengths in the organization, then there is real potential for both personal and organizational success. Think about what you do, or would like to do, that could have ‘enduring meaning’ for you. Try to build more of that into your workload or daily routine.

Start Choosing to be Happy!

Obviously you cannot always be doing things that make you feel good. But you can try to be proactive in building elements from all three of these aspects into your work day, and especially trying to build meaning into what you do.

This article highlights a major theme of this website, building on strengths, both your own and those of the people you work with. Think about building a combination of activities into your working lives. Activities that you enjoy, activities that engage your strengths, and activities which produce meaningful and significant results.

What causes happiness? Certainly our genes and our circumstances have an important place, but so do the choices we make. If happiness can be increased, can being happy help make you and your organization more successful? Is a happy person more successful at work? Follow the link for answers and insights into these critical questions for workplace well-being.

Workplace well-being resources

Workplace Well-being e-guides

For more resources on this topic, take a look at our great-value guides. These include some excellent tools to help your personal development plan. The best-value approach is to buy our Workplace Well-being bundle, available from the store.

We’ve bundled together these five e-guides at half the normal price! Read the guides in this order, and use the tools in each, and you’ll be well on your way to achieving your personal development plan. (6 pdf guides, 138 pages, 24 tools, for half price!)

Have a Good Workday (16 pages, 4 tools)
How to be a Happy Manager (15 tips with action checklists)
Workstyle, Lifestyle (31 pages, 5 tools)
Managers Make the Difference (27 pages, 5 tools)
Managing from Strength to Strength (22 pages, 5 tools)
Making Change Personal (22 pages, 5 tools)

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