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What Causes Happiness?

What causes happiness? Is it all down to our genes? Is it due to external conditions, or is it in part down to us and therefore really it is our own choice. We take a look at happiness in the workplace in this series of three articles starting with what causes happiness to gain some insight on whether we can choose to be happier or not. Then, secondly to ask: can being a happy person help make you more successful at work? Thirdly, if some of our happiness is down to choice and being happy is helpful in being successful then it’s worth finding ways to be happy at work.

Defining happiness

A good point to start then 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!

If you combine the insight that we can choose to be happier with Seligman’s definition of happiness, then they together suggest that you should choose to build activities into what you do that integrate:

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


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


Secondly spend more time on things that engage you, that use your 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 are good at.


(By enduring we mean something that is lasting, not something you have to put up with!)
Thirdly combine your strengths in doing things that are meaningful and significant to you. When meaning and significance are linked with what you can achieve in the organization, then there is real potential for both personal and organizational success. Think about what would have enduring meaning for you, and build that more into what you do.

Start Choosing to be Happy!

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

This article highlights a major theme of the Happy Manager, to build on your strengths and the strengths of your colleagues. Build into your practice and those with whom you work a combination of activities you enjoy, activities that engage your strengths, and activities where your strengths produce meaningful and significant results.

What causes happiness? Certainly our genes and our circumstances have an improtant 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?

Where to go from here:


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