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Opinion

Yes, you can be happy at work

This isn't fluff. Happy companies make more cash.

By Alexander Kjerulf / January 22, 2008



Copenhagen, Denmark

On a recent tour of several well-known American corporations, one thing became painfully obvious to me: The concept of happiness at work is alien to most American workplaces.

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It doesn't have to be that way.

"You get paid to do your job, not to like it," seems to be the attitude of most US managers and workplaces. What's worse, American employees seem to be willing participants in this arrangement. When I ask Americans what makes them happy at work, they rarely talk about the work itself – many tend to see it as a means to an end, rather than as something to enjoy.

The result is that US workplaces are dominated by status-seeking career climbers, where the paycheck is the only motivator, where employee turnover is shockingly high, where bad management is never challenged, where burnout and cynicism are the order of the day, and only Dilbert comic strips provide relief.

This unhappiness at work is causing serious harm. You spend more time at work than with your family, friends, and hobbies combined. Hating your job is not an inconvenience, it's a serious problem. It can cause stress and depression. Ultimately, it can kill you.

And yet, a job can be a tremendous source of happiness. It can give you success, victories, and professional and personal growth. It can let you contribute to something important. It can be a source of positive, meaningful relationships with both managers and co-workers. It can, in fact, be a lot of fun!

If companies took a few simple steps, fun, fulfilling jobs could be the norm in America. Where I live, it already is.

In Denmark, employees fully expect to like their jobs. Few Danes put up with bad management, stress, overwork, bullying, or anything else that makes us unhappy at work. What's more, in Scandinavia in general, companies have a genuine commitment to their employees' well-being.

This is why Scandinavians have the world's highest job satisfaction ratings – and one of the reasons why the Scandinavian nations regularly top the lists of the world's happiest countries, both in life and at work. This also helps explain the Nordic Miracle – the economic success of the Scandinavian economy and flagship Nordic businesses such as Carlsberg, IKEA, LEGO, Maersk, and NOKIA. The equation isn't complicated: Workers who love their jobs = more efficiency and innovation = more money.

IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, one of the world's richest men, states it clearly: "Work should always be fun.... We all only have one life. A third of life is work. Without happiness and fun, work becomes hell."

Some US companies get it. That's why Disney, Google, and Southwest Airlines focus so intently on making their people happy at work. How do they do it?

•Southwest Airlines encourages employees to have fun and joke with co-workers and passengers. They even prefer to hire inexperienced new employees with a positive mind-set, rather than grouches with extensive experience.

•Google gives their employees freedom to be creative, letting them devote 20 percent of their working hours to projects of their own choosing. Also, Google's dress code is "You must wear clothes."

These efforts aren't just about morale – they are a major reason for bottom-line success. We don't have to choose between happiness and business success. Studies show that happy employees are more motivated, productive, innovative, and engaged. In short: Happy companies make more money.

Other studies show that people who pursue the career they like, rather than the career they think will make them rich, are more likely to become millionaires.

Make no mistake: Happiness at work is on the march. It just seems that many Americans are stuck a little harder in the "work is unpleasant – that's why we get paid to do it" mentality.

So my advice to American managers and employees is this: Make happiness at work your top priority. It will make work more fun, it will make you happier in life, and it will make you more successful.

Alexander Kjerulf makes people happy at work. He's a business consultant, speaker, and the author of "Happy Hour is 9 to 5 – How to Love Your Job, Love Your Life and Kick Butt at Work." He blogs at www.positivesharing.com.

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