How Happiness Can Help Your Company Flourish

Published in The News & Observer, Work & Money on May 8, 2016

by Grace W. Ueng, CEO of Savvy Growth

Full unedited version follows:

“When I get that big promotion, that will truly make me happy.” 

“Once I fully fund my retirement, I can finally relax and be happy.”

Well, science says that isn’t quite so.

Attainment of that long sought goal doesn’t lead to sustained higher levels of happiness. Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert documented the commonly held belief by assistant professors that their tenure decisions would strongly influence their long-term happiness. They then checked this prediction by assessing the actual happiness of two groups of former assistant professors: those who had received tenure and those who had not. The result? Those who had failed to receive tenure were just as happy as those who had achieved it.

And money doesn’t necessarily deliver happiness. In wealthier nations, increases in wealth have negligible effects on personal happiness. Even the Forbes 100, based on net worth, are only slightly happier than the average American.

Why are individuals and companies throughout the world taking strides to understand just what makes people happy?

Positive Psychology vs. Traditional Psychology

As recently as 1998, there was a 17-to-1 negative-to-positive ratio in the field of psychology. So for every one study on happiness and thriving, there were 17 on depression and disorder. At that time, Dr. Martin Seligman, then President of the American Psychological Association, proclaimed it time to focus research not on all the negative and instead on what makes people flourish.

Since then, happiness research has become a hot topic in aligning science with the quest of figuring out what makes people happy.

The Happiness Advantage

Being happy is what brings success, not the other way around according to research conducted at Harvard by Shawn Achor.

Success at SAS

In the very early days of SAS, two decades before the positive psychology movement was born, Jim Goodnight was already building a company with a holistic approach to people and putting his employees first. Jenn Mann, EVP and Chief HR Officer at SAS, says that their visionary leader was ahead of his time in helping take care of the needs of the whole person through every phase of life: from college debt for new graduates, to couples buying their first home, to aging parent care.

Their approach grew organically as their employees experienced real life needs, and SAS came up with pragmatic solutions. Thirty years ago, an early employee had a baby and didn’t want to leave her newborn at home, so they brought in a nanny which eventually blossomed into their famed on site daycare.

Goodnight wanted to support an environment where the “knowledge worker” would be inspired to be creative. And this approach to ensuring employees are happy has paid off as demonstrated by 40 consecutive years of revenue growth – every year since its founding—to $3.16 billion in 2015.

Our brains are hard wired to perform at their best when they are positive, not negative or even neutral. Students primed to feel happy before taking math achievement tests far outperform their neutral peers. So taking a break at SAS’ on site gym or meditation garden can inspire employees to be most innovative.

Just over two decades after SAS was founded, Larry Page & Sergey Brin reached out to Jim Goodnight as they were starting to build out the Google campus. They were intrigued by the campus environment which SAS had created and wanted to see it first hand. They carried back much knowledge including how SAS provided unlimited M&Ms to their employees, spurring creativity.

SAS has been on Fortune’s Best Places to Work list every year and in recent years reached the #1 position two years in a row, until their early mentee Google took over.

M&Ms and Google

Creating a happy culture requires dynamic learning and iteration.

Two years ago, Goodnight was intrigued by learning how Google placed the M&Ms into opaque containers and consumption decreased by 40%. He was concerned about the health impact, but didn’t want to completely take away the legendary treat delivered once a week. SAS, in turn, has placed the treat into opaque containers and adjusted snacks to align with their focus on healthy eating.

Google’s reaching out to SAS when building their campus came full circle, two decades later, as Mann visited Googleplex at an event Lazslo Bock, Google’s VP of People Operations, and author of Work Rules! hosted. She was inspired by Shawn Achor, one of the featured speakers.

Burts Bees: Talent Powerhouse

When he was CEO of Burt’s Bees, John Replogle read Achor’s book The Happiness Advantage, he loved it, and hired him to speak on happiness as part of their “talent powerhouse” strategic imperative as Burt’s Bees was making the global push into 19 new countries. A year later, a member of his senior team told Achor that Replogle’s emphasis on fostering positive leadership kept his managers engaged and cohesive as they successfully made the transition into a global company.

“Everyone is trying to figure out how to enrich and unlock their culture,” explained Replogle, when asked about the growing interest by businesses in studying happiness. “Culture can be crafted with the right influences by introducing insights and practices into the workplace.”

Expressing gratitude is a fundamental tenet of positive psychology and can be done daily, even by a simple email. Burt’s Bees team members started to journal, expressing daily gratitude shout-outs.

“Culture, where I believe happiness resides, is just as important of the top three responsibilities of a leadership team as strategic planning and external relations,” states Jim Geikie, Vice President International Development, Natural Personal Care at Burt’s Bees.

“Leadership must understand and place priority on culture as much as business strategy. Use external people to facilitate the process. They will ask the right questions. Put reinforcing systems in place to reward the behavior.”

Geikie adds, “It has to start at the top.”

For enlightened leaders like Replogle and Goodnight – it’s in their DNA.

SAS’ Mann builds on Geikie’s comment, “I have the dream job as I have a CEO who gets it – the way he looks at people – he puts people first.”

“What we created in a core seed was embraced by so many people, many of whom have gone on to other organizations, who have taken that with them,” reflects Replogle on his time leading Burt’s. “That’s the greatest thing. We didn’t keep it to ourselves, but created a gift that we have shared to create positive impact.”

At Seventh Generation, where he is now CEO and has grown revenues 60% to $250M from $150M and added 100 products in the last 5 years, Replogle has formalized practices, to be more intentional. They have a cross functional Vibe team that creates positive energy in the culture with “healthy lunch bunch” and “gratitude zip lines” to show thanks. Their annual retreat in which they focus on a core theme is called “advance” instead of a “retreat.” To advance the culture.

Geikie shared that the fundamental belief is happiness is around the corner upon that big promotion, retirement, or finishing school. But the reality is another thing will crop up.

“It’s a mindset shift. Find happiness in the moment.”

 Top 7 take-aways from famed Harvard Happiness course

Achor’s mentor, Tal Ben-Shahar, designed the Positive Psychology course that went on to become the most popular course in Harvard history. Just as when leaders receive a big promotion or nail a big deal they’ve been working on for months on end, when a high school senior receives admission to Harvard, their first thoughts are often “my life is set!”

Within a few weeks, they settle back into normalcy and early in their freshman year, they realize for the first time they are not in the top 1% of their class. The vast majority think they must be in the bottom 10%, and fall into despondency. In fact, in 2003, 80% of Harvard students faced mental health problems.

Ben-Shahar brought his hundreds of students to joyful tears at the end of the 22 lecture course. My top 7 take-aways are very easy to grasp and may seem like common sense.

▪ Curiosity and questioning differentiate the most successful from the simply successful.

▪ Learn to fail or you’ll fail to learn.

▪ Being perfect is not a positive.

▪ Behavioral change following cognitive change equals lasting change. Inspiration is great but not enough; you must have action, and that’s where having cohorts and coaches can help you follow through.

▪ Instead of trying to impress, express yourself and let people get to know you.

▪ Positive psychology broadens idea generation. Never let a good crisis go to waste.

▪ Visualize. The brain does not discern between the real and the imagined. When you imagine the journey to success, you are fooling your mind into thinking it is the real thing.

But as Ben-Shahar likes to say, “Common sense is not that common.”

Mann shares, “It’s the simple things that you can do,” in describing what SAS offers their employees.

And remember behavioral change must follow learning for lasting change.

Replogle adds, “The difference between good companies and great companies is putting common sense into common practice.”

About the Author 

Motivational speaker, executive coach, and consultant, Grace Ueng is CEO of Savvy Growth She frequently speaks on the topic of Happiness and trained as a positive psychology coach through Tal Ben-Shahar’s Whole Being Institute. She can be reached at

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Links to 22 lectures of Ben-Shahar’s Harvard Happiness course and other positive psychology resources:

I’d love to hear from you – please leave a comment or share with your network. Please check out related posts: Asking Life’s QuestionsWhy Study Happiness?