For the last six years, I’ve run the Happiness Institute in Australia, where I help clients apply research-based strategies for boosting positive emotions and managing stress and depression. Earlier this year, I reached out to 50 people from my database who had expressed a specific interest in applying the science of positive psychology to their workplaces, and I asked them a simple question: What do you consider to be the top three keys to happiness at work?

While no doubt an informal study, I found that the responses were remarkably consistent. They suggest five key steps to workplace happiness.

One: Provide leadership and values

Employees at all levels and across a range of different industries agreed that leadership is important for happiness at work. The organization as a whole must embrace clear values, said respondents, and all employees must have respect for these values, especially at the top levels.

One person highlighted this by emphasizing that she wished all employees—especially those in positions of authority—would walk the talk. She provided a telling example: If the organization is asking employees to seek a balance between work and life, no one should be sending out emails at 2 a.m.!

Two: Communicate clearly and effectively

Respondents also consistently identified effective and clear communication, especially from management, as critical to their happiness.

This didn’t mean simply that management communicated its directives clearly, from the top all the way down the company’s hierarchy. When respondents talked about communication, they also expressed a desire to have their opinions listened to and taken seriously. One person stressed the importance of listening to staff—really hearing what they say—even if it’s not what the manager wants to hear.

This point seems to speak to larger issues of trust and respect. It’s hard to have a happy workplace without those two qualities!

Three: Give thanks

Employees want to be valued as members of a team and organization. But they also want to be told, frequently and appropriately, that they are valued, as people. They want to be thanked and appreciated for their accomplishments. When managers and colleagues openly congratulate employees for their wins or efforts, it makes everyone happier.

This is entirely consistent with a great deal of research into the social and emotional benefits of gratitude. As psychologist Robert Emmons argues in his book THANKS!, gratitude enhances our sense of self-worth, while at the same time strengthening social ties. Expressing gratitude, he found in his studies, increases the happiness of both giver and receiver.

Four: Focus on strengths

It seems to make employees happier when individuals and organizations focus more on identifying and maximizing strengths, as opposed to just fixing weaknesses. This helps create a more positive organizational culture, in part because employees like to see their skills recognized and used.

Respondents also stressed their desire for training that capitalizes on their strengths and helps them advance within the organization.

Five: Have fun

Finally, respondents agreed that most workplaces would benefit from encouraging, fostering, and reinforcing a fun atmosphere, one that encourages humor and playfulness.

Every respondent, in one way or other, seemed to grasp the relationship between play and productivity: that when employees are having fun, they’re also more energized. And when people are happy and enjoying themselves—at least some of the time!—they are nicer to be around, and more likely to go the extra mile for each other and the organization as a whole.

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