Building Better Businesses By Closing The Happiness Gap

As work becomes our lives, it becomes more and more important for us to be happy at work. But few of us are. A revolution in workplace happiness would make us healthier and more productive. How can we get there?

If two magnets are separated by too much distance, they won’t have any impact on each other. But, if something helps move them a bit closer, they will gravitate towards each other and connect. Technology can be used in a similar way. It can connect you to other people, skills, tools, and trigger new ways of thinking and working; it can create an "assisted serendipity." More than ever, products and companies help connect us to people and information. But does merely creating access have anything to do with making better lives and better economies?

This piece is part of a Collaborative Fund-curated series on creativity and values written by thought leaders in the for-profit, for-good business space.

Because today, we have more access than ever, but unfortunately, we are still largely unhappy: 80% of people dislike what they do for a living. Out of this incredible number of unhappy people, comes a huge opportunity to create products to solve this issue, and improve our economy. A few companies, like Dream Champs, The Energy Project, and Loosecubes have begun to tackle this problem. And they have the potential to make big impact: Happy workers correlate to raising sales by 37%, productivity by 31%, and task accuracy by 19%. If we’re happy at work, the U.S. could gain $300 billion in productivity each year. But to move the four-fifths of our population from disengaged to fulfilled, we have a long way to go.

One way to do this is to build companies that have a structural alignment of personal interests and skills, with the mission of the company. Studies show that people are much more productive and healthy when they can connect their values with their work. People believe this, but for some reason it isn’t yet reflected in the way we behave. There seems to be a sense of "I can’t do that now," or "I’ll figure that out for my next job." This might be because people don’t realize they’re surrounded by a fluid network at any given moment, that might reveal new opportunity.

This is where technology can help. Beyond restructuring companies to incorporate collaborative spaces, flexible hours, and encouragement of natural talents, it’s important we build tools so anyone can easily connect to companies and individuals with strong value or interest alignment. With such an enormous chunk of the population unhappy at work, startups and innovators have a big, and potentially lucrative problem to solve. Imagine a society where people interview companies instead of companies interviewing people. Or one where we’re able to step outside the box and create something new with the network of people around us—it’s starting to happen already, and we can speed it up.

Addressing the disengagement crisis is as much a health initiative as a work initiative. We spend the majority of our waking lives working, so ultimately, work is our life. And increasingly, we overlap our work with our personal lives. Soon, the two seeming separate will be an archaic construct. Mood at work will leak into our personal lives more than it already does. So that means that bolstering good psychology at the office not only helps the economy, it also fosters the health of families, friends, and communities.

People will flourish as we all continue to push and experiment with new ways to approach why we work, how we work, and what we do for our work. As Simon Sinek said: "Innovation is the application of technology to solve human problems."

Ryan Vanderbilt

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  • Raluca Boghian

    Ryan, I loved your article. It really spoke to my heart! There is an alarming percentage of people that sleep-walk through their lives, just waiting for the week-end or the holiday to come. And if we look beyond the numbers, we'll see that the're actually real people who waste the greatest gift they were ever given: life. Many of my friends are in this situation. And also there were times when I felt that there must be something else I could do with my life. I think that when you feel unfulfilled by your work, the best thing is to take some distance and search. This is really difficult, so I think that talking to someone, a coach for instance, can be helpful. After leaving my job, I started a project in this direction, of increasing work related happiness, a project that contributes to my own happiness at work, but which is, actually, about the happiness of others. You can find it at and tell me what you think about it.

  • Shanejeff14

    love the post, i asked myself this same question last week as i unhappily walked through another day of mindnumbing work. i'm in search of inspiration, but i don't know where to look because i, for one reason or another, am afraid of the people i'm surrounded by (current group of friends, family) judging me for what i believe can make this world a better place to live and produce. posts like yours make me feel that when i do find that inspiration, i'll know it, and i'll run with it and until that day happens i'll be plugging along.

  • Ryan Vanderbilt

    I'm glad you liked the post. You bring up a lot of interesting things. As far as your search for inspiration goes, keep looking, reading, trying things, talking to people, etc. But, it may never 'jump out' at you, so I would suggest doing something to help discover what it is about you, and your personality that connects with something you find inspiring. The other thing is it will always be changing a bit and evolving as you do as a person. Your core values will probably remain, but the way you want to manifest them may change. I've done a really simple exercise to help discover this for myself, and like I said it's an on-going process. The person that told me about the exercise called it +10 / -10. As you go about your days, pay attention to the things that you love, get energized by, and also the things that you dislike, and drain your energy. Write these down under the + or the -. Don't be critical of what you write, the point is that you can start to figure out the 'story' and connect the dots when you look at everything. For instance, you may put down something like, 'being at a coffee shop' as a plus. That may mean you like friendly, collaborative environments, or a certain type of design aesthetic, or great service... All those things can help inform and ultimately lead you to making decisions in life and with work that align with your passions. Hope that makes some sense... I'm actually working on an application that will hopefully help people with this process. You can check it out if you want, I will be updating the post soon with more info. All the best! Here's the link:

  • Ryan Vanderbilt

    Reading the comments made me think of this:

    "No single thing is the solution, but every single thing leads to the solution."

    There is no single answer, and nothing will work for everyone, but everything we try will help and lead to something positive, I think and hope...

  • Eitan Chitayat

    i love what you wrote, ryan. the editor's note ain't too shabby either: "a 21-hour work week; an office with skies instead of ceilings; not working overtime; and an office that encourages you to work from home."

  • Ryan Vanderbilt

    Wes, I think what you are hitting on is again the 'one up, one down' mindset vs. the 'all boats rise mindset.' What you are saying also reminds me of a lot of the wisdom from John Wooden. One of the best coaches ever, but really just full of wisdom that applies to life in general. When he talks about how he built teams it's really interesting. It's very obvious, but most teams aren't built the way he did. I find the same thing happens with companies and can cause a lot of fear, anxiety, and poor performance. Basically if you have a bunch of people that are all trying to get the spotlight and have similar functions, it won't lead to the best team. Check out 'The Essential Wooden' if you are interested, he can say it much better than I can!

  • Wes

    Great article!  I am in total agreement and enjoyed reading all of the follow-up comments.  I am feeling helpless in my work environment where there is so much potential for greatness but those with the power fear losing their positions at the expense of everyone elses satisfaction.  I believe whole-heartedly happy employees equal happy customers, ie Zappos.  

  • jimjr11

     Wes, you hit on exactly the source of so much of the frustration employees live with.  But when you think of it, "those with the power" probably feel exactly the same way you do. Everyone has a boss, except of course CEO's with weak Boards.and even then, investors may weigh in and sometimes change the board.  Human nature drives behavior, when threatened, change becomes almost impossible.  Imagine a leader invoking a process where "those with power" are forced to become "those with solutions".  This can easily happen when a leader creates an environment where culture and politics are periodically suspended so that  employee input carries more weight than those in power can ignore. We see this happen all the time in our business, but the process does require a strong leader.  One who is less concerned with the source of innovative suggestions than the quality.  We'll never change human nature, but we can reduce its affects by simply not providing cover for those resistant to change.  How happy would you be in your current position if you knew your suggestions/input would be critically evaluated with no opportunity for "those in power" to interfere without their objection being critically vetted by their superiors?  That is, they would have to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that your anonymous suggestion is flawed or they'd have to implement it immediately, like tomorrow.
    Creating an environment where this happens is easier than you might think, but even with the process nailed down, the result will always depend on the leader.  Those who are concerned more with results than with the company's culture or politics have achieved tremendous results with this approach and employee morale has soared!

  • Aura M. Garrillo

    Happy employees provide exceptional customer service, which probably accounts for some of the increase in productivity you mention. But how do we get there? It is so hard to make our business owners/clients see this connection! If you face this challenge in the U.S., imagine in South America!

  • Ryan Vanderbilt

    I hear ya Aura. I think it has to start as a very personal initiative. Each of us needs to address this for ourselves first. I know that can feel selfish for some, but it's ultimately the only responsible thing to do. Once individuals start to address this they will hopefully want to spread it to others. It will be shared intentionally, but also subconsciously, it will be spreading naturally through our words, actions, and positive energy.

    The end result is that we will be changing business and clients, because every single business and all clients are people. Chip Conley and Simon Sinek are some people I've heard say some great stuff related to this if you are interested.

    I also think we have to change the thinking in business from winning to succeeding. Winning means someone else is losing, which doesn't make sense. I know we are brought up to think about winning, dominating even, and that can make sense for certain things like sports, but not so much in business. Hopefully people can think more about cooperation and collaboration vs. competition.

    The 'all boats rise' mindset would be amazing for society and business.

  • Gary

    I don't want to be pessimistic, but the main cause of employee dissatisfaction is their direct manager.  Managers are people- humans that are innately flawed. 

    I too hope there is a technological solution, but it would need to overcome some of life's eternal challenges-selfishness, greed, anger, and all the other petty but real human foibles that managers bring to their people.  Most employees would be happier without a boss- can technology solve that?

  • Lisa Sansom

    Great article - though it's not just about connecting values at work; it's also about finding meaning at work. Leaders can help through open communication channels, helping employees make the line of sight between their job and the larger mandate of the company, and by being excited and passionate themselves about the company and sharing that with others. I would expect that some notion of wage equity works too. Yet we should also ask, what are employees doing to help themselves be happier at work? No longer should someone sit back and wait to see what new flavour-of-the-month will be rolled out to increase employee engagement or worker-bee happiness. The field of positive psychology has a lot to offer to allow individuals to increase their own well-being, in and out of work. This article is a great start, and I look forward to hearing more.

  • Ryan Vanderbilt

    I agree Lisa. It is ultimately on the individual, but sometimes it's hard to know where to start, or even that certain opportunities or tools exist. I love all the stuff around positive psychology, but most people don't even know about it. The goal would be for people to think about health as all encompassing. Mental health, physical health, happiness, mindfulness, etc. Especially with mental health, there is such a stigma attached to it, but really it's just great, useful wisdom that can be applied to all aspects of life. *Small side tangent, but that's the thing, it's all connected!

  • Doug Brockway

    Ryan, great article. We do indeed spend most of our time at work and there is no other place that needs more focus as it is so severly out of alignment with what most people need to thrive. A quick illustration of this is to look at the stated mission and values of most any organization. Even a cursory audit will often show that this is often severly out of whack with what employee's experience. What a company 'says' is often quite different from how it behaves towards it's human capital. I think your idea of technology that connects people with other company's that share similar values is a great idea only IF there is also a metric involved in how well these company's walk the talk. As well, at the root of this all is perhaps a more fundamental issue, that our economic model based on short term quarterly profit is in need of re-examination. Here's some thoughts on that:

  • Ryan Vanderbilt

    Couldn't agree with you more about the value of 'doing what you are saying,' for both the individual and the company. I have some thoughts on that and am trying to address that with this project:

    Looking forward to checking out your link.

  • Kristen B

    "If we’re happy at work, the U.S. could gain $300 billion in productivity each year." - This is both unbelievable and totally believable at the same time. And I think that is because using your strengths = increased happiness, and using your strengths = increased productivity. But I also think that using your strengths requires a self-awareness of those strengths and the courage and discipline to put that self-awareness to use to create value in either your own company, or another. Which is where “bolstering good psychology at the office” comes in. I wonder about the future of this. We cannot compartmentalize our work and personal lives as we have in the past. Self-awareness is a psychological skill that is just as important in personal relationships, and personal endeavors as it is in career. Personal growth at home HAS to translate to personal growth at the office and vice versa. If a producer in your company is having trouble connecting with clients – ignoring the underlying inadequacy issues that are a result of their childhood abandonment doesn’t help you.  Now, what you do with that information, as a company, I don’t know. I don’t know if you even need to get that deep. But denying the obstacles to production is never helpful either.
    So, how will this impact how companies run in the future? How will this impact individuals taking responsibility of their own fate, and what impact will THAT have on corporations?

  • Kristen B

    Yes, I guess I about the future of corporations (Ie HR-type functions) getting involved with the people who are engaged, and are working on their self-awareness. Will they eventually help them get access the resources - such as Strengths Finder (or anything else by Marcus Buckingham ha) - to evaluate their strengths, access to get the valuable, honest feedback from those that they work with, and then also help them by taking an active role in collaborating with them to match those strengths and passions with actual functions in the company?
    As I see it right now, it is very risky to put your strengths out in a corporation. If you want to switch functions, particularly creating new functions, you have to tread lightly. Your current function may be the only one that is seen as being of value, and if your company realizes your actual strengths and passions don’t match as much as you convinced them in your interview, why should they not fire you on the spot? You are losing them money when they could have someone who actually does have those passions and strengths for that function. Or your strengths may match more risky, untested functions. You may even be able to put together a very thoughtful business plan to prove up the value of your strengths/passions in your company, but until they are tried and true, they are still risks. And depending on the corporation’s risk aversion, or general values about where money is made, and value is added for future growth, you risking losing your job: your security and main source of income for attempting to change functions. And why should we expect corporations to take risks when we as individuals won’t either?
    So, how do we, as a society, get to a place where our strengths and passions maximize value to one another? What ARE the barriers to that collectively AND individually? I believe personal responsibility is certainly the first step! But, maybe I know I am not at my full potential at my current position, and maybe I have even taken the time and energy (and, let’s be honest, emotional energy: sometimes it is hard/scary to accept the truth!) to figure out my strengths and passions, but as society/our culture is set up right now, there is a lot between me and my maximum value job. And maybe that just is what it is – it just the nature of people, supply/demand, true barriers like building relationships with people, building trust and proving up value, and taking personal risks, etc, etc: maybe there are real barriers we will not be able to change, but I look forward to seeing the kind of culture shift we can create by posing these questions! And figuring out the barriers, and pushing through them, or simply accepting them. And hopefully doing my share to be a part of the shift J
    Thanks again for your insight Ryan!