Do Happier People Work Harder? I Think So


Thanks to Andrew Bishop for posting a link to this article the other day. The New York Times had an article on Sunday titled, “Do Happier People Work Harder?” I think the answer, clearly, is yes.

The outlook from a survey is bleak:

People of all ages, and across income levels, are unhappy with their supervisors, apathetic about their organizations and detached from what they do. And there's no reason to think things will soon improve.

The following seems like an obvious finding:

Employees are far more likely to have new ideas on days when they feel happier.

People feel happy when they are making progress on their work, when they are doing work that is meaningful, and when they have supportive managers and leaders.

Managers can help ensure that people are happily engaged at work. Doing so isn't expensive. Workers' well-being depends, in large part, on managers' ability and willingness to facilitate workers' accomplishments — by removing obstacles, providing help and acknowledging strong effort.

That sounds like a model of Lean leadership to me.

Again, from the article:

 Of the seven companies we studied, just one had managers who consistently supplied the catalysts — worker autonomy, sufficient resources and learning from problems — that enabled progress. Not coincidentally, that company was the only one to achieve a technological breakthrough in the months we studied it.

A final thought from the article:

Work should ennoble, not kill, the human spirit. Promoting workers' well-being isn't just ethical; it makes economic sense.

I don't know what I can add. It's a piece well worth reading and reflecting upon. Dr. Deming used to show a chart to show how intrinsic motivation would only go DOWN over time, as people were mismanaged or had their spirits crushed by organizations. Do you see Lean leadership models, including servant leadership, and the management of “kaizen” or continuous improvement having a positive impact?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Are people happier because they work harder, or do they work harder because they are happier? Maybe it’s synergy between the two.

    • I think working hard on things that are personally meaningful makes you happy. Just shoveling rocks isn’t likely to make one happy, unless the leader can help articulate the purpose and meaning… as the story goes about are you just breaking rocks or are you building a cathedral?

      • While in short, I agree… happier people work harder, I cannot but think of something I remember from M. Csikszentmihalyi work on Flow and creativity… most people that are in a state of “flow” and highly creative and productive have no thought of whether they are happy or not… it is only on reflection after the fact that they state that they must have felt happy (and in many cases, simply cannot recall their emotional state). In the moment they are absorbed or fully engaged in what they are doing. Based on that, we may be wrong to focus on creating “happy” workplace; but, rather focus on creating the context for Flow and creativity. That most people may feel happy after the fact is simply a bonus.

  2. I was going to respond with a quote from Peopleware or The Fifth Discipline; but, instead: yes!

    In mountaineering and disaster response, a few simple concepts are ground into the minds of everyone participating. The one I like to provide managers is: STAR = Stop. Take a breath. Assess. React. It’s so easy for people to remain on autopilot as everything comes crashing down, ever wondering at why they can’t abate the fall.

    To a large degree, introspection is the key. Having the ability to take a moment and step outside of an individual perception (mental model, schema, etc.) and truthfully and honestly evaluate what is being done, how well it is being done, how important it is, and how it relates to everything else.

    Yet, even in psychology, this ability is rare for an individual to have. Maybe we need to have more managers and executives undergo psychotherapy with a healthy mix of mindfulness practice from Eastern psychology? :) I’m all for it!

  3. Glad you’re focusing on this critical issue, Mark. It’s very important research that we all should pay attention to and follow. It supports Dan Pink’s work in two ways: first, what Dan writes about motivation that Andrew Bishop mentioned and second, Dan’s lament that there’s such a big disconnect between what science knows and business does. At least the lean community and lean managers seem more enlightened than others!


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