The International Day of Happiness (March 20) marks the release of the latest World Happiness Report, which ranks some 156 countries based on their citizens’ well-being and the impact of various social, urban and natural environments on their happiness. 

Work, of course, is an important factor in individual well-being, and research shows that 85% of employers believe happy employees benefit their companies, whether it be in terms of talent attraction, retention or providing a competitive edge. The pandemic brought questions of well-being into sharp focus for many employers. For one renowned happiness expert, meanwhile, the last year brought about a pivot in how she thought about this important subject.

Jenn Lim, CEO and cofounder of Delivering Happiness, has spent her career applying science-based theories of workplace happiness, and on March 25, she’ll discuss lessons learned from 2020 at the IndeedWorks event, “Better hiring. Better jobs. Better lives.” We sat down with Lim to find out why her views shifted and how moving from me to we delivers workplace happiness.

Delivering happiness through a “coach|sultancy” model

Ten years ago, Lim and her friend and colleague Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, created what she recently described as a “scientific Petri dish of happiness.” Hsieh and Lim collaborated to share Zappo's story — “an experiment in how to use existential concepts and questions about happiness in a workplace,” Lim said — in Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose

The book quickly became a bestseller, and when demand rose for hands-on help in applying its model for workplace happiness to specific organizations, the two founded Delivering Happiness — a company devoted to “culture coach|sultancy.” The term was coined, Lim says, to better reflect the necessary co-creation between employer and consultant for developing a happier workplace culture.

“Our process involves holding the mirror to the organization and its people because — not to be cliché — the answer is definitely within themselves. We just happen to have worked with so many companies around the world … and I’ve learned so much because that’s where humanity is. At the core of it, people are people,” says Lim.

Pandemic, loss provide a philosophical pivot

Since Delivering Happiness was founded, Lim has had the “luxury” of testing businesses’ cultural concerns, such as retention, engagement and productivity, with scientific principles of workplace happiness. In 2020, she’d begun writing a new book — and then came COVID-19. Pandemic-related shifts to the project occurred, and every change sparked a new iteration. 

Then, Lim’s longtime colleague, Hsieh, died in a tragic accident. And that “reframed everything,” she says.

Lim felt on the edge of a cultural shift. Ten years prior, she’d thought workplace happiness was the tipping point for a new business model. Though she’d had few expectations for their book — “I just thought it was a message to share” — and had not envisioned the resulting company, they’d established the importance of workplace happiness. 

But 2020’s stressors illuminated a new tipping point for Lim: “We had a reset of humanity … miraculously, in a beautiful way, that the whole world had to have at the same time.” 

It was time to go “beyond happiness” to a more encompassing topic: wholeness.

Moving from “me” to “we”

As described in her upcoming book, tentatively titled It's Time to (Love) Work: Create Systemic Change That Prioritizes Purpose, Profits, and People, Lim’s happiness model now moves in a concentric circle formed of me (the self), we (the team and company) and community (everyone the organization touches — partners, vendors, customers and more. 

The process, though, starts with me. She explains:

“It’s important to make sure [happiness] is about you, as a human being. And that's a responsibility organizations need to understand. 

“It's a question of ‘What's in it for me?’ and then ‘What's in it for all?’ and that's why the rippling impact goes from me to we to the community and now society and planet. Until you answer those questions for yourself, it's really hard to navigate this world.”

Knowing yourself delivers happiness in the workplace

The metaphor Lim uses to describe her vision of self within companies based on purpose and value is that of constructing greenhouses. 

Just as these shelters provide an essential environment for plants to grow and thrive, Lim’s business “greenhouses” allow individuals, teams and companies to understand why they do what they do and “who we are authentically.” 

Answering “What’s in it for me?” and “What’s in it for all?” is at the heart of Lim’s “the wheel of wholeness.” The wheel of wholeness, or holistic self, consists of various essential states — emotional, physical, financial, spiritual or purpose-driven, even fun — and the more we know of ourselves and how we balance these states, the better our purposes and values align. 

Realizing happiness even in challenging times

As the U.S. faces a pandemic-driven recession comparable to the Great Depression, we asked: Can happiness at work be developed? Can you create happiness no matter the job? 

Lim says that alignment with purpose and values is crucial. Once alignment is realized, we’re better able to make adaptations and cope with change, especially for external situations beyond our control. Having families to feed and debts to pay doesn’t preclude happiness on the job; it requires a change in understanding how you realize happiness. 

“It’s such a tough time right now, with people taking any job they can because they have to,” Lim explains. “But when job seekers see [their situation] holistically … understanding the why of all these things that are most important — values, sense of purpose — the part that [can be] controlled and owned is connected to what’s meaningful: making that money, knowing the greater goal, knowing it’s for a bigger reason.”

Focusing on the wheel of wholeness moves happiness from in-the-moment to foundational, enabling us to realize happiness when circumstances are difficult.

Why business benefits by moving toward “we”

Though Lim’s wheel of wholeness starts with me, companies can’t neglect their role in workplace happiness. 

While a recent Harvard Business Review Analytical Services report sponsored by Indeed found that almost all executives surveyed — 95% — believe they wield some control over workplace happiness, almost half put the responsibility on the employee. 

But just as employees must do the hard work of self-inspection, companies must examine their practices to create happier workplaces. Science provides support; psychologist and researcher Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky has found that happiness fosters workplace creativity and productivity, builds stronger employee bonds and even boosts employees’ immune systems

And Dr. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, Director of the Wellbeing Research Centre and editor of The World Happiness Report, who will be sharing information from the report’s chapter on work and well-being at an upcoming IndeedWorks event, also supports the importance of community and social ties, such as belonging, appreciation and inclusion, in workplace happiness

Ultimately, Lim believes that happiness occurs when employees’ authentic selves align with companies’ values and purposes. Once that alignment is secure, Lim sees growing resilience. And that’s when, she says, we are ready to embrace anything that comes our way.