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Rethinking Happiness: The Power of Purpose, Connections, and Small Acts of Kindness

The concept of happiness has long fascinated philosophers, religious leaders, and more recently, positive psychologists. For generations, we have been told that achievement, success, and material wealth are the keys to happiness and fulfillment. However, decades of research on well-being and life satisfaction suggest a very different prescription for happiness - one focused less on things and more on purpose, relationships, and helping others.

Today we will explore new scientific understandings of happiness, outline practical strategies supported by research, and provide organizational examples of fostering happiness through purpose, community, and kindness.

Happiness is Dynamic, Not Static

Traditionally, happiness has been viewed as a stable trait - some people are inherently happier than others. However, emerging research conceptualizes happiness as a dynamic process that can be influenced (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005). Positive psychologists now distinguish between three components of subjective well-being:

  • Baseline happiness - Our genetically influenced set point of happiness that returns us to a neutral state after both good and bad events. This accounts for about 50% of happiness variation.

  • Circumstances - Life factors like health, income, and relationships account for about 10% of happiness variation. While circumstances do matter, their impact tends to be fleeting.

  • Intentional activities - Behaviors and mindsets we purposefully cultivate account for about 40% of happiness variation and have lasting effects (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). This provides hope - happiness is not fixed and we have agency to increase it through small daily choices.

These findings challenge the notion that happiness is predetermined or solely dependent on outside circumstances. Instead, intentionally cultivating purpose, social connections, and acts of kindness have been shown to significantly and sustainably enhance well-being over time.

Finding Purpose Boosts Happiness and Performance

Having a sense of purpose - doing meaningful work that contributes to something larger than oneself - is strongly linked to increased happiness, life satisfaction, and physical health (Emmons, 2003; Ryff & Singer, 2008). Purpose aligns individual efforts with organizational mission and values, enhancing intrinsic motivation.

Research indicates purposeful work increases happiness through higher subjective vitality and daily positive emotions (Burton & Steane, 2004). At Ernst & Young, employees report purpose as a key driver of engagement. The accounting firm's "Impact Day" encourages staff to volunteer with charitable partners, strengthening purpose through community collaboration (EY, 2016).

Beyond subjective benefits, purpose aligns individual and organizational goals, driving higher performance. Google's "20 percent time" policy allows engineers to devote one day per week to innovative, purpose-driven side projects - resulting in Gmail, AdSense, and more (Bock, 2015). Purpose-focused strategies boost both happiness and the bottom line.

Social Connections are Essential for Well-Being

Strong social bonds are critically important for psychological and physical health across the lifespan. Positive social relationships correlate more robustly with well-being and longevity than almost any other factor, including income, education or physical health (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). Social connection fulfills basic human needs for belongingness, competence, and meaning (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).

Organizations can strengthen social capital by cultivating communities. At Ford Motor Company, regional employee resource groups foster belonging around shared identities and interests (Ford, 2017). Collaboration between groups enriches diversity efforts. At Starbucks, green apron "communities" online and in-store provide virtual and physical spaces for connection and support between baristas worldwide (Starbucks, 2018). These efforts enhance well-being through workplace social support networks.

Performing Acts of Kindness Boosts Both Giver and Receiver Happiness

Beyond personal relationships, regularly performing kind acts - like helping a colleague, volunteering, or donating - creates a "warm glow effect" that significantly lifts mood and life satisfaction (Aknin et al., 2013). Kindness fulfills basic desires for competence and social contribution.

Organizations can incentivize kindness through " pay it forward" programs. At Quicken Loans, random employees receive $125 to perform anonymous acts of kindness, then pay it forward by motivating others (Schenck, 2017). Participants report increased happiness for themselves and appreciation for kindness in the community.

At the children's hospital at Montefiore Medical Center, staff formed "Rounds of Kindness" to brighten patients' days with personalized gifts and upbeat visits (Anthropic, 2018). Participants experienced greater work satisfaction through helping others. Small acts of kindness uplift both giver and receiver while strengthening commitment to organizational purpose.

Cultivating Gratitude Boosts Well-Being

Like acts of kindness, cultivating an attitude of gratitude also bolsters happiness. Daily gratitude journaling - noting things one is grateful for - correlates with enhanced well-being, life satisfaction, optimism, and reduced negative emotions (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Gratitude fulfills basic psychological needs for positivity and relatedness.

Through initiatives like "thankful Thursdays," companies encourage gratitude exchange between employees. At insurance company USAA, “shout-outs” allow staff to recognize colleagues’ contributions through companywide emails (USAA, 2018). Participants report feeling more appreciated and connected. Gratitude communicates positivity, strengthens workplace bonds, and lifts spirits corporately.


For generations, we were told happiness comes from achievement, success and wealth. However, an accumulating body of research points to a very different prescription for well-being - one focused less on things and more on purpose, relationships and contributing to others through kindness. Organizations that foster meaning, belonging, gratitude and altruism through initiatives aligned with their mission and values empower employees to lead more purposeful, connected and fulfilling lives while also boosting performance. By cultivating the human spirit, workplaces can become happier, healthier environments for all.



Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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