Can We Really Be Happy at Work? Chief Happiness Officer Alexander Kjerulf and Denmark Say YES!

March 24, 2010

One of the great aspects of collaboration is that the organization that is created is usually also a place that provides an inspiring place of employment.

And there is nothing like enjoyment on the job to help people perform their best.

An aspect already applied in some countries around the world — like Denmark, for example — having fun in the work place is a concept that is slowly gaining steam. In fact the Pepperdine University has created a program that teaches the fact that happiness is a key factor in the success of a business.

For me, that bit of revelation did not come until I was a boss myself. I owned a housecleaning business in Lake Tahoe, California. It didn’t take long before I realized that if I allowed my employees to feel valued, have fun and have freedom to do the job as they felt best my clients were the ones that ended up reaping the benefits. And I was getting to be a part of a happy atmosphere in the workplace, something that I had wished for as an employee.

Another person that is helping to spread the word about this concept, is world’s leading expert in “working happiness” (an actual dictionary word in Dutch culture), Chief Happiness Officer Alexander Kjerulf.

Speaker, happiness consultant and author of the book, “Happy Hour is 9 to 5“, Kjerulf is truly spreading the word of activating one’s own happiness one job site at a time. I got a chance to pick his brain about maintaining a positive outlook when it came to working. What he had to say was quite exciting…

EH: What helped you to realize that it is possible, and important, to have happiness at work?

AK: Two things: First of all, happiness is a personal value of mine and my main career goal has always been to do work that I like.

Secondly, it helps a lot to be from Denmark where the idea of happiness at work is so ingrained and commonplace, that there is even a word for it in the dictionary: Arbejdsglæde (which translates literally as workhappiness).

EH: What prompted to you to take the concept to a larger audience?

AK: That’s simple: Seeing so many people who are unhappy at work – yet stay at jobs they hate for years or decades. Considering how much of our loves we spend at work, we should all find work that we enjoy. Unfortunately, happiness at work is still the exception rather than the rule for most people.

Also, I’ve tried being unhappy at work myself and it was the worst time of my life.

EH: Your book on the subject, “Happy Hour is 9 to 5″, is a new concept for many in the corporate world. Was the message difficult for some to digest?

AK: I’ve met remarkably little resistance, though some people do need some time to get used to the idea, that it’s even possible to be happy at work. It’s just never dawned on them that you can get paid, have a career AND enjoy yourself.

EH: What factors are most important in finding happiness in the workplace?

AK: I think there are two things we need to be happy at work.

1: Results
We need to know that we are good at our jobs, that we contribute value and that we make a difference.

2: Relationships
We need nice people around us – good bosses, friendly co-workers, cheerful customers.

EH: How can this methodology apply to a person wanting to create their own business?

AK: The same things apply to entrepreneurs: You need results and relationships. Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs work alone and find it hard to have great relationships at work.

Also, many business founders have an expectation, that starting a business will be hard. They expect to have to slog through problems, conflicts, overwork and challenges. And of course, when that’s what you expect, that’s what you tend to get.

My advice to entrepreneurs is: You’re in charge – why not create a business you actually want to work in. Because when you’re happy you’re much more effective at everything you do.

EH: One of your blog posts discusses how it is not necessarily a good thing to believe that the customer is always correct. Could you share a personal experience with us where you stood up for yourself in a business situation?

AK: It was only my second job out of university, working as a software developer for a small consulting company in Copenhagen, but this experience taught me vital lessons.

I was 26 years old, dressed in a suit and tie that still felt like a halloween costume to me, having meetings with the customer’s VP of finance, trying to find out exactly what the IT system we were developing for their new factory should be capable of.

The customer was in France, and I regularly flew down there from Copenhagen for work and meetings, landing in Basel, an airport situated so you can exit into Germany, France or Switzerland, depending on which exit you choose. As one of my colleagues found out to his cost when he accidentally exited on the Swiss side rather than the French and ended up paying Swiss taxi rates for the trip to the customer’s factory rather than French.

Now here’s the problem: At every single meeting, the customer changes the specs for the system. First they want this, then they want that. First they want it in this way, then in that way. Meanwhile, I’m quietly going crazy.

Of course I never show it, oh no, I play the consummate professional, capable of dealing with everything. And of course the customer is always right – right? So I coolly explain to them that “this is different than what you said at our last meeting and implementing the change will be costly”. They just say “sure, but that’s what we want”.

And then, finally, I lose it at a meeting. They introduce change number 2883 (by my loose reckoning), once again going back on what they’ve told me previously, and I snap. I actually pound the table with my fist, snap my folder shut and say through clenched teeth “No. This can’t go on. This system will never get off the ground if you keep changing your mind at every meeting. We need to make decisions and stick to them”. Then we take a break.

During the break I’m standing alone drinking a cup of coffee, thinking “well, that’s the end of this project for me”. I feel really embarrassed for having lost my cool in that way.

So what happens next is totally unexpected for me: They start treating me much better. All the time I’d tried to play the cool professional – that didn’t really fly with them. But when I got mad, and showed it, I showed them some of the real me. I showed them that I was human, and that there were things I wouldn’t put up with.

From that point on, they respected me more and they trusted me completely. I became the guy they went to first and work on the system became much more smooth. Go figure!

EH: How has happiness at work helped other aspects of your life?

AK: It helps in every aspect.

Being happy at work:
Give you more energy
Makes you more creative
Makes you more likable
Makes you more generous
Makes you more friendly
Makes you more open to other people

In fact, being happy at work makes you happier in life. And being happy makes you a better person!

EH: Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream is a company that was built on a foundation of values-based, happiness-invoking business practices. They believe that it is the reason that their company succeeded. What other corporations do you know that founded their business model on happiness and became successful?

AK: The most famous example is probably Southwest Airlines. I wrote a blog post where I share a couple of videos that help exhibit Southwest’s business approach towards happiness, but basically their priority is:

1: Employees
2: Customers
3: Shareholders.

This is the way it has to be.

Their former president Colleen Barrett once said:
“The most important priority that we have is our employees… I spend 85% of my time on employees and on delivering proactive customer service to our employees… They in turn spend their life trying to assure that the second most important customer to us, ie. the passenger feels good.”

EH: What advice can you give a person that has a difficult boss?

AK: My advice is to try to correct the boss’ behavior. Many bosses don’t intend to be bad, but they haven’t realized that they’re getting their people down. Tell them – and give them a chance to improve.

Of course, some bosses don’t give a damn. If you work for a boss like that – get the hell out.

EH: Do have any last words of inspiration for activating happiness?

AK: Yes: Choose to be happy at work. In fact, make happiness at work your number one career goal – put it before salary, perks, titles, anything.

Not only will that make you happier at work, it will also make you happier in life AND it will make you more successful at work because happy people are better at everything they do.

Choosing to be happy at work won’t magically make you happy – you still have to make the effort to ensure that you have great results and great relationships at work. But it all has to start with that simple choice.


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