3 Theories on Happiness to Help You Succeed at Work

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Delivering Happiness" by Tony Hsieh. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are Tony Hsieh’s three theories on happiness? How can your life and business value happiness more?

In his book Delivering Happiness, Hsieh proposes that there are three theories on happiness in business: there are different elements, levels, and kinds of happiness that can be achieved. Applying these theories to your life and work can help you move up in the business world.

Keep reading to learn more about Hsieh’s three theories of happiness.

Hsieh’s Theories on Happiness

Hsieh believes that if you focus on happiness as your guiding principle, you’ll succeed in the business world. Happier employees work harder and happier customers become repeat shoppers. For this reason, the same theories that describe how to increase happiness in individuals can help companies succeed by showing them how to make their employees and customers happy. 

Theory #1: Four Elements of Happiness

The first theory on happiness Hsieh covers posits that happiness revolves around four elements: control, progress, relationships, and purpose. If you optimize each of these elements, you’ll be happy. Let’s take a look at each element:

1. Control. According to Hsieh, people who feel in control of their lives are happier. At work, this translates to being able to make decisions about your tasks or schedule. Even making minor decisions about your work life gives you a sense of control and makes you happier.

(Shortform note: Research suggests that being in control, whether in business or life more generally, does more than just make you happy. People who feel like they’re in control achieve more and have better mental and physical health than people who feel a lack of control over their lives.)

2. Growth. Continual personal and professional growth is important for happiness, Hsieh says. Thus, develop goals that you can complete regularly. These goals should be short-term and frequently achievable, rather than long-term goals that you achieve less frequently because having a constant stream of completed goals makes you happier than less regular achievement.

3. Relationships. Hsieh explains that happiness comes from connecting with others. The more connections with others you foster in a particular environment, the more engaged you’ll be in that environment. For example, if you’re friends with your coworkers, you’ll be more engaged and thus happier at work.

4. Purpose. Having a higher purpose or calling makes you happier as well, Hsieh says. In business, this translates to having long-term goals. These goals work together with the constant stream of smaller goals discussed above to provide a sense of growth and meaning to your daily actions.

Theory #2: Three Levels of Happiness

The second theory on happiness, Hsieh explains, is based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s hierarchy sorts people’s needs and desires according to urgency. Survival needs such as food and shelter are the most urgent because you need to fulfill them to stay alive. Once you meet these basic requirements for life, Maslow says your desires and needs grow more abstract, such as the need for recognition.

Hsieh’s second theory on happiness adjusts Maslow’s hierarchy for businesses. It posits three levels of happiness that apply both to customers and employees: The company first meets its customers’ and employees’ expectations, then their desires, and finally their unrecognized needs. Your goal as a company is to meet each level of happiness because the more levels you meet, the happier your employees and customers will be.

1. Fulfilling expectations. This is the standard of service that your company must meet to retain customers, Hsieh says. For example, customers expect you to ship them the correct item, and employees expect to be paid for their work. If you don’t meet these expectations, customers and employees will take their business and experience to your competitors, losing your company profit.

2. Fulfilling desires. Meeting desires (things your customers and employees want but don’t necessarily need) isn’t essential to your company’s survival, but it improves customer and employee relationships and inspires loyalty. However, this second level of the hierarchy does not overpower the first, Hsieh emphasizes. The customer or employee’s happiness is still contingent on you fulfilling their basic expectations, no matter how many of their desires you fulfill. 

3. Fulfilling unrecognized needs. Once you’ve met the above requirements, you can focus on going above and beyond for your customers and employees to give them a final boost of happiness. You can do this by giving them things they didn’t even realize they needed. 

Theory #3: Three Kinds of Happiness

The third theory on happiness Hsieh discusses posits that there are three kinds of happiness: pleasure, passion, and purpose.

1. Pleasure. Pleasure is the most fleeting kind of happiness, according to Hsieh. You feel pleasure when experiencing a positive stimulus, and you stop feeling it when that stimulus stops. Thus, to maintain pleasure-based happiness, you must constantly seek positive stimulation.

2. Passion. Passion lasts longer than pleasure and results from the unity of focus and ability, Hsieh says. Focus is important as it allows you to dive into a project, to the point that time seems to pass more quickly. Competence is also necessary because you can only enter this state of focus if you can complete the project: otherwise, you’ll lose focus every time you need help to complete a task. Many people look for passion at work: Being in a focused state and doing work tailored to your abilities makes work more enjoyable because time passes quickly and you feel capable and in control.

3. Purpose. Purpose is the longest-lasting kind of happiness. When you have a purpose, you’re involved in something larger than yourself. You care about that larger cause and working to complete it brings you happiness. For example, Hsieh says his purpose is to make people happy through his company.

3 Theories on Happiness to Help You Succeed at Work

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Here's what you'll find in our full Delivering Happiness summary:

  • Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh's guide to workplace happiness
  • The three principles that turned Zappos into a billion-dollar company in a decade
  • An exploration of the psychology behind happiness and why it leads to success

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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