The happiness trick

How to get happy at work.

The best way to find happiness at work is to find meaning in the work you do. Happiness comes from meaningfulness (read the science here, from Stanford Professor, Jennifer Aaker), and when channelled correctly, meaningfulness motivates individual excellence and aligns whole teams around shared goals and a sense of purpose.

But here’s the trick, this only works if you can articulate the meaning of your work. To do this, you need to be able to explain:

  1. Your company’s role in the planet
  2. Your team’s role in the company
  3. Your role on the team

Once you can tell these three nesting stories, you’ll know why you should prioritize certain tasks over others and you’ll have a better framework for making decisions. You’ll also have a better relationship with your boss—as you’ll both be working towards the same, shared goals.


As a manager—your job is to articulate these three stories back to your team. Each of your team members must know why her work is meaningful to the team, the company and the planet, and be able to articulate it back to you.

Forget short-term carrots and sticks. Optimize for meaning and watch your team elevate. Use the workshop guide at the end of this post for your next 1-on-1 meeting.

Even if your team is paid well and working on something they generally love, if they can’t clearly articulate why their work matters they will eventually get unhappy and unproductive.

Money + love + confused mandate still equals worry. Instead articulate each person’s role on the team, the team’s role in the company and the company’s role on the planet and then watch your team soar.

Reduce unproductive worry

Your team members need to be able to tell themselves, their friends, their family and coworkers why their work matters.

If your team can’t articulate why their work matters, they will spend unproductive hours worrying about how to help the company, and whether their efforts will even make a difference. Unproductive worry leads to self-doubt, risk-aversion and defensive obstruction, not creative break-throughs and teamwork.

Save your worrying for big product questions, not broken team dynamics. Skip the weirdness and instead articulate clear mandates for each person and celebrate each success.

Here’s how to do it:

Use the four-word story method to create four-word stories at the company, team, and individual level.

Example Peer-to-Peer Green Power, Inc. (Fictional)

Company—Green power for everyone
Product and Design Org—Instant information, better decisions
Design Team—Emphasis hierarchy guides actions
Team member, Eunice Ives—Effective demand meter alerts

Our fictional Employee, Eunice, can describe what she’s currently doing (and why she’s doing it) by walking backwards up the chain of stories. She knows her role on her team, her team’s role in the company, and her company’s role in the planet. They add up to a unified job-story that Eunice can repeat to co-workers, friends, her manager, and herself.

Fictional employee’s nested stories

Instead of saying “I work on alerts” she can give context and meaning to her work through terse, nesting, meaningful stories.

Happiness workshop

For your next one-on-one, map how each current project rates against your nested stories. Elevate the most important projects to the top and cut the bottom. It is the manager’s job to ensure every team member can tell their personal, team and company story.

Initiate the tough conversations with other groups and teams to define roles and clarify mandates.

If you aren’t a manager, require your boss to articulate these nested stories. Or better yet, write them for her, and see if she agrees.

Happiness at scale

At Twitter, the company recently revamped the new hire orientation program for all new employees to center around the happiness trick.

Meaningful progress on meaningful problems

Finally, happiness comes from making meaningful progress on meaningful problems. Find your personal mandate, apply it to work you love, and see what happens.

Find meaning, get happy.

Read more posts on #DesignStory or find me on Twitter.

Design Partner at Sequoia, Founder of Sequoia Design Lab. Past: Twitter, Dreamworks. Guest lecturer at Stanford’s GSB & d.school jamesbuckhouse.com

Design Partner at Sequoia, Founder of Sequoia Design Lab. Past: Twitter, Dreamworks. Guest lecturer at Stanford’s GSB & d.school jamesbuckhouse.com