Making Your Startup Team Happy: You’re Doing It Wrong

According to the latest happiness research, happiness is not the goal we’re all pursuing. That means if you’re trying to make your startup team happy, you’re doing it wrong.

In Flourish, Martin Seligman explains why the concept of happiness is inadequate. How come people have children, even though studies show that having children doesn’t bring more happiness? How come we love the feeling of flow, even though we lose track of time and don’t feel much of anything? Are all introverts less happy because their moods are generally lower? Why do so many people achieve great success and find they aren’t happy?

Instead of pursuing the single goal of happiness, he says, we pursue five things that add up to “well-being”:

  • Positive emotion: Momentary feelings of pleasure, glee, satisfaction, etc.
  • Engagement: Flow, or being fully immersed in what you’re doing.
  • Relationships
  • Meaning: Belonging to and serving something bigger than the self.
  • Accomplishment: Mastery and success.

What does that mean for startup teams?

Positive emotion. With foosball tables and happy hours, this is probably the area that startups focus on most. But focusing on fun and pleasure alone will not satisfy your team’s psychological needs. If morale is low despite all your cool perks, consider the four other areas.

Engagement. Do your team members have uninterrupted blocks of time to work? Constant interruptions, meetings, and noise can prevent your team from experiencing the fulfilling and energizing feeling of flow.

Relationships. By hiring for culture fit, you can create a team where people are not just colleagues but also friends. Encourage people to take breaks and get to know each other on a more personal level – not split their identity into work and home. 

Accomplishment. It takes a long time for startups to “succeed,” which is why it’s important to celebrate the positive moments along the way. Make sure you recognize team and individual achievement. 

Meaning. This is probably the most elusive and complex area. To make sure your team derives meaning from their work, you’ll need to articulate your big vision and try to understand each person’s individual goals. 

And when you go to measure happiness, with tools like TINYpulse or Niko Niko, don’t just ask how happy everyone is. Their answers will probably reflect their mood (positive emotion), not the four other areas. If you want actionable advice, ask about their engagement, relationships, accomplishment, and meaning – and do something about it.

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Written by:
Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact
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