Unfortunately, we live in a world where we are faced with a constant comparison to others (through idealistic and unattainable ‘norms’ often portrayed on social media) and outdated societal expectations of: Education + high earning job + marriage + children = fulfilment and happiness

Issues surrounding happiness in the workplace have gained increasing attention since employers started paying more attention to employee engagement and productivity. Nowadays, we want to be happy in work as well as in our free time. It’s more of an expectation than ever before. Generally, productivity and happiness go hand in hand. In fact, research[ii] suggests that happy employees (compared with unhappy employees):

  • Work for a company four times longer
  • Have 65% more energy
  • Dedicate double the amount of time to tasks


We know that income doesn’t necessarily increase happiness (after a certain point of basic need fulfilment)[iii], and no matter how much we achieve or gain, the feelings of happiness and excitement with our new apartment, new clothes, or a promotion only last a little while.[iv]

So, happiness is a fleeting emotion; receiving praise for good work might make you happy for the afternoon, or motivate you for the week, but it is soon forgotten as we move onto the next thing. What we should be focusing on is how to increase our general wellbeing so that our ‘baseline’ is conducive to working well and feeling fulfilled, so we can experience the ups and downs but return to our healthy state in the middle.

Photo by Zachary Staines

One of the many causes of unhappiness stems from our tendency to mind-wander, such as focusing on the past or future, something that many of us can admit to doing at various points throughout the working day. In fact, we spend 46.9% of our waking hours thinking about something unrelated to what we’re doing.[i]

Whilst income doesn’t necessarily continue to increase happiness beyond peak income, a connection with others does. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shows that having a sense of belonging is key to fulfilling our psychological needs, in order to reach ‘self-actualisation.’[ii] Further, findings from the Harvard Grant Study tell us that the absolute key to human happiness is the formation of strong bonds with others.[iii]

There are many ways organisations are now attempting to increase employee happiness, such as encouraging a healthy lifestyle and interaction with others, making them feel valued in the bigger picture, giving more recognition and reward for achievements, and providing learning and development opportunities.[iv] Essentially, these efforts are all from a managerial viewpoint and rely on organisation leaders to make (and maintain) changes.

Whilst these strategies can’t hurt, and will create greater opportunity for moments of happiness, it isn’t the whole picture. There are many things one can do to increase happiness (think gratitude diaries, meditation, living in the moment, finding ‘flow’[v], creating meaning, identifying values and having a sense of purpose), but we’ll leave that to the psychologists. Instead, we’d like to discuss the missing piece of the puzzle, and something that is just as important: the environments we spend so much of our time in can surely play a role in how we feel in our daily lives.

What can we do to improve happiness in the workplace?

The right environment should make us feel comfortable and support us in our activities. With the distractions we face today from technology, it’s no wonder some of us might be finding it difficult to ‘get into the flow’ of things.[i] Turning off your notifications and signalling that you are concentrating, by perhaps putting in headphones, could be a quick fix. However, designing our workplaces to support a range of activities, from quiet work to group meetings, would be a better solution.

Human-centred design standards, such as the WELL Building Standard[ii], focus on physiological and psychological wellbeing by discussing factors such as ‘mind’ and ‘comfort’ to improve our daily experience of the spaces we spend so much of our time.

Connecting with nature has been found to have a range of positive effects on our mood and mental health. In fact, time in nature is now being prescribed by healthcare experts as a treatment for depression and anxiety. Of course, going for a country walk everyday may be unrealistic for most of us, however following Biophilic Design (bringing nature and natural elements into the built environment using design principles) can improve health, overall wellbeing, productivity, and, well, happiness!


The research

Studies have found that 10% of absenteeism can be attributed to offices with no connection to nature.[iii] However, incorporating living elements (such as daylight, greenery, views, water, natural materials, and patterns, textures and colours that mimic nature) into the workplace can:

  • Reduce attention fatigue[iv]
  • Increase wellbeing by 15%, productivity by 6% and creativity by 15%[v]
  • Lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress, and enhance positive emotions, concentration and memory restoration[vi]
  • Increase the feeling of comfort[vii]
  • Reset our Circadian Rhythms[viii] which, in turn, increases wellbeing and performance.

Have a read of our design guide ‘Creating Positive Spaces using Biophilic Design’ for inspiration on how to design to achieve this. (See explore further link below)

(Creating Positive Spaces by Designing for Community, something that is also crucial for improving perceived happiness, is coming soon, so watch this space!)

Or, if you’re already sold on Biophilic Design and are keen to bring your space to life to support health and happiness, give us a call and our design and research teams would be delighted to get you on your way.


[i] Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow theory and research. Handbook of positive psychology, 195-206.


[iii]Elzeyadi, I. “Daylighting-Bias and Biophilia: Quantifying the Impacts of Daylight on Occupants Health.” In: Thought and leadership in Green Buildings Research. Greenbuild  2011 Proceedings. Washington, Dc: USGBc Press. 2011.

[iv] Raanaas, R. K., Horgen-Evensen, K., Rich, D., Sjostrom, G. & Patil, G. (2011). Benefits of indoor plants on attention capacity in an office setting. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 31, 99-105.

[v] Human Spaces Report (2015) The Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace P19-30


[vii] Tsunetsugu, Y., Y. miyazaki, & H. Sato (2007). Physiological effects in Humans Induced by the visual Stimulation of Room Interiors with Different Wood Quantities. Journal of Wood Science, 53 (1), 11-16.



[ii] Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological review,50(4), 370.

[iii] Vaillant, G. E. (2012). Triumphs of experience. Harvard University Press.





[iii] Frey, B., Stutzer, A., (2002). Happiness and Economics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.