If you want your company to flourish, start with your workers

Before there was a positive psychology movement, Jim Goodnight was building a company with a holistic approach to people at SAS. As employees experienced real life needs, SAS came up with pragmatic solutions.
Before there was a positive psychology movement, Jim Goodnight was building a company with a holistic approach to people at SAS. As employees experienced real life needs, SAS came up with pragmatic solutions.

“When I get that big promotion, I’ll truly be happy.

“Once I fully fund my retirement, I can finally relax and be happy.”

Science says that isn’t necessarily so.

Being happy is what brings success, not the other way around, according to research conducted at Harvard University.

In wealthier nations, increases in wealth have negligible effects on personal happiness. Even the people on the Forbes 100, which is based on net worth, are only slightly happier than the average American.

As for that promotion? Well, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert assessed the happiness of former assistant professors – those who had achieved tenure and those who had not – and found no difference in the happiness levels of the two groups.

The positive psychology movement, led by Tal Ben-Shahar, a former Harvard lecturer and his former teaching assistant, Shawn Achor, focuses research on what makes people flourish. The movement is finding its way into corporate offices in the Triangle as companies look for ways to help their employees – and therefore their companies – be more successful.

“Everyone is trying to figure out how to enrich and unlock their culture,” explained John Replogle, CEO of Seventh Generation. “Culture can be crafted with the right influences by introducing insights and practices into the workplace.”

Replogle became interested in happiness when, as CEO of Burt’s Bees in Durham, he read Achor’s book “The Happiness Advantage.”

He hired Achor to speak on happiness as part of Burt’s Bees’ “talent powerhouse” strategy as the company was making a global push into 19 new countries. A year later, a member of his senior team told Achor that Replogle’s emphasis on fostering positive leadership kept his managers engaged and cohesive as they successfully made the transition into a global company.

When he became CEO of the Vermont-based Seventh Generation, Replogle formalized some of the happiness practices, to be more intentional. The company has a cross-functional Vibe team that creates positive energy in the culture with a “healthy lunch bunch.” Their annual retreat in which they focus on a core theme is called “advance” instead of a “retreat” – to advance the culture.

In five years, Seventh Generation’s revenues have grown 60 percent to $250 million from $150 million in five years, and the company has added 100 products.

Happiness didn’t leave Burt’s Bees with Replogle.

In fact, one of the things that stuck the most, says Jim Geikie, Burt’s Bees’ vice president of international development, was expressing gratitude.

Employees were encouraged to send a quick email to a colleague reflecting on something positive from the previous day.

People would start the day feeling appreciated, which makes them happy, he said.

“Culture, where I believe happiness resides, is just as important of the top three responsibilities of a leadership team as strategic planning and external relations,” Geikie said.

“Leadership must understand and place priority on culture as much as business strategy. Use external people to facilitate the process. They will ask the right questions. Put reinforcing systems in place to reward the behavior.”

Geikie stresses: “It has to start at the top.”

Success at SAS

The top is definitely where it started 40 years ago at SAS: with founder Jim Goodnight. Before there was a positive psychology movement, Goodnight was building a company with a holistic approach to people.

Jenn Mann, SAS’s vice president in charge of human resources, says the company’s approach grew organically. As employees experienced real-life needs, SAS came up with pragmatic solutions. Thirty years ago, an employee didn’t want to leave her newborn at home, so SAS brought in a nanny. That idea blossomed into on-site day care.

Goodnight wanted to support an environment where the “knowledge worker” would be inspired to be creative, Mann said. This approach to ensuring employees are happy has paid off for the company in 40 consecutive years of revenue growth – every year since its founding – to $3.16 billion in 2015.

Our brains are hardwired to perform at their best when they are positive, not negative or even neutral. Students primed to feel happy before taking math achievement tests far outperform their neutral peers. So taking a break at SAS’ on-site gym or meditation garden can inspire employees to be most innovative.

Just over two decades after SAS was founded, Larry Page and Sergey Brin reached out to Goodnight as they were starting to build the Google campus. They were intrigued by the environment that SAS had created and wanted to see it firsthand. Among the many lessons they took back: Provide unlimited M&Ms to employees.

SAS is a perennial on Fortune’s Best Companies to work for list, and it claimed the No. 1 spot for two straight years only to be dethroned in 2012 – by Google.

Grace Ueng, CEO of Savvy Growth, is an executive coach, motivational speaker and consultant in the Triangle. She frequently speaks on the topic of happiness and trained as a positive psychology coach through Tal Ben-Shahar’s Whole Being Institute. She can be reached at

7 lessons in happiness

Tal Ben-Shahar designed the Positive Psychology course at Harvard University. Here are seven takeaways from the class:

▪ Curiosity and questioning differentiate the most successful from the simply successful.

▪ Learn to fail or you’ll fail to learn.

▪ Being perfect is not a positive.

▪ Behavioral change following cognitive change equals lasting change. Inspiration is great but not enough; you must have action, and that’s where having cohorts and coaches can help you follow through.

▪ Instead of trying to impress, express yourself and let people get to know you.

▪ Positive psychology broadens idea generation. Never let a good crisis go to waste.

▪ Visualize. The brain does not discern between the real and the imagined. When you imagine the journey to success, you are fooling your mind into thinking it is the real thing.