Scaling Happiness By Defining, Emoting And Creating Happiness Engines

(Originally posted on

Roughly eight years ago, I stood in my basement office afraid to sit so I didn’t fall asleep. It was the third day managing a project cutover that was meant to be completed in two days—a critical series of technical issues had us stuck at 50 percent complete and well past the release deadline. At this point, my pride was hurt, my emotions spent, and, if not for the need to update the executives every hour on a status call, I am sure I would have been totally empty-minded.

I look back at that release weekend as a pivotal moment in my life. It was a point in my life where I had celebrated some of the most rapid career and professional confidence growth I could imagine, but it was also the first time I came to realize my happiness was as artificial as project dashboards that led me into that disastrous weekend.  I was lacking real happiness.

scaling happiness

Read other Happy Melly members’ #WhentoJump moments


Happiness comes in two primary categories: natural happiness and synthetic happiness(terms popularized by Dan Gilbert).

Natural happiness is what we generally accept as the ubiquitous definition of the emotion – when we are delighted, pleasantly surprised, when our bodies are delighted with that momentary release of stimuli.

Synthetic happiness is when we artificially create happiness by resolving ourselves to achieving a reality we’ve created for ourselves. An example would be working on a terrible assignment, but reaching a breakpoint or the end. You created the happiness associated with completion of a bad task.

Synthetic happiness is not cheating the system, it is healthy and required for us as a species to enjoy life. As leaders of knowledge workers, we need to be sure to make meaningful connections with our teams to understand what are the happiness triggers for them — both natural and synthetic — so that we can create a system supportive of their happiness.

Beyond the types of happiness, leaders should have a lightweight appreciation for the neuroscience behind what makes people happy. There are four chemicals [EDSO] that make us all feel senses of happiness:

  • endorphins
  • dopamine
  • serotonin
  • oxytocin

While I will try to execute a poor-man’s distillation of this here, you should watch Simon Sinek’s talk on this topic to get a more robust explanation.


  • Endorphins are a means for our bodies to mask physical pain — they keep us safe when we need it most. It is the boost that runners often call a Runner’s High. Knowledge workers have endorphins released when they are in a hardcore coding session or when writing in a groove late into night.
  • Dopamine is the happiness chemical that helps us reach our goals. In my world of agile coaching, I frequently leverage dopamine on Kanban workflow boards by having mini-celebrations when each smaller task is completed. There is a ritualistic bonding ceremony for the team to appreciate the mini-accomplishments frequently. Dopamine is a great motivator, but can become addictive and is the same chemical that fuels gamblers, smokers and drinkers. It is a heavy contributor to synthetic happiness and deserves some active regulation in the workplace.
  • Serotonin is the social chemical — it helps us form human bonds. Teams thrive off the relationships they form at work — both collocated and virtual. What is amazing about serotonin is the bidirectional nature of the experience. Recently one of my team members was recognized for a presentation he gave to our leadership team. He was proud of his recognition, which caused his surrounding team and myself to be happy, which made others near us happy too.  Serotonin has a butterfly effect on teams and organizations making it an ideal scaling catalyst.
  • Oxytocin — the servant leadership chemical. Last week, I was among several people that volunteered to help review an upcoming book. The author and editor both experienced dopamine with the influx of reviewers, but I was happy to help. The author is a person who contributes to my professional network and the subject was one of great interest to me. I was charged with a rush of oxytocin during and shortly after my review period. Actually, while writing this, I feel some happiness related to the work again — welcome aboard, oxytocin!

As you can see (hopefully), effective and mindful leaders can identify tasks or interactions that may trigger happiness in groups and individuals. This identification will foster the creation of both natural and synthetic happiness that will increase the overall employee engagement.

But the real power of happiness is seen at scale. How can organization at large be happy? How do we create self-priming happiness engines?

‘#Happiness scales when orgs make conscious, long-term decision to value people & teams over…CLICK TO TWEET


There is a simple pattern emerging that fosters happiness at scale.

Happiness scales when organizations make the conscious, long-term decision to value people and teams over short-term financial gains.

While this sounds simple, changing existing mindset from revenue-first to employee-first is by all means disruptive in most large organizations.

By building a culture that fosters those happiness chemicals, leaders can start guiding teams and organizations toward happiness at scale. As the organization starts its mindful happiness journey, it takes on a beautiful transformation — usually with serotonin as the catalyst.

Serotonin has a butterfly effect on groups which causes happiness to multiply.

Leveraging the concept of happiness distribution via teams and departments is a grassroots happiness scaling method. When you are looking to redirect organizational culture to be more mindful, it’s important to acknowledge your creative workers’ intrinsic motivators, like:

  • Respect
  • Courage
  • Transparency
  • Openness
  • Focus

You need to find constant moments to celebrate, using tools like the Celebration Grid. A focus on perfection is a scaling inhibitor, while creating a culture focused on learning is a scaling accelerator.


Beyond the softer aspects of scaling, more tactical actions can be taken to create a growing culture of happiness. I have personally implemented Experimentation Days, guilds, and engagement assessments in organizations to introduce workplace happiness. Experimentation Days set aside work time for knowledge workers to scratch that innovative itch, while not having to have a direct correlation to their day-to-day tasks.

At my organization, I co-founded a maker program where anyone interested could set aside a half day per month to work with Arduino boards and robots to create fun gadgets for the office. Sometimes, these mini-projects fail, sometimes they succeed, but every time we have fun and build stronger bonds.

We show videos of these employee engagement events in our recruiting process to show the culture we are trying to build.

I’ve also helped create a virtual guild within my company that focuses on emerging agile practices. We meet via phone and Webex, and regularly have well-known external speakers come and share their recent areas of study. It promotes learning, but also an active interest in our desire to improve as a group.

Measuring team improvement has been an area of research for years. As I have professionally grown, my appreciation for the inherent flaws of following metrics in isolation has increased. While metrics can be bad if not taken into total context, they are not bad if properly applied.

This year my team introduced OfficeVibe — an employee engagement polling tool that integrates with Slack and allows for lightweight anonymous feedback loops broken down into various areas of impact. Via this tool, we have learned and taken action on several items of displeasure for our team. For example, the development space temperature setting was too cold. It sounds simple, but it had largely gone unnoticed until we had the feedback provided in OfficeVibe to bump it up. Since doing so, the engagement score has improved. There are similar tools out there, but OfficeVibe has been the most effective means for continuous and tight feedback loops I have seen for the enterprise space.

The most interesting thing I have learned about scaling models at large is that there is no single model that will last. When dealing with highly dynamic systems such as machine learning, cloud storage, compression or — the most dynamic system of all — people, any scaling approach we take must be seen as an organic, constantly changing model.

Happiness models must be revisited and revised often in order to continue improving them.CLICK TO TWEET


Creating practices and tools to promote happiness takes a mindful leader with the support of higher level leadership. The C-suite and thought leaders need to remain engaged in order to ensure support sustains or — better yet — increases.

It’s just as important to continue to tune your happiness systems. This means experimenting and finding new problems to solve. And it means working with teammates one-on-one to understand what they think of the systems introduced and to see where they can be improved.
Truly investing yourself into the craft of creating happiness is a daily effort and not a one-time ceremony. Once you start seeing some short-term success, you need to maintain a high focus on continued happiness and mindfulness. Some more progressive corporations have taken happiness to the extreme of hiring Chief Happiness Officers or similar. While this shows a firm’s commitment to improvement, I tend to favor the stories of happiness driven from the trenches and ranks. Perhaps both are needed in some companies.

At the end of that fateful Thanksgiving Saturday, we made the call to roll back the release. We were losing data and despite the best efforts of the global team working on the issue, it could not be resolved. That evening, the team in charge of the rollback initiated the 24-hour process so our customers would not be impacted on Monday morning. Shortly after the final call ended, I went to sleep without saying a word to anyone. I just curled into my bed exhausted not understanding how this could have happened. Within a year I had left this company and found myself starting on a leadership and agile journey that really nurtured what I now know as my real happiness.

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