Be More Podcast: Making Employees Happy with Karen Guggenheim

Karen Guggenheim, founder of The World Happiness Summit, shares her thoughts on why it’s important to become more aware of your individual happiness, and how businesses can help employees reach that awareness.


Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work, hosted by Workday’s Patrick Cournoyer. This week we’re joined by Karen Guggenheim, the founder of The World Happiness Summit®, to hear her thoughts on why it’s important to become more aware of your individual happiness, and how businesses can help employees reach that awareness.

As a society, we often treat happiness as something ineffable; a state of being that results from factors both in and outside of our controls. But what if we thought about happiness as something teachable? By repositioning happiness as an active undertaking rather than a passive emotion, we immediately demystify it. That’s the position of Karen Guggenheim, one of the world’s leading authorities on being happy.

Karen Guggenheim is a happiness advocate and social entrepreneur, as well as the founder of the World Happiness Summit®. Her mission is to make the case for happiness within the workplace—an undertaking with near universal applications. By highlighting the win-win scenarios created when “learning” happiness and implementing evidence-based tools and policies, Karen aims to make people, organizations, and communities thrive.

“I didn’t want to become a victim in the narrative of my life. I wanted to be a hero and live happily.”

Karen Guggenheim

Key Takeaways

  • Karen’s first step toward happiness: Karen’s journey toward happiness started with personal trauma. The first step to healing came when she began focusing on the concept of sustainable happiness, which is more than just feeling good or living positive emotions. It implies mindfulness, gratitude, courage, resilience, and altruism, but it also includes the process of developing and expressing awareness for your personal wellbeing and for that of the people around you.

  • Happiness is both teachable and learnable. Karen believes that if you’re willing, curious, and aware of yourself and the environment around you, you can learn and teach happiness. She states that society needs to work toward developing environments and systems designed to help individuals understand and achieve personal happiness. For example, one tool that Karen developed with her team is the chief happiness officer certification—a focused means of making people consider what they do each day to promote personal happiness.

  • What holds businesses back from implementing happiness strategies? Karen believes that the main reason is the fear of change, especially in uncertain times like we’ve faced this last year. Many top executives don’t understand that if an employee is happy they are not only living a higher quality of life—they’re also much more effective. Happiness sustainably builds success, and it gives the individual the boost needed to achieve more.


Patrick Cournoyer: Happiness is both teachable and learnable. That’s a pretty bold statement in many ways. Today’s conversation is with Karen Guggenheim. Karen absolutely believes that happiness is both teachable and learnable, and has created an entire movement around happiness in life and in the workplace. She is the founder of the World Happiness Summit. She’s also created a Chief Happiness Certification for organizations to truly focus on happiness.

Today, Karen is going to share with us her journey of finding happiness through unhappiness. We’re going to talk about how organizations can incorporate a focus on happiness particularly for the years to come, and also understand a bit deeper around the science of happiness. Karen, thank you so much for joining us today.

Karen: First, thank you so much for having me here today and having the opportunity to share with you and your audience. You’ve mentioned some wonderful things that I’m, of course, really interested and passionate about as you’ve mentioned. My happiness journey actually began with unhappiness and personal trauma, so I came to happiness as a result of unhappiness and loss.

That’s why I’m so adamant about really getting the science out there behind happiness and well-being, and also an awareness and what we mean by happiness, that it’s not just joy or feeling good emotions, something that feels good. That’s part of it, but there’s also the cognitive part, mindfulness, expressing gratitude, kindness, courage, optimism, resilience, all these other things, altruism. It’s really about developing an awareness of how biology works.

I think I read the other day somebody had posted about, “Should we take our emotions to work?” The fact they were even having that conversation. Our emotions are going everywhere we go. They’re going in the shower. They’re going [chuckles] to work. They’re going everywhere. Are you going to act emotional at work, or what can you do so that you can learn to have difficult conversations at work or even stop those from happening so that we can create an environment where people can share vulnerability and their humanity, which, again, goes everywhere with us?

It’s really about developing an awareness and understanding what we’re talking about. In the primitive sense of happiness, it’s just, “Do you feel good?” That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about sustainable happiness, sustainable well-being. In academic circles, it’s called subjective well-being. In everyday life, it’s called happiness. For the work that we do, we chose the word happiness because to promote something, you really have to be able to use it in the vernacular, in everyday language. If you’re disconnected to a concept, it’s very hard to advocate for and to really understand it and embrace it. I think that’s one of the key problems we’ve had thus far.

You mentioned the pandemic where, now, employee happiness is center stage. It should have been before. We have the numbers, the disengagement. We know that people leave people. They don’t leave jobs, they leave people. They leave managers. We know that the people who are happier tend to get sick less often, and when they do get sick, they recuperate faster. We know that there’s three times more creativity, there’s an improvement in sales, productivity, customer engagement.

All the metrics are really there but we haven’t really put an umbrella concept around it. I think that in using words that separate us from that concept then leave it cognitive right into it– Really, when we’re dealing with people, there’s emotion around it. We can use this concept to marry the cognitive and the emotional, to see how we can create win-win scenarios and move away from zero-sum games. For some reason, we’ve developed the thinking that if we’re compassionate or understanding or empathetic at work, then we’re weak. That’s not the case. You can still fire somebody but you can do it in a kind way. You make people accountable because we’re adults and everybody has to get tasks accomplished but there can be communication around how that gets done.

Another really important component is time. How do we give employees time affluence? We need to look at procedures and see if those are being productive to the individual employee’s way of working and living as well, because, now, it’s even more blurred the work-life. There’s no balance. It’s an integration. Again, you don’t separate yourself when you go to work and when you’re home, you’re still the same person and carry the same stress or anxieties. Even more so now with hybrid and remote work.

My journey was around really becoming aware that there’s a methodology, there’s a framework, there’s a process of happiness. There are things you can do. Your brain can change. We have a negativity bias that we have to fight against. We can construct happiness in a way that we can construct our physical body. We know that we have to eat a certain way and exercise. To have a result the same way for your emotional and mental well-being, we can do that.

Patrick: That brings us to this point around, you believe that happiness is both teachable and that it can be learned. How did you realize this because many people think that happiness is walking around smiling, feeling good. If you ask people the word how would you describe happy, many people say, excited or always smiling, pleasant. As you’re saying, there’s so much more to it. It’s very individual for many people but it’s also an environment and an experience in the workplace, and not just in the workplace, but just in life in general. How did you realize and tell us a bit about how happiness is teachable and also something that can be learned?

Karen: First off, it’s teachable and learnable if you’re willing. That’s a key part. You have to be willing. You have to be curious and you have to be willing to become aware of yourself, to become aware of your environment, and then to actually invest time in doing it. We also have to remember an important point about happiness. The experts say that there’s a universal understanding of happiness. Happiness feels good, for example.

Then, there’s culture. For example, in the Western world, particularly in the US, it’s about having a smile and all these, but in the Eastern world, it’s more about contentment and it’s more about the group. It’s a different kind of definition or manifestation of happiness. Then, there’s also the individual, which we all know intuitively what makes us happy.

Again, we may not be aware of putting all the points together, and then we might not be investing the time because we have to get all these other tasks done. We don’t realize that, really, if you go from inside and align yourself with the task, then things are going to be better because you will make decisions in your life. They will take you towards the life you want to have. When you’re living the life you want to have, you tend to have more happy moments, whichever way you define those. It’s commonsensical.

In my personal journey, I came to happiness through meaning and purpose. I came to happiness before actually feeling happy. I mentioned before that I had a personal trauma. I lost my husband suddenly some years ago and I had a fork in the road moment where I had to decide what I was going to do. My children and I knew that I had to decide to live, and if I was going to live, which I had decided to do, I was going to live happy, because, otherwise, I was going to be useless.

I didn’t want to be a victim in the narrative of my life. I wanted to be a hero. I did that while I was shocked, shattered, and unhappy. My way was through meaning and purpose. This is how I was telling you before that you can find meaning. You can find what is the purpose in your life. There’s a concept, post-traumatic growth, and that’s actually something that I went through. I realized after the experience that I was growing while I was going through the trauma.

I developed new ways of looking at life and to see what is possible instead of what wasn’t possible more than before, I developed deeper relationships, deeper sense of spirituality, whichever way people understand spirituality, whether it’s religion or whether it’s through meaning and purpose. Slowly, I also acted as if– What do happy people do? Well, happy people say yes, when they’re invited to lunch. Happy people have conversations with people. Happy people take a shower and show up to their life, and so that’s what I did until I actually began to feel happy through this process.

I remember maybe it was about 10 months after my husband died. I gave myself permission to laugh, and that was also a really important part that we tend to have these frames in our minds from our personal experience and from their cultural context. The idea of a widow, right, is so removed from life, almost dead, right? I broke that pattern as well in my mind, and in my mindset, in my frame to really give myself permission to have a “normal life,” or to develop a new life, a new beginning, whatever it is that you call it, but many of us suffer small and big losses, and especially now, the COVID, everybody has lost something, even if it’s freedom to see a friend, or to travel, or to go to your restaurant, whatever it is. I think that we’re now in a moment where we can use this collective trauma to really make a systemic change and to really see how we can improve on something that really wasn’t working all that well before, particularly in the workplace.

The numbers were staggering on the disengagement and on unhappiness at work. We can do better, we have, like I said before, the science from the world’s leading institutions who have done this work for around 25-30 years, and it’s exciting to see what’s possible. Deloitte has a chief well-being officer, and other companies are developing. We have our own program, the Chief Happiness Officer Certification. What we want to do is really to bring this concept to organizations so that, yes, it’s the individual’s choice to become happier and to explore that, but we need systems and environments where they will be more conducive for individuals to then make that choice. If not, they’re going to hit a ceiling

Patrick: First off, I just want to say thank you for sharing that story with us as far as your personal journey, because it’s a compelling story. I very much appreciate you sharing some of the personal side with us and the audience. You mentioned this Chief Happiness Certification, this is also certified by the Florida International University. That’s amazing, so you’ve done work with them to bring this to the world and to organizations, to be able to help them really understand the concepts of happiness and to then impart that or drive that as part of their organizational strategy. Was that the original intent behind it?

Karen: Yes, so we collaborate with different experts, and on this expert, we collaborate with Dr. Sandro Formica in Florida International University School of Hospitality Management, which is one of the best in the country actually, because hospitality also is such an important concept with happiness, right? They really understand that the customer journey is so important. That’s one aspect that we were very proud about. The actual certification itself looks at different competencies. We are so accustomed and it’s natural to understand that we need skills at work, and we’re continuing education all the time in all kinds of things and developing and learning, yet it’s kind of novel to understand really that employee well-being or happiness needs training. We need to have experts in that or people who are proficient at it and not just tag it on to one more thing to do for the HR and HR department.

The very first thing is that if you’re going to promote well-being , you have to look at yourself first. You cannot have a well-being practitioner, or happiness practitioner if you don’t go inside. That’s the first step of our certification is to go into the self and the self-leadership and what is going on with yourself, right? Then we look at how to manage, how you can manage a positive organization, and create and foster positive organizations. How do you manage stress at work? There will always be stress. Stress is actually really helpful because it gets us out of bed. If we had no stress, we wouldn’t do anything. The key is how to not become overwhelmed and how to manage stress in a positive way.

Another key component is hiring. We want to make sure that in our hiring practices, we are hiring individuals who are aligned with the company values. If there’s alignment between the employee values and the company values, then there’s going to be a higher possibility of retention and of engagement and of a purpose alignment. Then, of course, we talk about how to lead, how to lead positive organizations, which is very important. How to have positive conversations, how to deal with challenging things that will always happen in all organizations, because we’re human, right, and the environments many times are very stressful. We have to see how we can train to manage those stressors and communicate those in a way that then can promote action that is good for the individual, and for the company.

Patrick: What do you think is holding back organizations from focusing and devoting time, money, resources, to something like this, to really focusing on building a happiness strategy within their organizations, implementing it, what do you think is holding some companies back?

Karen: Fear, and it’s very natural because, particularly when environments are stressful, or there is a certain element of fear that goes up, COVID, or downturn, or the company’s going through some change, and change is always difficult, right, or whatever challenging circumstances. Our go-to is to go– We tend to go to what we are habituated to. We hold on, like when we were little kids to that beat up doll or that blanket that is so old and falling apart because it gives us comfort. We get comfort in things that we are habituated to. We’re not habituated to happiness, just altogether, and in particular at work, we have a frame and a mindset that says that happy employees are going to be lazy. Happy kids are not going to want to excel at school, but again, the science has shown it’s the opposite.

Happiness fuels success. It’s not success that fuels happiness in a sustainable way. If I give you a promotion today, you’re going to be happy, okay, but then it doesn’t– It’s the next promotion. It doesn’t stick. I think that it’s fear because we don’t understand happiness in this way. We don’t understand that really we produce much better, but it’s almost that moment where you just came, you’re learning to swim, and you have the floaties, and you take the floaties off, and you’re in one side of the pool, and you have to swim to the other side. You’re holding onto that ledge, and you don’t want to let go. For me, the science is that what carries you to the other side? I think that companies can certainly begin with focus groups and maybe pilots, pilot programs within the organization.

Now it has to be a top-down approach because otherwise, it’s not going to work, right. A bottom-up and top-down, so it has to be everybody. If you’re going to have– You’re going to test it at work, you need to like a whole team, or a whole department, and then track it, measure it. We have to measure it, and you can measure it. Those are the other things that can be measured. I think what’s stopping us is fear. Fear of seeming flaky. We also have this preconceived notion that the more that we work, we should be more esteemed for. “Oh, I didn’t take vacations. You only took two vacation days.” Guess what? You’re less productive. You’re less productive.

The findings that are coming out right now is that really the brain has optimal performance 25 hours a week. You can hang around, but you’re not firing optimally. Again, the idea of time affluence, where do you want the employee’s time that you can maximize? It’s almost like looking at it as really as one of your resources, but we’re working against the essence of that particular resource. We want it to do things it’s not meant to do, and then it breaks down. One of the things that’s going on right now during COVID is that the reports are coming out, that the productivity, high productivity is masking employee exhaustion.

Leadership is looking at the members and things are looking good, but people are really tired. They’re stressed, they’re tired. People are starting on Zoom and we’re like seven o’clock in the morning. Before, maybe you would have a cup of coffee, take a shower, or sit in traffic. You had these third spaces to process, and get prepared to come to work, or when you left work and then you went into traffic or your commute or whatever it was, and you had that opportunity to transition. Now we have less opportunities for that, and we’re even more available. People are really tired and they’re afraid to say they’re tired because then they look like they’re weak, but it’s something that companies really need to be aware of because we’ve seen the physical effects of COVID. We haven’t yet seen the mental effects of COVID. We can do something about that.

Patrick: I think that’s a very valid point about the next phase of all of this. I say that there’s so much life, “normal life,” work life is we’re just coming through this incredible experience that we’ve all been through together in many ways and parts of the world. For example, in California, where I live, a lot of things are opening up again, right? People are able to go into the grocery store without a mask on. We haven’t experienced that in many months in a very long time. Now it feels odd to see people as an example, without a face mask on. Right? We’re going through this phase now where normalcy needs to reset in a lot of ways. As you said, trauma is many different ways we experience trauma in our lives and how we recover from it.

Many organizations on top of that outside of just life in general, organizations right now are really focused on how do we build the next step in our journey? How do we build the next workplace experience for our employees? How do we look at two to three years from now? I think that’s another big transition point for businesses, because if you look five years ago, organizations could easily. I say, easily, fairly easily plan a year or two years in advance. Then a pandemic happened and people are planning a week in advance, two weeks in advance and the whole process of building the future of organizations in the past 18 months has just significantly changed.

I think it probably changed the most in the past century over the past 18 months, because people are thinking about what’s going to happen next month. I mean, executive leadership is thinking about what our business is going to look like next month? Now we’re going to have to start transitioning to what, or how do we go back to being able to look at two to three years down the road, but the importance of next month, I think will I am using next month as an example, but a short term focus combined with a long-term focus. I believe that the short-term focus is going to have just as much significance in businesses now as the long-term focus will.

To your point, I think this is a very critical time that businesses are looking at how their employees are, what their employees are experiencing and how they can impact and positively affect that, but a question for you on, this is not, as you said earlier, this is not just a regional thing and how employees or how people experience happiness in the Western world versus the, versus the east. Even just regionally within parts of the world you’ve created and lead a world happiness summit. Can you tell us a bit about that? When is it, what is it about because I was very curious and intrigued by that.

Karen: Absolutely, but first I’m going to comment on something that you said.

Patrick: Please do it. Yes.

Karen: I am very excited that we’re going to be looking at also the short-term goals, because as people need to be mindful of the moment where we are right, companies need to also be mindful where we are at the moment and so need to look at the, sometimes, you’re looking at 5 years, 10 years, but you’re not looking at the now. What is really exciting to me is that, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about how we’ve evolved, but we’re doing consulting work including these 5 and 10 year happiness and well-being plans for companies is that, if you focus really on the well-being of your employee, then you are investing in this resource that then becomes more flexible. During a time that we are living where we are facing changes.

I mean, forget about the technological changes, because that’s what we used to talk about before COVID, but now with this whole other new component, right? It’s changing, changing, changing, it’s so fast, but if we help support our employees and create environments that we nurture them. Support them again, holding them accountable to deadlines, to their work. That’s, same thing. It can continue, but we nourish them. Then they are flexible and limber to conditions. Then, companies I think will be more capable to work. Now we’re going to work from home. Now we’re going to work in one office. Now we have to get the COVID tests before, whatever it is that happens. If you have the employees feeling confident, feeling safe, feeling like they matter, feeling that they’re adding value to an organization and then feeling valued by that organization.

You’re going to be able to handle all these changes coming about. If you don’t do that, it’s going to be very difficult. Now to the World Happiness Summit. I’m glad you brought it up. I’m so excited because we had to postpone it until 2020 and we have not formally announced yet, but I can share with you that we will have it again in Miami in March, 2022. It’s going to coincide with the international day of happiness. It’s going to be March 18th to the 20th. We’re very, very excited, incredible speakers are going to be there. Dr. Martin Seligman is the father of positive psychology, Calvin Shahar who taught the most popular class at Harvard, two of the most popular classes, Jen Fischer, she’s the chief well-being officer of Deloitte. just all these different amazing people. What we do there is that we unite the world’s leading experts in the science and practice behind happiness and well-being.

We bring a global audience. We take a practical approach so that we can share how an evidenced based framework can serve to improve personal well-being, collective well-being, organizational, and then community. Because it’s very important also for our government to start measuring country success in a different way beyond GDP. GDP is important, but it should not be the only factor in how we measure country success. We have another meeting called the H-20, where we unite the experts with civic and government leaders so that we can bring well-being economics into policy. We can start to expand our measure of country success beyond GDP.

Patrick: I’m excited that we got maybe a little bit of an exclusive on the World Happiness Summit for next year, which is amazing. Thank you for sharing that because I am excited, very excited about you continuing to do it. I very much would love to join that next year as a guest and experience it myself. We’ll definitely talk about that. That’s a good point. Now, how do people find out more about you, about the work that you do about the World Happiness Summit? We are coming to the end of the conversation. I think now’s a good time to talk about that since you just mentioned it, but how do people find information about you and the Summit?

Karen: Perfect. Our website is happiness, and our handle is at wohasu. We are also going to be launching our new website, that is coming up in the next couple of weeks. We’re just really excited because we began in 2016, very quickly. We had our summit in 2017 in March, and it was highly successful. We went from an event to a movement and a lifestyle choice, and now a well-being ecosystem that is providing all these different resources all over the world. For myself, I feel privileged to be able to use my experience and my really unhappy moments and to be able to transform it into something that is of use and of service to people. It’s such a privilege, particularly during this time to use my resources and my network to help as many people as possible. Thank you so much for having me here with you.

Patrick: Well, a very heartfelt thank you from us. As I said, thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for the work that you do in this area because I have always believed that we choose our paths in so many ways and we choose how we interact with people. There’s just so much choice in life and I believe that we are the ones that make the choices for ourselves and we’re responsible for that. I appreciate the fact that you are helping organizations to understand this importance. I just believe it’s going to become even more important as we continue in the following months and years to come. To your point, I think, we don’t realize or know the impact of the past year and a half, and how that’s going to impact us in the next year and a half. The work that you’re doing, I think, is incredibly relevant, incredibly useful, and definitely incredibly useful for the audience. Everybody listening that we’ve many HR practitioners, we have many frontline employees, we have many executive leaders that listen to this podcast, and what you’ve shared today, I think will resonate with all of them in a unique way. We’ll be sure to share the links in the blog about how to reach you and also how to reach the information about the World Happiness Summit. Karen, thank you for your passion and the work that you do in the area, and thank you for spending some time with me today. I really enjoyed the conversation.

Karen: Thank you so much and we welcome all of your listeners and your community to come to the summit. It’s a unique professional development and team-building opportunity, especially that we’ve been apart for so long. I encourage people to come and we make learning fun. Thank you so much.

Patrick: Excellent, thank you, Karen.

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