April 29

Episode 33: Sarah Ratekin Dishes on What It’s Like to Be a Chief Happiness Officer


Sarah Ratekin discusses her profession as a Chief Happiness Officer and what that means as a career. She discusses happiness in the workplace and the many things that that entails.

Sarah Ratekin, founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Happiness Is Courage Inc., translates the science of happiness and well-being into actionable plans that get radically positive results. An enthusiastic positivity activist, author, and researcher, she believes we can change the world for the better by being positive, grateful, and kind, and she’s often quoted as saying, “Happiness is a gauge, not a goal.” 

Her current focus is on helping organizations and teams navigate the particularly complex reality of today’s stressors, engagement challenges, and creating a healthier, happier workplace culture.

Sarah is a Doctoral Candidate researching the intersection of gratitude and organizational performance, building on her master’s in management and leadership and an MBA. She’s also a Navy veteran and Army mom.

No stranger to weird working environments, she believes that everyone deserves the opportunity to develop their strengths, find joy in their profession, and engage in the pursuit of happiness in the workplace and beyond.

In This Episode, You’ll Learn…

  • Engagement vs. Happiness: Many people tend to conflict with the two ideas. Engagement means someone is more fully interacting with the space they’re in. They’re working toward their goals. Happiness is an emotion. It’s simply the way our body reacts to our environment. All emotions do for us is provide us a way to interpret the data around us. So, it’s essential to align the things that matter to us. So, you can be an engaged employee and not be happy, or be happy and not engaged. 
  • A Chief Happiness Officer approaches the concept of happiness in the workforce through scientific research. So, they try to create happy spaces with the research. The idea isn’t that they will make you happy, but you work to generate happiness using methods to alter the space. It is a “data-driven.” process. 
  • Every person in the space is responsible for creating happiness. So, you have to get everyone involved in the process. It’s a cultural shift, not a way that you do business. So, it’s a bit messier. 
  • Businesses don’t just suddenly decide to hire a Chief Happiness Officer. They realize they have high turnover rates and other issues like that. So, they know they need to approach it differently. It’s not just something for HR to handle. They’re actually not the right people to come to it because they have the wrong reputation. 
  • About 70% of your workforce is disengaged. People are working decades in jobs, and they’re miserable. 
  • Everyone is dealing with a lot of stress these days, which makes things more complicated. 
  • In Europe, they actually have happiness laws for the workplace. They’re more aware of these ideas and how happiness relates to work success. 
  • There are two main factors that help generate happiness in the workplace. The first one is people understanding how the work they do matters. You can’t just tie it to a vague mission statement. You have to go deeper than that and help people understand how their work matters.
  • The second is that people who have strong relationships in the workplace connect people and give them a reason to care. When you’re a part of something, you’re more likely to want to be a part of it. 
  • If you frame success with any emotion, including happiness, it sets you up for feeling like a failure. People can hold many emotions at the same time. So, if we set up emotional states for success, it’s a bad idea. But if you use emotion to evaluate your environment, you can use it as a way to access the space you work in and change what needs to be changed. 
  • About 20 years ago, Sarah felt like she was stuck in a personal situation where her life was not going well. She realized she needed to figure out a way to survive and navigate her complicated life. She found gratitude, and she says it’s one of the biggest superpowers people can engage in. Relying on the knowledge that she can frame her world with gratitude has always given her hope and helped her through challenges. 
  • How does she stay happy when happiness is her title? It’s about being honest and setting expectations for what that means. 
  • She’s not a therapist who deals with mental health issues. She can refer you to such professionals if needed. But she focuses on happiness in the workplace and what it means to bring it to the workplace. 


  • “It’s not a light switch. You don’t get to just bring in a happiness seminar, and suddenly people are [happy].”
  • HR has an image problem in business. It’s kind of the principal’s office in the workplace.
  • Happiness is everybody’s job. 
  • It’s an emotional wellness program. So, if you have a wellness app, you don’t just expect people to take a walk. You expect engagement and long-term goals. 
  • “Everything takes 10-15% of our energy just to maintain the current situation.” 
  • “It’s leadership’s responsibility to shape an environment that allows employees to engage with the factors that we know from the research to create satisfaction in the workplace.”
  • “Happiness is a gauge, not a goal.”
  • You’re allowed to find happiness in the workplace. 

Links & Resources Mentioned…

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Read The Transcript

Episode #33

Mike O'Neill: Welcome back to the Get Unstuck & On Target Podcast. I'm Mike O'Neill with Bench Builders and we're business coaches who love to help leaders get unstuck and sleep better. In this podcast, we're talking with thought leaders to uncover tips to help you break down the barriers that may be keeping you or your business stuck. Joining me today is Sarah Ratekin and Sarah is the director of Career Bound and Undergraduate Engagement at Purdue University. She is also the founder of her own consulting firm, Happiness Is Courage. Welcome, Sarah. 

Sarah Ratekin: Thanks, Mike, I'm so excited to be here. 

Mike O'Neill: I've known Sarah for some time and it's taken me a while to be able to get on her calendar.

So I'm very much looking forward to our time together, as I think Sarah's going to introduce most of us to some concepts that might be new to you. But let me start by just reading a quote right off her website. And it goes like this. "We're collectively throwing away, billions of dollars in ineffective engagement efforts. Let's get real and get tactical and make work a better, happier, and more productive place where people want to be." I love that language, Sarah. 

Sarah Ratekin: That's good. I'm glad to hear that. 

Mike O'Neill: Introduced engagement efforts and in my line of work, I hear that a lot. I have clients say we want our employees to be more engaged, but I know your background. And so maybe they kind of set the stage, is can you compare and contrast this idea of engagement and compare that to happiness?

Sarah Ratekin: Yeah, that's a really great question. And I think a lot of people tend to conflate the two concepts, whether it's in an academic environment or it is a workplace environment. And what I see the difference being is engagement means that somebody is more fully interacting with the space they're in. They're actively thinking about and working towards specific goals. They are being creative problem solvers in their space. They are not just coasting and collecting the paycheck, which is part of that multi-zillion dollar loss that we're seeing, not just in America, but around the world.

Happiness by contrast is an emotion. Happiness is happy is one of the 3000 words that we have in the English language to describe emotion. And generally speaking, it's simply the way our body reacts to our environment. All of our emotions are, and that means both our external and internal environments, our thoughts, our experiences, and all emotions really do for us is provide us a way to interpret all of that data around us.

So when we are happy, tends to mean that we're in alignment with the things that matter to us, we are engaged in activities that are aligned to our personal values. Whether or not, we realize what those things are. Typically, it means we find the things that we're engaged in fulfilling or meaningful in some way.

And we have what we need to both survive and thrive. And those are very different concepts. So to me, you can be an engaged employee and still not be happy. You can be a happy employee or person and not be engaged. There really, they should go hand in glove for the fullest possible outcome for the organization and for the individual.

Mike O'Neill: I appreciate, I've not heard that defined that way. That's very, very helpful. So here is term that many of our listeners might not be familiar with, and that is a person whose title is Chief Happiness Officer. What is a Chief Happiness Officer. 

Sarah Ratekin: So in my world, I'm actually an Internationally Certified Chief Happiness Officer are there, and there are three separate organizations that I know of that provide this opportunity. Chief Happiness Officers approach the concept of happiness in the workforce as a positive desirable outcome for organizations through the lens of actual scientific research. So we know that there are lots of companies who in some way, try to create happy spaces. And that's not often based on data. There's no data-driven decision making in that process. That's usually gut reaction or what people think will work. But Chief Happiness Officer is really do focus on the research about how do people actually function? What, what studies exist to show us whether or not happiness can happen organically in this space?

And I think it's important to point out that the goal of a Chief Happiness Officer and really the idea of creating happiness in the workforce, which does offer tremendous value for organizations. Is not, is not with a mindset of we're going to make you happy. Because truthfully that's not possible. The concept is if we create spaces that do support people in appropriate and adequate ways, happiness will organically appear. They will have that response to the environment that we typically classify as happiness. Now, there are other people who classify the term differently. I know, for example, the clown, Ronald McDonald is the Chief Happiness Officer for his organization. It's a very different job responsibility and not, not what I do at all. 

Mike O'Neill: So if that is the case, I mean, what you've done is you've kind of contrasted this, this, touchy, feely happiness with bottom line impact and you keep using the term data.

Data-driven I know that you're working on your doctorate and therefore data and the power of data is very important to you and in your research. As you step back and look at an organization,  who is responsible for creating a happy workplace?

Sarah Ratekin: Every single individual in those walls metaphorically. So I believe that in a space where you're trying to create more positive experiences for, for employees, which really does mean everybody from entry level to the C-suite. And, and everybody in between. Yes, you need leadership to understand that this is a cultural need and to shape and honor, and set that expectation that that's what you're looking for.

And you absolutely have to get buy-in from the other members of the organization. All stakeholders really have to be involved in this process. We all know, leadership can put forth whatever they want as goals, but if you don't have buy-in from the boots on the ground, you're going to have a really hard slog ahead of you to make that happen.

And this is a cultural shift we're talking about here. This isn't putting a new business process in place or installing a new software package. This is really changing the way organizations approach the concept of corporate culture or workplace culture. And that's a little messier. The value is tremendous. It's, you know, it's, it goes beyond the dollar amount, honestly, although that's a great way to understand the value. But it does take some time. Also. It's not a light switch. You don't get to just bring in a happiness seminar and then suddenly your people are all in wonderful spirits. It's not the way it works.

So it is a journey to go on, but the tremendous output that can happen from this as well worth that investment.

Mike O'Neill: Because this concept is new to me. I could benefit from kind of learning from you. When organizations begin to think about, maybe we ought to have someone in this role as Chief Happiness Officer. How does that decision come about? 

Sarah Ratekin: So for the three organizations in America, I've done this, I don't think it's a common concept at all honestly. I don't think they do, they just realize that people are super unhappy. Their turnover numbers are atrocious. They're not getting the productivity they want. I mean, if you are in business, you probably have seen or should see the Gallup report on employee engagement, which is where we see some pretty compelling and disturbing data. And so how do we address the challenges that are creating those unpleasant outcomes? And that's where the mindset really starts.

A lot of times when this does come up, the sort of the, the thought process that could be encapsulated in a Chief Happiness Officer role sometimes gets passed off to the Chief Human Resource Officer, whoever fills that space in an organization. Honestly, I think that's mistaken for a couple of reasons.

One just straight up HR has an image problem in business. Nobody goes to HR for positive reasons, right? Maybe they're going to get help with their health insurance. They're going because they have a performance improvement plan, have a troubled employee or something like that. But HR is kind of the principal's office of the corporate world.

And so I think that asking HR to take on this culture project is misguided. I tend to think it either needs to have its own C-suite spot, or at least it needs to be a project that's endorsed by an executive sponsor, but it really doesn't belong in just HR, because the truth is, again, it's everybody's responsibility to address this issue. And I have found, so I live in the Midwest and the idea of happiness at work doesn't sit well with people. It actually is seen as, and I've been told you're not serious about your work. Now I'm very serious about my work. I have a very strong work ethic. I grew up on a farm, I'm former military, and I believe strongly in the power of hard work and getting things done.

I also don't think that we should spend the 40 to 60 years that we're going to be in the workforce. Drag dead miserable. And that's not just me that's the data telling us that you're spending about 70% of that line item on your budget that says employee salaries for nothing, because about 70% of your workforce is actively disengaged.

That's a lot of money that you're wasting. 

Mike O'Neill: That's a sobering statistics Sarah.  Now I think, you know, I come from an HR background and we work very closely with the top HR folks within our organization. But what I'm also hearing you say is that if you just add one more thing to her plate, it's, it may not get the prioritization it might would, actually kind of need. And you made something else a very interesting point. And that is it's one thing for a executive sponsor to say, this is a good idea, but because you say that happiness is everybody's job, you're stressing that if you really want to change the culture, it's not necessarily only a top down effort.

It's not just go hire somebody call them Chief Happiness Officer, and it works. It has to also percolate up through the organization. Am I hearing that correct? 

Sarah Ratekin: Yes you are. And I think if you want to put this in terms that are more common for organizations, you can think of this through like a wellness program, right? It is a form of wellness, it's emotional wellness. So when you do that, you don't just buy the app and expect your employees to magically use the app to take more walks and stand up at their desks once in awhile. You develop a marketing campaign to stress the value behind this practice, these practices. And often times organizations will develop, employee based committees or councils or work teams to help spread the message kind of ambassadors for the project throughout the organization. We know that culture changes are take time. If you have to work in baby steps, you have to be willing to deal with the whole change cycle, which is not easy.

And especially right now, Organizations are hard, hit. Everybody is struggling with stress on levels that we perhaps haven't seen before, or haven't seen for quite some time. And so it can feel extra overwhelming when we're experiencing this lack of, I mean, everything takes like 10 or 15% more energy just to maintain the current situation, which isn't good. So now I'm asking you to completely shift the way you do business that feels daunting and overwhelming. And if you don't, you're only going to see a continuation of the current situation where we are losing about a half trillion dollars a year, just to engagement. Most companies are tracking their turnover costs.

If they're not, they should do that math. That would be very helpful to understand the impact of voluntary turnover. And things like healthcare costs. And even so the concept of a Chief Happiness Officer is actually a little more well-known in Europe. You know, they have. Things like employee wellbeing laws that helped drive some of this conversation. And their health care systems are a little bit different, but they do recognize that there is a significant financial impact from stress-related diseases, illnesses, accidents, et cetera.

And that's another thing that's directly impacted by both employee engagement and general census of well being. And so there's a lot of, there's a lot of really business case behind why we should be shifting our approach from the way we do business. And they're challenged with it being seen, as either the individual employee's responsibility, which I've heard or just the executive is so often I hear that it's not my responsibility to make sure my people are happy.

I would agree with that statement. I would say it is leaders, leadership's responsibility to shape an environment that allows employees to engage with the factors that we know. From the research actually create satisfaction in the workplace. And really I'm going to give this away for free. There are two main factors that create that space. The first one is people have to understand how the work they're doing matters. And you can't just tie it to some arbitrary, vague mission statement that most companies don't have a great strong mission statement anyway. You have to really tie it to how their piece of the machine really drives the entire organization forward or contributes to social wellbeing or something that allows them to take pride in what they do.

If we're, if what we're doing, doesn't matter, you're replaceable and it's pointless. So help people understand specifically how their work matters, results. But the bigger piece of this puzzle, and this speaks to a much broader challenge. Is that people who have strong relationships in the workplace and that doesn't have to be with their coworkers. It can be relationships with vendors, customer relationships, community connections. There are lots of ways to create these relationships, but strong relationships, connect people and give them a reason to care. When you are a part of something you're far more likely to be invested and engaged in it. If you're not, you're just sort of, they're picking up a paycheck. 

Mike O'Neill: So we are hearing from what will be Doctor Ratekin shift this down to two things. If I heard this correctly, and that is if you step back what we all want, our employees want to know that their work matters and strong relationships matter 

Sarah Ratekin: Results and relationships. That's what it boils down to. That's the magic sauce.

Mike O'Neill: Ah, interesting results. That's beautiful results and relationships. Let's talk about results a little bit. Sometimes we characterize, results as a goal. And, I have, you have shared this with me, offline, and I've read this on your website, but this quote, happiness is a gauge, not a goal.

Sarah Ratekin: Yep. 

Mike O'Neill: Can you elaborate on it?

Sarah Ratekin: So by definition, you, if you set yourself up with an emotional state, as a goal, you are destined to failure because we are human. We are experiencing the human condition. Life does happen, whether we want it to or not. So if you frame success as being any, any emotion, when, and it will, when it changes that sets you up for feeling like a failure, I had happiness and then I lost it. No, you experienced happiness then, and now you're experiencing whatever else you're experiencing. And there's a Berry quote that says that fairies can only have one emotion because they're so small one emotion at a time because they're so small. Humans are incredibly complex creatures and we can absolutely hold multiple emotional states at the same time. I can be delighted to have a conversation with my friend Mike today, and to be grieving the loss of a friend. And be scared for something else and be anticipating. I mean, we can have lots of things going on and we typically do have lots of things going on. So if we set ourselves up with that weird arbitrary measuring stick of this emotional state means I'm successful we're done. But if you use your immediate moment as a way of assessing what's going on around you with, through the lens of that emotion, just being sort of a shortcut way to understand the environment and you can kind of use it as a dashboard. So if I'm, if I look at myself right now and say, feeling right now? For me, it would be hopeful. I feel really hopeful right now. I have a cool project I'm working on in my new role. My research is about to kick off for my degree. I have some pretty cool plans with friends after I finished my vaccination series, you know, like there's all kinds of really cool things in my world.

And so overarchingly, I would say I'm hopeful. My dashboard is green. If I'm scared or upset or angry, that's a check engine light. Let's do some diagnosis and see what's going on. And the same is true in the workplace. If your team is generally feeling unsettled, anxiety, whatever. Do a triage. See what's happening in that space? What can you change in the environment? And we all have far more autonomy than we tend to give ourselves credit for it in those spaces. And especially as leaders, we have a responsibility to do that kind of preventative maintenance on our teams. So we catch those things while they're still fixable.

Burnout sucks. Losing employees for any reason that could be prevented is an unfortunate and preventable situation. So I think it's incumbent upon leaders to spend the time, spend the energy, to do a little bit of work on the front end as preventative medicine, rather than wait until it's a crisis. And then they bring somebody like me in, but the trauma's already been done. It's a lot harder to fix on the backend. 

Mike O'Neill: Sarah, I was pleased to learn that you, at this point, have a sense of hope, that has alluded many of us, in the last 12 to 18 months for obvious reasons. But can you reflect on a time where perhaps, maybe you've found yourself stuck? If you found yourself stuck, what did you do to get unstuck?

Sarah Ratekin: So I will, I'll be happy to reflect. And this is about 20 years ago now. And I like this story because it shows a pivot in my approach to the entire universe. So 20 years ago, I found myself in a personal situation where my life was disintegrating in really spectacularly, horrible fashion. It just felt like a series of gut punches throughout the course of about 18 months. And any one of those experiences would top the list of a therapist dream client like, oh, big, big thing to fix. And I realized I had to figure out a way to survive. This experience literally survive this, this period of my life. I had four young children I was responsible for. I wasn't willing to lose them to the foster care system.

I really had to do my very level best to figure out how to navigate this incredibly complicated space. And thanks to some conversations with my late grandmother and my father. I've found gratitude. And I would say that gratitude is one of the biggest super powers that humans can actually engage in. Because at its core gratitude connects us to other people. By its very definition gratitude means that we recognize that we are the beneficiary of something big or small. And that something is as a result of somebody else's actions or some other forces actions could be your spiritual belief could be, you know, the way the rocks were shaped, that you found that little heart shaped rock in the morning, on your morning walk.

And what I have really discovered and what has helped me get unstuck in every situation since then is relying on the knowledge, that if I can frame my world through the sense of gratitude. It changes my entire perspective. It creates hope and hope is a form of happiness. It's sort of the, there are sort of two main pieces of what we typically call happiness. There's effective happiness, effective wellbeing, where we're cheerful and kind of jovial and seeming happy, go lucky. But then there's that sort of deeper wellspring of optimism, which I refer to when I say happiness is courage. And they serve very different purposes in our world. Happiness that's cheerful stuff actually helps us have a healthier immune system for example. Helps us be more attractive to friends and partners. Hope gets us through the hard stuff. But you really need to have them both. Now we all sit on different spaces with that on an ongoing basis. It's a moving target, but can we find ways in our world to increase that? Absolutely. And I'm happy to talk more about that with people, if they're interested or if follow my blog, I talk about it all the time.

But for me, the gratitude approach to life completely changed. And so I shared this with you previously, Mike, most recently I was in a career transition and looking for a new place to live. We were looking for a new home. My kids were moving out of the house. We were empty nesting, just a lot of changes in our life in a short, short, very short period of time. And I knew that I could just fall back into that gratitude space and that optimism that came from it. And I knew we'd get through it. It's not always easy and certainly not always clean. Sometimes it's quite messy, but having the hope to get to the next day is a game changer. 

Mike O'Neill: You know I really appreciate your candor in sharing that and the power of gratitude and how that played into your life and still plays into your life. Life does happen. And in terms of, you know, when you're touting the role of Chief Happiness Officer. Now, let's just be real practical. You're under pressure there are you not? If you're an organization and that is your title, that must be at times hard when you're not having a good day when you're not happy. How do you think do that? When that is actually your title and that's your role in your organization?

Sarah Ratekin: It boils down to having really good, honest communication with people and being authentic about it. Right? So again, nobody's going to be happy all the time. If you are, if you're legitimately happy all the time, there's probably something wrong with you. I mean that, in the honest, caring way.

But you might want to see a psychiatrist because if your, if your mother passes away and you're still happy, that's probably not healthy. Right? So one is being authentically honest about my role as a human in this role, in this job title. It's also setting expectations for what that means. And so when we frame Chief Happiness Officer capacity as shaping culture, as opposed to being the cheerleader for the organization, which I think it can be seen as. Like I've had I've had colleagues come to me with some mental health challenges and I'm like, that's not what I do. I'm not, I mean, I'm not qualified. I'm not licensed to be a therapist. I support you finding a therapist to find greater happiness in your life. I'm happy to direct you to our HR department, how they have helped with that.

But we're talking about happiness at a holistic level. We're creating a culture within this organization where you can thrive and become the best version of yourself. Wherever you are in this space. That's what it really boils down to. It's not that everybody's going to walk around all the time with smiles on their faces and cracking jokes and giggling in the hallways. That's absolutely not what we're looking for. And that's, I think so having some discussions about emotional literacy is very helpful also because happiness doesn't have to look like the big clown smile. Happiness can look like contentment. Happiness can look like enthusiasm. It can look a lot of different ways.

So part of that is the education around why happiness, what is, what actually is happiness and how can we create spaces that allow you to experience it on an ongoing basis and support you when you don't. 

Mike O'Neill: You mentioned authenticity. You come across as extremely authentic. And you don't have days that are quote happy days, but you're being transparent. And you're recognizing that you're trying to help the organization improve its culture. And we all have, we all have weeks. We may even have months or years to kind of fit that definition. You know, Sarah we've discussed a pretty wide variety of things. I know that this notion of Chief Happiness Officer probably originated out of Europe. I did not point out, but Sarah and I first crossed paths in an international community that we're members of. And it was in that setting that I first heard. And what's really interesting. This community though, growing is comprised of a number of people who have receive the same type of training you have. But it sounds to me that this is a concept. I don't know if I want to call it a movement yet that may be coming out of Europe in the United States where most of our listeners reside, they're hearing about something that really is kind of leading edge. And that's very much why wouldn't you be part of this podcast. Sarah, as you kind of reflect on what we've covered today, what might be some closing thoughts or takeaways? 

Sarah Ratekin: I really do want to encourage people to write down on a sticky note or get tattooed on their forearm. Whatever works that happiness is the gauge, not the goal that takes some pressure off. Honestly, it also helps us define the conversation through a healthier lens. And you're allowed you are absolutely allowed and encouraged to find joy and happiness and all kinds of other pleasant emotions in the workplace. It doesn't make you less of a leader. It actually makes you a stronger human and we all need that in our world.

Mike O'Neill: I failed to mention that the role you are in at Purdue is a new role. But I am completely convinced the folks at Purdue, made a great choice in tapping you for that role. It's very clear that your bring, that the types of things that you're encouraging us to do, you bring transparency, authenticity, and you're bringing to that role, real world experiences, but by helping kind of recast those from a perspective of gratitude, I've learned a lot. Thank you for sharing. 

Sarah Ratekin: Thank you, Mike. This is awesome. And we're planting seeds, right? We'll see what blossoms. 

Mike O'Neill: Well, you are a very good seed planter. You've been a real pleasure to have as a podcast guest. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us for this episode of Get Unstuck & On Target. We upload that latest episode every Thursday. And so if you haven't already please subscribe. But life really is too short to let this is problems keep you up at night. Our coaches love helping leaders solve the tough problems that are holding you back from the success that you deserve.

So have you been listening to my discussion with Sarah and you're realizing that something is keeping you or your business stuck? Let's talk, go to our website, bench-builders.com, or just go to your browser and type unstuck.show to schedule a quick call. I also want to point out that contact information or Sarah will be included in the show notes, links to her websites, links to her LinkedIn profile. And I think you will enjoy reading her bio in those show notes. So I'd like to thank you for joining us, and I hope you have picked up on some tips. That'll help you Get Unstuck & On Target. Until next time.

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