Do you want to be happier?
On the one hand, this seems like a silly question, not least because most people would answer “yes”, and I’m sure you are no exception – so, what’s the point of asking?
On the other hand, those same individuals habitually engage in a wide repertoire of behaviors that do very little to increase their actual happiness levels, and quite a bit to decrease them. Indeed, those same people – people like you and me – who appear so committed to boosting their happiness, ordinarily act in ways that lead to profound, perhaps even unnecessary, unhappiness, not just in themselves, but also in others (but that is a separate issue).
So, perhaps there’s a link, but a reversed one, between wanting and finding happiness, and how much happiness do we actually need at work, at least in order to be satisfied with our jobs and careers? Why do organizations appoint Chief Happiness Officers? Are for profit corporations (and employers in general) truly interested in helping us find our path to happiness?
Although there may be as many patprohs to happiness as people (both happy and unhappy) there are in the world, it seems that the quest for happiness is far from straightforward, even among those who enjoy privileged opportunities and are clearly committed to it, which explains the weak association between income and happiness. As Oscar Wilde famously noted, “there are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
Unsurprisingly, philosophers, religious leaders, artists, poets, and psychologists alike have devoted a great deal of time to exploring happiness, with the main purpose of understanding and augmenting it. And while there’s relatively little progress in this area, which is why there is no simple way to apply these lessons in order to boost our happiness, there are still some important learnings to consider.
The first is that happiness is elusive and hard to define, and if you cannot define something, it is impossible to measure, let alone manage it. The closest we seem to have gotten to it, which is what leading scientists and mainstream policy organisms, like the World Bank and the UN do, is to equate it to subjective wellbeing, and ask people to rate their happiness on a 1-10 point scale (“On a 1-to-10 point scale, how satisfied are you with your life?”). Admittedly, this sounds like a very basic and superficial approach to quantifying happiness, yet it still has clear benefits. The number you pick will tend to predict things like your future job satisfaction, job performance, relationship satisfaction and success, and even major health-related outcomes, including longevity and mortality. That’s right, the number you pick predicts when you may die, not perfectly of course.
It is also logical that the best person to define your own state of emotions, including your happiness level, is you. Others may of course disagree or rate your happiness differently, based on what they see, but who are they to say how happy you are?
The second is that definitions of happiness have varied a lot through the years, and they are often in direct contradiction with each other. So, for instance, happiness has been defined as the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain; as well as the extinction of desire (imagine entering a Zen-like state of vegetable Nirvana where you crave nothing and have no impulses); as living a meaningful life or existence (e.g., having purpose, finding meaning, experiencing a sense of calling, or, in the words of Charles Bukowski, “finding what you love and letting it kill you”).
More recently, the positive psychology movement – an entire paradigm within scientific psychology focused on the study of happiness and positive emotions – emphasized the importance of self-actualizing, finding a way to unleash your creative juices and enter a state of flow, particularly through work. Although each of these perspectives seems logical, no perspective alone is sufficient to encapsulate the whole meaning of happiness, and the tension between them is rather obvious: e.g., you can’t simultaneously seek pleasure and eliminate desire, the quest for knowledge and creativity can be quite painful and make you miserable, as it requires sacrifices, and it is perfectly possible to live a meaningful life without self-actualizing.
The third is that all of the above mentioned, major conceptions of happiness have something in common: they focus on the individual rather than others, making happiness a very personal and subjective thing. It doesn’t matter, therefore, if your happiness causes others unhappiness. In other words, your own happiness may or not be moral, prosocial, or altruistic. Clearly, some people may extract great pleasure from activities that are harmful to others (e.g., eating meat, playing loud music when your neighbor is asleep, cheating on your wife, or torturing kittens to become a YouTube sensation), and the sacrifices one must make to be an ethical, functioning member of a civilized society may constrain that person’s happiness (e.g., not eating meat, etc.).
In fact, our dominant interpretation of happiness today places a great deal of emphasis on the individual’s feelings, emotions, and subjectivity. “Just follow your heart”, “Don’t worry about what other people think of you”, “Just be true to yourself”, etc., with FOMO and YOLO as the central coordinates of purpose. Whether we like to admit it or not, happiness has been hijacked by the consumerist society, to end up reduced to materialistic expressions of our self-indulgent quest for instant gratification, which has diluted happiness to a pretty narcissistic, self-centered, and antisocial activity. In this feelgood culture, happiness doesn’t need to to make room for deep thinking or spiritual introspection, let alone prosocial behaviors. Instead, to many people, the path to happiness is not just buying the latest thing they didn’t need on Amazon, getting the latest iPhone, or being upgraded to business class (assuming flying ever happens again), but also sharing this on social media, which has been found to make other people miserable and depressed. Selling happiness, or at least the illusion of it, is now a central focus of any ambitious brand, perhaps epitomized most emphatically by Coca Cola’s Happiness Machine.
This Zeitgeist or context explains why so many employers, across a wide range of industries and sectors, appear so interested in boosting employees’ happiness levels, to the point of appointing Chief Happiness Officers, and putting in place unprecedented measures to provide consumer-like experiences to their employees. In turn, employees today – particularly those who are fortunate enough to be in-demand, even during difficult economic times – expect to be engaged, immersed, and self-actualized at work. If their job or career doesn’t make them happy, they will interpret it as an obvious sign that they need to change. We may still refer to it as “work”, but careers today are seen as a quest for higher-order meaning and purposes, with the most skilled members of the knowledge economy resembling spiritual workaholics. Naturally, this may suggest that employers are inherently interested in making workers happy, and there is no shortage of company statements to reaffirm that.
However, we should not forget the most obvious of truisms: people are not paid to work, they are not paid to be happy. In fact, it is only because happiness – more often referred to as engagement or job satisfaction – promises to increase people’s performance, making the spiritual employee a more productive employee, that employers invest so much money trying to boost employee morale. It’s based on the premise or conviction that there’s an ROI to happiness. Are they right? Yes, because higher engagement does translate into higher levels of performance, both at the individual and organizational level. But since the overlap between engagement and performance is small (less than 20%), and differences between employees’ happiness are largely a reflection of their own personality, there will be many instances where employers must choose between a happy or a productive employee, and between rewarding happiness or rewarding performance.
Despite the rise of Chief Happiness Officers in the world of work, I have yet to find an organization where people are paid more when they manage to boost their happiness levels, especially when such increases are not accompanied by parallel increases in performance. Equally, it is easy to think of several scenarios that may increase employees’ happiness without bringing much value to the organization: e.g., employees wanting to work less, earn more, stay in bed rather than show up to work, and get rid of their boss (OK, this can sometimes be quite valuable to the organization).
In short, organizations are not in the business of making people happy, but they are obviously happy to engage in any formal or deliberate attempts that increases their workforce performance and productivity, even if the requirement to achieve it is to increase employees’ happiness.
We should also remember that most if not all of the valuable innovations that have ever been created and produced in society, and in a sense every manifestation of progress there has ever been in every civilization, has been the product of relatively unhappy workers. Individuals – and teams – who were at least moderately unhappy or dissatisfied, perhaps even deeply frustrated, with the status quo, so they devoted a great deal of time and energy to change it. In that sense, one would expect organizations to appoint Chief Unhappiness Officers, tasked with the avoidance of complacency to drive relentless progress, energizing dissatisfaction in the service of disrupting the status quo. In other words, the main goal of the Chief Unhappiness Officer would not be to make people miserable (as many organizations clearly excel at that already) but to ensure that disgruntled employees can turn their grumpiness into productive activities, like innovation.
Human ambition comes in many forms, but it always includes the ability to remain unhappy with one’s own accomplishments.