Despite countless studies that seem to show that humans do everything better when happier… the subject of happiness at work remains a surprisingly divisive subject.
Is happiness important? Does it matter at work? Isn’t it just about silliness or making people feel good all the time?
There’s a good deal of criticism of happiness at work — of both the concept and the approaches taken by some companies to “implementing” it… … so, is there a better way to think about happiness in the workplace, and move it from a series of gimmicks to a serious discussion about what drives human performance?
What people say about happiness at work…
“Many companies respond inappropriately to the employee engagement crisis by introducing office dogs, kegerators, and ping-pong tables into the work environment to make employees happy. However, happy is not the same thing as engaged. When employees are engaged, they trust senior leaders and feel an emotional connection to your company. Happy is a feeling people get when the office dog licks their face while they are drinking a beer. I can assure you that if you have a dysfunctional workplace culture, Fido is not going to stop your employees from quitting on you.”
This excerpt from an article by a renowned engagement expert sums up the most common (and easy) anti-happiness argument… There’s no disputing the sentiment of the quote — office dogs, ping-pong tables and a beer fridge are not the answer to developing a culture that will propel your business forward or indeed engage your staff… (although I’m not sure I’d ever feel happy if a dog was licking my face while I was drinking a beer).
Trying to “make people happy” is doomed to fail. You can’t make people happy.
Approaches to “implementing” happiness at work often follow similar lines — in this article, Corporate Rebels (who I really like by the way), express their own frustration at the way some approach happiness. … once again, I wouldn’t disagree with the sentiment — there are plenty of ways to make happiness something that people want to move away from… but “one-size fits all”, “forcing happiness”, or even “people being happy all the time”… aren’t about the subject of happiness at all, they’re about companies failing to understand people and what really motivates them, combined with a poor approach to change.
The assertion that “focusing on happiness is counter-productive” is incorrect. What they’re actually referring to “pursuing happiness” rather than focusing on it — and they’re quite different.
Pursuing happiness as an explicit goal does tend to result in people feeling less happy… but mostly because what most people believe will make them happy, actually doesn’t.
Focusing on happiness is something quite different — giving importance to how people feel, and understanding the impact of feelings rather than just what we think, opens up a whole host of opportunities to improve how our environment supports our ability to perform at our best.
Why do people see happiness this way?
Our attitudes towards the word happiness come partly from the way that many of us have come to regard it — that it is about feeling good all the time, hence beer and pizza on a Friday, or sticking a ping-pong table in the office. We also associate happiness with success or attainment… I’ll be happy when I get that next promotion, or that new car or a bigger house.
Shawn Achor’s research, made famous by his brilliant TED-talk below, suggests that happiness is a precursor to success — ultimately you could say that this is a virtuous circle… happier people have more success and that success further fuels their happiness.
There’s no doubt that achieving goals brings us happiness, but you’ll know from your own experience that whenever you’ve achieved a major life goal — like a promotion or treated yourself to that car you’ve wanted for ages — the positive feelings that arise subside relatively quickly. This is “hedonic adaptation” … put simply that we quickly adjust to our new circumstances and our happiness returns to previous levels.
The common theme in all the examples above seems to be the idea that happiness is binary… as though it’s all about “being happy” rather than being about how our levels of happiness (or indeed unhappiness) affect us.