4 Reasons Leaders Should Stop the Foolish Pursuit of Happiness at Work

HappyTo borrow from Pharrell Williams’ hit song “Happy:” It might seem crazy what I’m about to say

But I really don’t care if you’re happy at work. In fact, I think all the hype about happiness at work is a bit misguided. Now, before you blow up my Twitter feed with negative feedback or blast me in the comments section of this article, let me explain.

I’m all in favor of being happy. Personally, I much prefer happiness over sadness. If I have a choice, I’ll take happy every day of the week and twice on Sunday. When it comes to work, I’ll take happy there, too. I’d much rather work with happy people than mean people, and I know I’m more productive, creative, and a better teammate at work when I’m happy.

But here’s the deal…On the surface, all the talk about happiness sounds great. But If you aren’t careful and discerning about what you hear in the media and popular culture, you’d think that happiness of employees should be the primary goal of every leader and organization. I don’t buy it and here’s why:

1. Happiness is a fleeting emotion largely dependent on external circumstances – Defining happiness can easily lead to a battle of semantics, but a common, basic definition of “happy” is: delighted, pleased, or glad, as over a particular thing (e.g., to be happy to see a person). I’m happy when I come home from work and my kids have straightened up the house or loaded the dishes into the dishwasher. When it doesn’t happen (which is often), I’m not happy. Does that mean I love my kids any less? No. Is my life less fulfilled because I’m not happy? No. Happiness comes and goes, so it’s not something I want to build my life around. Happiness is too dependent on circumstances beyond my control for me to make it my goal. However, I can control how I respond to the circumstances of my life and I can choose to have a positive attitude. There are many times when work and life deal us a crummy hand. We have to work overtime, business travel takes us away from important family events, or we make a mistake and get reamed out by the boss; none of those things make us happy. But if we have the right attitude and perspective on work and life, we can put those situations in their proper place and learn and grow from the experience.

2. Happiness should be a pleasant outcome of good leadership and organizational culture, not the goal – My job as a leader is not to make you happy. If that was the case, then I’d serve ice cream every afternoon and cater to your every need. No, my job is to help you develop to your fullest potential while accomplishing the goals of our team and organization. If I’m smart, I will lead in a way that builds your commitment to the organization and fosters engagement in your work. I’ll also strive to create a culture that supports your health and well-being and makes your work enjoyable. Oh, and by the way, if you’re happy as a result, then great! Your happiness is not my goal, but you’re free to make it your own.

It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness. ~ Viktor Frankl

3. Happiness is negatively correlated with meaning – It didn’t take scientific research studies for Viktor Frankl to understand a fundamental truth: pursuing happiness as your primary goal is like a dog chasing its tail. Studies have shown that people who place more importance on being happy end up becoming more depressed and unhappy. Rather than happiness, we need to pursue meaning and purpose. Sadly, according to one study by the Centers for Disease Control, 40% of Americans either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose.The same study also reported that nearly 25% of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Having purpose and meaning in life and at work increases overall well-being and satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency and self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. As a leader, your efforts at helping employees understand and connect to the purpose and meaning of their work will reap more benefit than striving to make them happy.

4. Happiness is self-focused; true fulfillment in life (and work) comes from being others-focused – At its core, happiness is a pretty selfish motive when you think about it. Psychologists explain it as drive reduction. We have a need or drive, like hunger, and we seek to satisfy it. When we get what we want to meet the need, we’re happy. However, lasting success and fulfillment in life comes from what you give, not what you get. The greatest example of this is Jesus and his demonstration of servant leadership. This ancient truth is echoed in contemporary research by Adam Grant, the youngest tenured and highest rated professor at The Wharton School. In his book Give and Take, Grant identifies three ways people tend to operate in their relationships: as givers, takers, or matchers. Not surprisingly, although givers may get burned occasionally, they experience higher levels of fulfillment, well-being, and success in life compared to takers or matchers. I’ve experienced it in my own life and seen it in the lives of others. Those who chase happiness as their primary goal tend to be the most selfish and unhappy people I know. Those who give to others tend to be the most fulfilled, joyful, and happy people I’ve seen.

Happiness is a great thing. As I said, I much prefer it to the alternatives. But when happiness at work becomes such a primary focus that organizations start having CHO’s – Chief Happiness Officers – you know happiness has jumped the shark. Happiness at work is a byproduct of doing a good job in all the other fundamental areas of leadership, but it’s misguided to make it our ultimate aim.

Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts, opinions, or questions.

P.S. I originally published this article last week at LeaderChat.org under a different title. I thought the Leading with Trust audience would enjoy it as well.

29 Comments on “4 Reasons Leaders Should Stop the Foolish Pursuit of Happiness at Work

  1. An excellent post and thought Randy. Stopped me in my tracks and made me think, thanks for sharing

    • Thanks for the feedback Deon. Happiness at work is important and beneficial, yet also has to be considered in the whole context of the leader/follower relationship.


  2. Frankly, I don’t think we have to worry about management worrying about our happiness at work. It doesn’t happen much anyway!

    • LOL, unfortunately, your words ring true. Leadership needs to be concerned about employees’ health, welfare, and engagement, and happiness certainly is a component of that formula.


  3. Randy, I really like what you’ve written here and it’s gotten me thinking about happiness at work. I guess I would just add that each individual is responsible for his or her own happiness and I agree that it’s not the leader’s responsibility. Happiness can be contagious, though, and I’d much rather be working with folks who are more naturally happy than unhappy.

    • Hi Jamie. I agree with you. Happiness is a choice each of us can make and the workplace certainly is better off “happy” than angry, demoralizing, etc. I think it’s important that leaders focus on the foundational elements of a healthy culture (trust, meaning, engagement, respect, etc.) and not get too caught up in chasing the latest shiny object that captures our attention.


  4. Randy,

    I thinks it all depends on how you define “Happy”. I would define “happy” in life as being content. My advice would be to seek contentment in life and the marketplace will take care of itself. I do think this is very achievable in the marketplace if you first seek to live a life of contentment.
    I think Andrew Carnegie is referring to the same contentment in his quote.

    “If you want to be happy,
    set a goal that 
commands your thoughts,
    liberates your
    and inspires your hopes.”

    Andrew Carnegie

    • Great point Tim. The definition of happiness literally defines the discussion. I personally view happiness as a transient outcome of ever-changing circumstances, and view contentment as the way you described it – a deep seated joy and satisfaction.

      Take care,


  5. Randy, I could not agree more with your comments. Happiness or what we perceive as being happy are intrinsic values and are only derived on how we accept and process the events that occur. They shape and re-shape our paradigm as we either choose to remain in a fixed mindset or learn and expand our giving in a growth mindset.
    Thank you for sharing, Frank.

    • Thanks for adding your insights Frank. You make a key point about having a fixed or adaptive mindset.

      Take care,


  6. I was always taught that we do our work as unto the Lord and it is the Lord we serve. The joy comes from serving the Lord and doing one’s work unto Him. This is a way to be happy, have joy, and it just tends itself to finding good success.

  7. Excellent points, Randy. If we spend more time focusing on developing and pursuing the purpose of the organization, I believe the organizational nonsense will dissipate and better engagement would happen. We need to focus on the right things. Just as self-centeredness isn’t a good focal point, happiness likely isn’t either. Let’s focus on purpose and raise all up a level and happiness may even break out in the process! Thanks! Jon

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  10. Hello Randy,

    I am far from storming your Twitter account with indignation. Happiness is a state of mind (very unlike from chasing fun from external sources) and the only person that is responsible for it is me. Having said that I have to continue that everybody is responsible for his/her happiness at work. If the current job and work environment do not fulfill ones expecation one has to change the situation. In the worst case it means that a company looses a qualified collaborator. Well, but the most expensive employee is the one who is frustrated because frustration is contageous.

    Summary: I disagree with you that happiness at work is unimportant but I agree that nobody is responsible for that.



    • Brigitte – Thanks for your thoughtful reply. We are in agreement that each of us is responsible for determining our own level of happiness. It’s not that I think happiness at work is unimportant because it is. However, I think leaders would be better off focusing on building a culture of engagement, purpose, and meaning, which will most likely lead to happy, productive employees.

      Take care,


      • Thank you for your explanation. I think we are on the same page here. A good leader is hardly everybody’s darling 😉 as nobody who has an opinion is. So if I understand you correclty all you want is that people within an organisation agree on the same purpose. This is a philosophy I sign up to anytime.

        Read and comment you next week. Brigitte

  11. I think many people confuse office/corporate perks with happiness. Many companies like Google offer fantastic working conditions, and perks to “keep their employees happy” but in the end this is really about retention efforts, and attracting talent. The scope of their job, balancing their workload, and rewarding successes is what makes most employees truly happy, not having a ping pong table in the break room.

    • Michael – You said it perfectly! Happiness at work is not about ping pong tables, nap rooms, and desk massages…it’s about the good, fundamental leadership practices that you mention.


  12. Randy:

    As you said before, the definition of “Happiness” defines the conversation. The definition you chose is a valid, although partial one. I feel that using a more nuanced approach might be useful. As an example, in cognitive psychology Emotion is defined as a transient response to stimuli, while Dispositional Affect is a more stable, personality based predisposition. It´s a bit like the distinction between transient weather and overall climate.

    Using these definitions, one could say that most of your criticism is directed to the pursuit of employee “emotional” happiness (ie transient reaction to “the leader serving ice cream”). However this is not what scholars and serious practitioners mean with “Employee happiness”. Most serious research actually focuses on a more stable, meaning based, dispositional kind of happiness at work. In other words, characterizing the Happiness-at-work practice as looking for the pursuit of transient happiness is a straw man argument, as this field covers much more than that and explicitely aims at

    Hertzberg’s distinction between “satisfaction” and “motivation” also comes to mind… Anyways, thanks for the insightful post!

    • Felipe – Great distinctions, and as you mentioned, the definition of happiness is key to the discussion. Scholars and practitioners may have a grasp on the deeper meanings, while most run of the mill managers and leaders may not possess the same level of expertise. For the average leader to think he/she can be a success (and help their team/org be a success) by simply focusing on an employee’s happiness, while disregarding more fundamental, practical, and impactful leadership methods, is misguided (in my opinion).

      Thanks for adding your insights to the discussion. It’s an important topic to address.


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