To 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.