The happiness trap: it’s not all fun & games

happiness at work

Do we need to rethink the concept of happiness at work?

Do you like your job? It can be a complex question to answer when everything is taken into account. For some people that question is comprised of several other questions, many of which have different answers: If I could do anything with my life would I be working this job? Is this job my passion? Would I work as many hours if I didn’t have to? Do I feel productive? Is my work/life balance ok? Am I happy?

On average, Americans put in about 1,700 hours a year, which is much more than the French and Germans, but much less than the Koreans or Singaporeans. For Americans, this breaks down to 34.4 hours a week considering vacation time and holidays, however many adult, full-time employees report working more than 34 hours week. According to a Gallup poll, 4 in 10 workers reported putting in 50+ hours per week. So are all these hours bringing us happiness? First, let’s have a look at what happiness is.

People have always had a lot to say about happiness. Artistotle said, “Happiness depends upon ourselves.” Albert Camus said, “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” The Dali Lama says, “Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.” What is certain is that we seem to have a happiness obsession. We want it, we seek it, we’re told we need it so we believe we need it.

Harvard psychologist, Dan Gilbert, believes that happiness is not always entirely in our control and not entirely out of our control, and sometimes we feel it and sometimes we don’t. That’s ok, he says. In a TED Talk on happiness he says, “Happiness doesn’t last that long. Happiness is an emotion — it’s a feeling. The human brain isn’t built to sustain a feeling over the long term…Your emotions are a compass. They’re telling you which direction to go in. When you feel bad you turn left, you try something different in your life. When you feel good you keep on marching in the direction you’re going. What good would a compass be if it were perpetually stuck on north?”

So if we can’t feel happy all the time, and we don’t need to feel happy all the time, then why are we told we should feel happy all the time? Workplaces have been increasingly focused on employee happiness. Several studies have shown that happy employees are more productive and more loyal. Even tycoon Richard Branson is on board with this idea, “Your employees are your company’s real competitive advantage. They’re the ones making the magic happen—so long as their needs are being met.” How can the Virgin god be wrong?

A new article in the Harvard Business Review has gathered many studies and theories opposing the contemporary idea that happiness in the workplace is the key to success. The authors point to studies that show that people fail to feel happy when they are expected to be happy, that people can become emotionally vulnerable and needy when they expect their workplace to fulfill their happiness, that people may be more selfish when happy, and that people who value happiness often feel lonelier. The studies also pointed out that angry employees were better at negotiating than happy employees and better at intuiting actions of deception.

Perhaps our thinking about happiness needs to shift. Perhaps we don’t need employees bounding around the office with endless smiles. Perhaps the expectation we have for employees to be happy, and employers to be responsible for that happiness, is all too much. According to Dr. Vanessa Boute, a social psychologist, “One of the misconceptions about happiness is that happiness is being cheerful, joyous, and content all the time; always having a smile on your face. It’s not – being happy and leading rich lives is about taking the good with the bad, and learning how to reframe the bad.”

Fronetics Strategic Advisors is a leading management consulting firm. Our firm works with companies to identify and execute strategies for growth and value creation.

We advise and work with companies on their most critical issues and opportunities: strategy, marketingorganization, talent acquisition, performance management, and M&A support.


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