The pragmatics of happiness at work: It’s just good business


Much of the discussion of today’s social technologies is centered in the nature of human relationships, which is not surprising: after all, they are based on social relationships. These are tools intended to connect us together, and ultimately, shape culture.

But the strictures of business culture can often include prohibitions against discussing many facets of our lives in the business setting, even those that are human universals, like the pursuit of happiness.

I suggest that one of the side-effects of the adoption of social technologies is the relaxing of social strictures. As a company adopts a faster-and-looser model of operations — based on the displacement of strong ties by and increased number of weaker ones — many of the unexamined motivators in business can actually be discussed, and used positively.

Happiness is one such issue. First, let’s start with the almost obvious point: people who are happy are more productive, more likely to come to work, and less likely to leave a company that they feel happy in. The contrapositive also holds: people who are unhappy are less productive, less likely to come to work, and more likely to quit. So there is a strong rationale to make workers happy. It also turns out that talking about happiness helps people become happier.

However, it turns out that some of the things that are conventionally associated with happiness really don’t have as big of an impact as generally thought. Like money. After a certain amount of income, most people don’t get happier with more money.

But many things can make people unhappy in the workplace. The biggest considerations are stress. Most people do not like stressful environments where people are shouted at, threatened with the possible loss of their job, or bullied to do things that they do not want to, like taking physical risks.  These pressures can be subtle, and environments can be stressful even if the voices are low and the pressures less overt.

People enjoy living as whole people, as opposed to simply filling a role. No one can be truly happy as a cog in someone else’s machine.

There are many techniques to make work more enjoyable, and some are very simple. For example, Roger Meade learned that simply having workers share their progress — tasks accomplished — and knowing that others were aware of their progress, makes people happy. This might account for the widespread adoption of task management and work media tools were team members can share task-level progress with others. [This also has the interesting side effect of making time seem to pass more quickly, which is strongly correlated with happiness, too.] But the deepest happiness at work comes from the combination of mastery of skills, high autonomy, and the positive regard of those to whom we are most closely connected.

And it is not enough to do work that makes us happy: we need to know that it’s good for others, as well. Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy, and makes this case very clearly, and highlights some of the challenges for us:

Since humans are distinct persons but with essential ties to a community, my work must be fulfilling both individually and socially: I must do something that satisfies me as an individual and that I regard as producing significant good for others. Of course, unless I have the luck of being born rich, my work must also generate enough income to provide me the minimal goods without which happiness is not even possible. The challenge is to find satisfying work with an adequate income.

Our capitalist system makes this difficult. First, it encourages workers to sacrifice work satisfaction to higher income. People who would, say, find teaching or social work especially satisfying instead opt for higher paying jobs as lawyers or accountants. The pressure on those with artistic inclinations is particularly intense, since it is almost impossible to earn an adequate living as an actor, visual artist, writer or musician. The idea is often that the extra money will support more enjoyable leisure activities — travel, concerts, luxurious homes. But jobs, especially high paying ones, easily take over our time and our identities, and the leisure fun doesn’t outweigh the distress of not being who we really want to be.

Second, the trend toward “disposable jobs,” which expects a worker to run through, over a lifetime, a series of quite different positions to meet market requirements, destroys the satisfaction of a sustained vocation. With planning, skill and luck, it is possible to navigate the currents of capitalism to a lifetime of satisfying work. But the system itself is geared more to profit than to worker satisfaction.

So we often encounter barriers to happiness. The most far-sighted business leaders will work to decrease those barriers to happiness in the workplace, knowing that people will trade off financial rewards for greater satisfaction and a sense of belonging. The most radical step in this regard, perhaps,  is the ‘no fire’ policy, that I wrote about recently (see What does a ‘No Fire’ policy change? Everything.).

I will close with a cognitive science take on this, which approaches happiness from a more fundamental level: why do we have ‘happiness’ in the first place, biologically? George Lowenstein answers:

Happiness is a signal that our brains use to motivate us to do certain things. And in the same way that our eye adapts to different levels of illumination, we’re designed to kind of go back to the happiness set point. Our brains are not trying to be happy. Our brains are trying to regulate us.

And in a parallel sense, business leaders should want their workers to be happy. If not for the happiness itself then for its direct consequence: it’s just good business.

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