The end of happiness?

In the last couple of years, a focus on happiness became, you know, a ‘thing’.

Not just any old happiness, but happiness at work for Christ’s sake….

Just imagine, going to work, and actually enjoying your work, your colleagues, and it actually adding to your life, rather than being something you had to do in order to provide the means to try and be happy elsewhere.

After initial resistance, it’s become almost a movement. Famously there were the Nixon McInnes happy balls, where they attempted to track happiness at work and tried to increase it. But also Happy Start Up schools, Happy Camp, Action for Happiness, TED talks, online happiness behaviour change programs, happiness books, a happiness manifesto, happiness consultancies, hell, even Chief Happiness Officers. That’s a whole lot of fucking happiness…

The problem when a thing becomes a thing, is that some people jump on the bandwagon, and try and exploit the thing, without authenticity and good intent. Other people just get bored with hearing about it. Both lead to a rise of cynicism. Welcome to backlash.

The backlash eventually gathers its own pace, the thing drops off in popularity, the new ‘thing’ comes along and so the cycle goes on.

Now I do have some big sympathy for the cynics.

There’s a real danger of ‘forced’ happiness, which is a bit like forced fun. When people talk about having ‘fun’, it often turns out not be, er, not fun. See the brilliant Fast Show ‘character’ and self appointed ‘office joker’ Colin Hunt.

Colin Hunt, the office joker from the Fast Show.

‘Happiness’, like fun and creativity, are words that when over used, or even used at all, start to become meaningless. For example for creativity to be meaningful you can’t talk about it, you have to do something creative. If you say to someone you need to be more creative, you’ll probably be met with a blank expression, because there is nothing they can do with that instruction. You are describing a desired state. In itself it’s meaningless and unactionable.

Encourage them to write a story or visualise what they’re working on with a pen and a piece of paper and they might find a creative solution that they might not have seen with more linear methods.

The same applies for fun and happiness. You can’t really talk about those things, for them to be meaningful you have to experience them. Happiness is not an action, it is a by-product of doing the things that make you happy. So I understand the cynics of companies claiming to focus on happiness, as on its own it is a completely abstract concept which can feel lacking in authenticity unless it accompanied by the context and action of doing.

The other side to putting happiness at work as a goal is that it kinda implies you’re aiming for some sort of all encompassing soft fuzzy corporate state of happiness. This was the entire satirical conceit of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The book describes state designed happiness, derived from consuming mass-produced goods, sports, promiscuous sex, (“the feelies”), and most famously of all, a supposedly perfect pleasure-drug, Soma.

In the end these things added a veneer of happiness rather than anything meaningful. And there is a risk that companies appear to be doing the same, delivering superficial constructs of happiness. And the promise might simply be too big – sign up here and we’ll make you happy. Really?

It could even be argued a permanent state of happiness is neither possible, meaningful or perhaps even desirable.

When the ancient greeks developed the philosophical notion of Freedom that has become part of the political narrative ever since, it turns out they were only able to develop the concept because they already had slavery. Freedom is the opposite of slavery, so slavery helped them define and describe freedom by what it’s not…. i.e. slavery.

And so happiness can only exist when you accept sadness too. Imagine if we didn’t feel sadness. The loss of a loved one, the empathy towards a terrible news story. It’s equally what makes us human. Life would be poorer without it, as would our sense of happiness.

That is the central premise of the recent brilliant Pixar movie ‘Inside Out’, where the personification of one of the main characters emotions, ‘Sadness’, ends up being the hero of the hour, by forcing her host Riley to acknowledge her sadness about moving town so she could grieve and start to move on.

The truth is even the happiest workplaces I’ve been into are not in a universal state of happiness. They too have shit days or weeks, loss, anger, grief, and joy.

However, because there is a focus on doing more of the things that make people happy, it does at the very least feel more balanced. It’s not just a world of shit, drudgery, pain, boredom, conflict and sadness, which amazingly many work places still are.

The other truth is that many studies have shown that people who report higher levels of happiness at work do better work. It makes them more productive, more engaged, more creative, more motivated and less stressed. So undoubtedly it’s a good thing.

So here’s the rub. The language of ‘happiness at work’ risks becoming trite or meaningless through overuse especially if not matched by experience. Universal all day everyday happiness at work is a myth, and an unrealistic, even unhealthy goal that ironically might lead to more unhappiness because it’s unachievable.

But wouldn’t you prefer to work with a company who at least on some level supports the pursuit of happiness, and gives time, support and resources towards facilitating some of the things that make us happy?

And what’s the alternative? Would you actively choose to work for a company where your life is made miserable? If so, I’m sure there is a phone factory somewhere just waiting for you.

So ignore the cynics and the haters. (How can you hate happiness?).

And stop talking, and start doing. And just do more on the things that make you happy.

‘We have no more right to consume happiness without producing it than to consume wealth without producing it.’
George Bernard Shaw

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