Why Promoting Happiness At Work May Not Be The Best Idea

Should we be actively promoting happiness in the workplace? My immediate thoughts are: “Happy workers are more productive workers.” Consequently, promoting happiness seems like a no-brainer, right?

After all, there are studies that provide strong evidence for this. For instance, Economists at Warwick University found that happiness led to a spark in productivity by 12 percent. Another study mentions several benefits: increased employee retention, improved customer satisfaction, and a higher likelihood that employees will engage in citizenship behavior.

Much of the research then is in favor of actively promoting happiness, not only for improved productivity but for a host of other benefits. And this is why it has gained much prominence among organizations:

“... happiness as a way to boost productivity seems to have gained increased traction in corporate circles as of late.”-Andrew Spicer and Carl Cederström, Harvard Business Review

As a result, Google (and other large organizations) has invested more in employee support and job satisfaction has risen by 37 percent. Companies now have happiness coaches, they engage in team building exercises and Google even has a Chief Happiness Officer.

However, there is a growing body of research which provides contradictory evidence, emphasizing the downside of doing so. This is highlighted by Spicer and Cederström who mention that “we also discovered alternate findings, which indicate that some of the taken for granted wisdom about what happiness can achieve in the workplace are mere myths”. Let’s have a look at the alternative findings.

Happiness doesn’t always lead to increased productivity

There are several studies that contradict the notion that happiness leads to increased productivity, with one study on British Supermarkets even suggesting a negative correlation between the two: Companies with higher profits had unhappy employees. And even for studies in support of this, a fairly weak correlation exists.

The paradoxical effects of valuing happiness

A psychological experiment highlights the paradoxical effects of actually valuing happiness or rephrased: by focusing on happiness, we actually become unhappy.

In the study, subjects were asked to watch a film that would make them happy. Before watching the film, one half were required to read a statement about the importance of happiness. The results were that they demonstrated lower levels of happiness after the film. But why?

In the modern world, we seem to focus on happiness as a moral obligation. The pursuit thereof has become a duty and failing to complete this duty makes us even more unhappy. According to the French Philosopher, Pascal Bruckner, we would be happier, if we just simply abandoned this mad pursuit of happiness:

“By the duty to be happy, I thus refer to the ideology... that urges us to evaluate everything in terms of pleasure and displeasure...on the one hand, we have to make the most of our lives; on the other, we have to be sorry and punish ourselves if we don’t succeed in doing so. This is a perversion of a very beautiful idea: that everyone has a right to control his own destiny and to improve his life.”

Happiness may not be good for all aspects of work

Today, both customer and non-customer facing employees are required to be happy. But happiness can also negatively affect our performance at work.

One study highlighted that people who were in a good mood were far worse at identifying acts of deception than those who were in a bad mood. A second study demonstrated that angry people achieve better outcomes during a negotiation than happy people.

Happiness can damage relationships with your boss, family, and friends

According to Susanne Ekmann, by expecting work to make us happy, we can become emotionally needy ― where we depend on our managers to provide us with recognition and reassurance. When we don’t receive the desired emotional response from employers we overreact as we see it as evidence of rejection; making us emotionally vulnerable.

In a book, by Eva Illouz, titled Cold Intimacies, it was found that those seeking emotional comfort at work started to treat their private lives as work tasks. The results were that family life became increasingly cold. This, in turn, pushed people to want to spend an even more unhealthy amount of time at work.

Seeking happiness at work can make losing your job even more devastating

Expecting happiness to come from work creates a dangerous dependence on it, to the extent that losing our job can feel like losing a promise of happiness. Spicer and Cedeström elaborate on this in referencing a book by Richard Sennet, titled, The Corrosion of Character The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism:

“Richard Sennet noticed that people who saw their employer as an important source of personal meaning were those who became most devastated if they were fired. When these people lost their jobs, they were not just losing an income – they were losing the promise of happiness. This suggests that, when we see our work as a great source of happiness, we make ourselves emotionally vulnerable during periods of change. In an era of constant corporate restructuring, this can be dangerous.”

Happiness can make you a selfish bastard

In one piece of research, participants were given lottery tickets and told that they could give away and/or keep as many tickets as they wanted. Those in a good mood kept more tickets to themselves. How’s that for generosity?

It can damage personal connections and make you lonely

This is demonstrated in an experiment, titled “The Pursuit of Happiness Can Be Lonely” where psychologists asked participants to keep a detailed diary for two weeks. Those greatly valuing happiness felt increasingly disconnected and lonelier afterward.

Despite all the above contradictory evidence, we continue to promote it, but why?

Cedeström and Spicer reference one study that says it comes down to aesthetics and ideology; where aesthetically it’s a convenient idea on paper and ideologically it allows us to avoid more serious issues at work. They say:

“... we can sweep more uncomfortable questions under the carpet, especially since happiness is often seen as a choice. It becomes a convenient way of dealing with negative attitudes, party poopers, miserable bastards, and other unwanted characters in corporate life.”

So where to from here?

There are clear downsides to actively promoting happiness in the workplace. Not only is the link between happiness and productivity questionable, but it can actually make us unhappy, damage our workplace and family relationships, affect aspects of our work, make losing our jobs even more devastating and even make us selfish and lonely.

With the evidence mounting up, it is clear that organizations need to rethink the idea of actively promoting it and people also need to rethink their expectations. To end off, no one could have said it more aptly than Cedeström and Spicer:

“Happiness, of course, is a great thing to experience, but nothing that can be willed into existence. And maybe the less we seek to actively pursue happiness through our jobs, the more likely we will be to actually experience a sense of joy in them — a joy which is spontaneous and pleasurable, and not constructed and oppressive. But most importantly, we will be better equipped to cope with work in a sober manner. To see it for what it is. And not as we — whether executives, employees or dancing motivational seminar leaders — pretend that it is.”


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