The Research We’ve Ignored About Happiness at Work

Recently, we found ourselves in motivational seminars at our respective places of employment. Both events preached the gospel of happiness. In one, a speaker explained that happiness could make you healthier, kinder, more productive, and even more likely to get promoted.

The other seminar involved mandatory dancing of the wilder kind. It was supposed to fill our bodies with joy. It also prompted one of us to sneak out and take refuge in the nearest bathroom.

Ever since a group of scientists switched the lights on and off at the Hawthorne factory in the mid-1920s, scholars and executives alike have been obsessed with increasing their employees’ productivity. In particular, happiness as a way to boost productivity seems to have gained increased traction in corporate circles as of late. Firms spend money on happiness coaches, team-building exercises, gameplays, funsultants, and Chief Happiness Officers (yes, you’ll find one of those at Google ). These activities and titles may appear jovial, or even bizarre, but companies are taking them extremely seriously. Should they?

When you look closely at the research — which we did after the dancing incident — it’s actually not clear that encouraging happiness at work is always a good idea. Sure, there is evidence to suggest that happy employees are less likely to leave, more likely to satisfy customers, are safer, and more likely to engage in citizenship behavior. However, we also discovered alternate findings, which indicates that some of the taken-for-granted wisdoms about what happiness can achieve in the workplace are mere myths.

what happiness is

To start, we don’t really know what happiness is, or how to measure it. Measuring happiness is about as easy as taking the temperature of the soul or determining the exact color of love. As Darrin M. McMahon shows in his illuminating study Happiness: A History , ever since the 6th Century B.C., when Croseus is said to have quipped “No one who lives is happy,” we have seen this slippery concept being a proxy for all sorts of other concepts, from pleasure and joy to plenitude and contentment. Being happy in the moment, Samuel Johnson said, could be achieved only when drunk. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, happiness was to lie in a boat, drifting aimlessly, feeling like a God (not exactly the picture of productivity). 

And just because we have more advanced technology today doesn’t mean we’re any closer to pinning down a definition, as Will Davies reminds us in his new book The Happiness Industry. He concludes that even as we have developed more advanced techniques for measuring emotions and predicting behaviors, we have also adopted increasingly simplified notions of what it means to be human, let alone what it means to pursue happiness. A brain scan that lights up may seem like it’s telling us something concrete about an elusive emotion, for example, when it actually isn’t.

Happiness doesn’t necessarily lead to increased productivity. A stream of research shows some contradictory results about the relationship between happiness — which is often defined as “job satisfaction” — and productivity. One study on British supermarkets even suggests there might be a negative correlation between job satisfaction and corporate productivity: The more miserable the employees were, the better the profits. Sure, other studies have pointed in the opposite direction, saying that there is a link between feeling content with work and being productive. But even these studies, when considered as a whole, demonstrates a relatively weak correlation.

Happiness can be exhausting. The pursuit of happiness may not be wholly effective, but it doesn’t really hurt, right? Wrong. Ever since the 18th century, people have been pointing out that the demand to be happy brings with it a heavy burden, a responsibility that can never be perfectly fulfilled. Focusing on happiness can actually make us feel less happy.

A psychological experiment recently demonstrated this. The researchers asked their subjects to watch a film that would usually make them happy — a figure skater winning a medal. But before watching the film, half of the group was asked to read out a statement about the importance of happiness in life. The other half did not. The researchers were surprised to find that those who had read the statement about the importance of happiness actually were less happy after watching the film. Essentially, when happiness becomes a duty, it can make people feel worse if they fail to accomplish it.

This is particularly problematic at the present era, where happiness is preached as a moral obligation. As the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner put it: “Unhappiness is not only unhappiness; it is, worse yet, a failure to be happy.”

It won’t necessarily get you through the work day. If you have worked in a front-line customer service job, like a call center or fast food restaurant, you know that being upbeat is not an option. It’s compulsory. And as tiring as this may be, it makes some sense when you’re in front of customers.

But today, many non-customer facing employees are also asked to be upbeat. This could have some unforeseen consequences. One study found that people who were in a good mood were worse at picking out acts of deception than those who were in a bad mood. Another piece of research found that people who were angry during a negotiation achieve better outcomes than people who are happy. This suggests that being happy all the time may not be good for all aspects of our work, or jobs that rely heavily on certain abilities. In fact, for some things, happiness can actually make us perform worse.

Happiness could damage your relationship with your boss. If we believe that work is where we will find happiness, we might, in some cases, start to mistake our boss for a surrogate spouse or parent. In her study of a media company , Susanne Ekmann found that those who expected work to make them happy would often become emotionally needy. They wanted their managers to provide them with a steady stream of recognition and emotional reassurance. And when not receiving the expected emotional response (which was often), these employees felt neglected and started overreacting. Even minor setbacks were interpreted as clear evidence of rejection by their bosses. So in many ways, expecting a boss to bring happiness makes us emotionally vulnerable.

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It could also hurt your relationship with friends and family. In her book Cold Intimacies Eva Illouz noticed a strange side effect of people trying to live more emotionally at work: They started to treat their private lives like work tasks. The people she spoke with saw their personal lives as things needed to be carefully administered using a range of tools and techniques they had learned from corporate life. As a result, their home lives became increasingly cold and calculating. It was no wonder, then, that many of the people she spoke with preferred to spend time at work rather than at home.

It could make losing your job that much more devastating. If we expect the workplace to provide happiness and meaning in our life, we become dangerously dependent on it. When studying professionals, Richard Sennett 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 loosing an income – they were loosing 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 could make you selfish. Being happy makes you a better person, right? Not so, according to an interesting piece of research . Participants were given lottery tickets, and then given a choice about how many tickets they wanted to give to others and how many they wished to keep for themselves. Those who were in a good mood ended up keeping more tickets for themselves. This suggests that, at least in some settings, being happy does not necessarily mean we will be generous. In fact, the opposite could be true.

It could also make you lonely. In one experiment , psychologists asked a number of people to keep a detailed diary for two weeks. What they found at the end of the study was that those who greatly valued happiness also felt lonelier. It seems that focusing too much on the pursuit of happiness can make us feel more disconnected from other people.

So why, contrary to all of this evidence, do we continue to hold on to the belief that happiness can improve a workplace? The answer, according to one study, comes down to aesthetics and ideology. Happiness is a convenient idea that looks good on paper (the aesthetic part). But it’s also an idea that helps us shy away from more serious issues at work, such as conflicts and workplace politics (the ideological part).

When we assume that happy workers are better workers, 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. Invoking happiness, in all its ambiguity, is an excellent way of getting away with controversial decisions, such as letting people go. As Barbara Ehrenreich points out in her book Bright-Sided , positive messages about happiness have proved particularly popular in times of crisis and mass layoffs.

Given all these potential problems, we think there is a strong case for rethinking our expectation that work should always make us happy. It can be exhausting, make us overreact, drain our personal life of meaning, increase our vulnerability, make us more gullible, selfish and lonely. Most striking is that consciously pursuing happiness can actually drain the sense of joy we usually get from the really good things we experience.

In reality, work — like all other aspects of life — is likely to make us feel a wide range of emotions. If your job feels depressing and meaningless, it might be because it is depressing and meaningless. Pretending otherwise can just make it worse. 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.