Everyone wants to be happy.
Everyone deserves to be happy. We all agree on that since the earliest philosophers have contemplated about the meaning of life. So there’s no rocket science in that. And for centuries people have looked for a certain kind happiness. But on the way – somewhere in the 18th century – we have derailed. We have made happiness into a quest and the more we seek it, the more we seem to lose it. Today we live in a POSH-society. People have to be Perfect, Original, Successful and Happy. There is an obligation to be happy. And we try to define happiness too often in a hedonic sense. We look for pleasure and have no longer boundaries. We want it all and we want it now. And we have not become happier because of that. On the contrary.
Employers have discovered happiness as well. Happiness is important because happy people perform better. Imagine that I would say to my wife that I want her to be happy because she would cook better (for me). A slap in my face is what I would deserve. I want my wife to be happy because I love her, not because I want her to perform better. Probably it’s the other way around. Cooking for my family makes me happy (I hope they like the food).
Employers should not touch happiness for many reasons. Happiness belongs to the personal experiences of life. People have the right to be unhappy. People do things that make them unhappy. People find happiness elsewhere (too). People derive happiness from a sense of meaning, less from single experiences. And work is not the single most important source of happiness.
Richard Layard (2011) describes the 7 factors affecting happiness: family relationships, financial situation, work, community and friends, health, personal freedom and personal values. The funny thing is that work is not the most important generator of happiness, it’s family. Even when we know that becoming unemployed will lower your level of happiness (the most important aspect of work, is to have it), the effect seems to be lower than when one is separated (rather than being married) and it has the same impact as a small deterioration of personal health.
Who is responsible?
But if health and family are the most important aspects of happiness, who is responsible for that? It’s the individual of course. So an employer cannot do much about happiness, but to provide possibilities for people to combine work and private life, personal health, … and at the end the choice is with the employee.
People are unhappy during parts of their life: losing a spouse, divorce, economic crisis, health issues, … and still they keep working. Not working would make them worse off, financially and socially. And luckily for the employers, some people seem to cope well with unhappiness. Not everyone ends up in a depression even when they might have feelings of depression during difficult phases of life.
It’s not only about critical life incidents. People are also unhappy because they compare with someone who has or earns more. This is the pitfall of social comparison. We work hard to earn a lot of money to be able to buy stuff to impress people we don’t even like. Having a big car in the driveway is for someone a sign of achievement. And to have that car, they do foolish things that make them utterly unhappy. Why does Peter’s principle exist? Because people ignore their limits and are driven by things outside of themselves. But is the employer responsible for the inner drives of all employees? Should we as employers intervene when we see an employee is leading a life that might lead to unhappiness? Or should employers exploit those drives in order to maximize output, which I am sure happens. The answer to the latter 3 questions is negative.
Happiness is a state that is the result of many variables. Employers cannot be normative about what happiness is for each and everyone. Employers might think that working hard and achieving is the single most important source of happiness. They might think that engagement is not enough, but that they need people who see their work as a life’s mission (workaholics are good to the company). They might feel contempt for people who give work a minor role in their life (work just enough to earn a living that will feed the kids and allow me to go fishing every weekend). Employers might try and save people from their dull existence and have them develop their full potential. They might want to rescue people who have lost their ambition or who in spite of their potential go for the quiet job.
Oh yes. Employers can contribute to one’s personal happiness by providing decent and meaningful work. By making sure that work does not make people sick. By providing choices (also so called bad ones). And a leader will make sure that the people in his or her team will be able to stay in balance. All of this is a lot and it’s enough. The focus should not be happiness, but sustainable employability which includes health, engagement and talent. Because this is what employers do: they employ people. If they are good at that, they might contribute to overall happiness in life. But again, the employer is not responsible for the happiness as such of the employees.
Happiness comes as it is. It’s a hidden quality of life. It’s a quality that disappears when you focus too much on it. If we want to be happy, we need to stop talking about it and take every day as it comes, with a high appreciation of what it brings: the sun on your face, the smile of a child, the gratitude of colleague, the sense of having done something worth while, … Let’s not engineer happiness.
And what about love?
After employers have conquered the field of motivation and inner drive, they went for engagement. Engagement is interesting because it brings benefits to the company and by being engaged people might even improve their mental health (isn’t happiness a state of mental health?). And after that they went for passion. And after that they went for happiness. And now they seem to go for love. And after that it’s spirituality.
Like the fact that anyone of us wants to be happy, all of us wants to be loved as well.
A husband wants his wife to be happy because he loves her. Does an employer want his employees to be happy because he loves them? Basically any (normal) person wants any other human being to be happy because he is human. We are empathic. An employer respects his employees, appreciates them, wants to help them, … but he does not necessarily want or need to love them.
Trying to conquer love is a logical step after having tried to conquer happiness, but it’s not a position an employer needs or wants to hold. Vice versa, people can say they love the company they work for (remember Steve Balmer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvsboPUjrGc) but that’s not love. It’s identification. It’s sharing goals and values. It’s part of a psychological contract. There’s even a “prenuptial”. He was basically paid to jump on stage.
Love is unconditional. That is why people can love people that do bad things, are failures in life, … Will an employer love his employees when they do bad things, or when they make too many mistakes? Employers don’t want to, and they should not, because the relationship is different, conditional, even instrumental.
And please do not accuse me of being cold. An employer that tells this to his employees cannot keep the promise of love. It’s already difficult to be kind, even though I am convinced that kindness is an essential part of leadership. Love isn’t. Not love but empathy will make a difference.
I plead not to go into the realm of personal happiness and of love as an employer but to focus on creating a context in which people can pursue whatever they want to pursue, with the condition that they contribute to the results of the company. Let’s not hide possible issues under the cloak of happiness and love. These two aspects of human life are way too important to be hijacked by employers who inevitably will link the concepts to economic profits.
Layard, R. (2011) Happiness. Lessons from a new science. London, Penguin Books.
Originally posted at www.human-interest.be