Why Leaders Should Stop Obsessing With Happiness

What does it mean to be happy? Evolution provided an easy recipe for happiness. It is about satisfying a specific need. Are you hungry? Get something to eat and you will feel happy. Are you afraid of drowning? Get out of water and breath some air and you will feel happy that you survived. In short, you get happy when you get what you want.

Happiness and meaning

However, according to this study things are a bit more complicated. The authors claim that based on their study, “happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.” Kathleen Vohs, one of the co-authors, mentioned, “happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others.” This definitely puts a twist on things, especially considering the impact on workplace.

Will adding meaning to your life make you happy? It might, it might not. Daniel Gilbert in one of his TED talks notes that parenthood is a great example of this phenomenon. Having kids will bring a meaning to your life, but studies have shown that it won’t increase your happiness. In fact, it might be the other way around since it often means self-sacrifice. Taking care of the kids will probably make you feel less happy than having a nice meal in a good restaurant but you will be more fulfilled and feel true meaning of your life.

Additional aspect of your quest for happiness is a concept called the hedonic treadmill. A term originally coined by D. Campbell and P. Brickman describing a tendency of humans to return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events in life. For example, a person gets a promotion or gets a raise and their expectations and desires automatically raise with it so there is no long-term gain in happiness.

In the western civilization we believe that everyone has the right to be happy and we often pursue happiness as the ultimate life goal. Unfortunately, very often those who work hard on “being happy” never really achieve the happiness they seek. It is a moving target. You may say, “I will be happy when I get a promotion.” When the promotion comes you may feel a fleeting satisfaction but you won’t be really happy. The target has moved. Now you need to start working on the next promotion, or on a new car, or a bigger house. The hedonic treadmill keeps you running.

Truly happy people, or let’s rather call them people satisfied with their lives, are usually those who pursue something else and happiness is just a by-product of that effort. They have a mission. It might be something truly big that moves the civilization forward, like curing cancer or solving the world’s hunger. Or it might be more often something much more personal, like having a good family, or helping other people in general. You could say that they have high engagement in life and as a consequence they are happy.

Meaning and engagement

This brings us to the corporate world. There is a decent amount of research that says that happy employees are productive employees. It feels like a common sense, so no reason to argue with that. We see more and more companies creating roles of “Chief Happiness Officer” or similar in an effort to put bigger focus on making their employees happy. However, as with pursuing happiness in the other aspects of life, this seems to be a wrong approach. It may create a temporary good feeling in employees when you bring in a new benefit, have a party, or redecorate the office. But it will dissipate quickly and ultimately it won’t make anyone happy in long run unless you fix the other aspects of work life.

True engagement comes when employees understand their purpose in life, have their personal mission, and this mission is aligned with the mission of the company. Simon Sinek would say that “the start with WHY”. This is how cultures in many non-profit organizations that depend on work of volunteers are set up. Let’s say you are someone whose life mission is to help children. You derive your intrinsic motivation from seeing the happy faces of small kids, seeing them grow and be successful. If you see a kid who you helped, you feel proud, you feel like your life has a meaning, you satisfied your need to help them and you feel happy. If you work for an NGO organization that has the same mission, you won’t need any perks, fancy offices, or happiness officers. Your value system and your life mission will be aligned with the mission of the company and you will be fully engaged. If you go and work for a tobacco company, no amount of benefits or leadership effort will make you fully engaged and truly happy. That job clashes strongly with your values and your life mission.

Employees need to understand that they are having a meaningful impact in the lives of others. They also need to see that someone (ideally their boss) knows them and cares about them as human beings, not just as about workers.

“Happiness is not a goal, it is a byproduct of having a satisfaction of fulfilling your life’s mission and living according to your values.”

As Daniel Pink wrote in his bestselling book Drive, the intrinsic motivation comes from three sources: autonomy, mastery and purpose. I would combine it with the concept introduced by Patrick Lencioni in The Truth About Employee Engagement. He proposes that the keys to employee engagement come in the form of people understanding their relevance (how they impact lives of others), measurement (so they understand whether they do a good job), and the opposite of anonymity, let’s call it visibility (whether they feel that others know who they are).

Moreover, I would sprinkle in the concept by Cal Newport from his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Newport suggests that we generally enjoy doing things we are good at, again mastery. Many self-help books suggest that if you want to be happy you should do that what you are passionate about. That often doesn’t lead to success, since being passionate about something doesn’t automatically mean that you are good at it and someone is willing to pay for it so you can make a living. I fully agree with Newport that the concept is wrong and I would argue that whatever you do, if you are really great at it, and it is aligned with your values, you will gradually learn to enjoy it and even be passionate about it. And that means you will enjoy happiness.

Focus on engagement not happiness

So what can you, as a leader, do to increase engagement and ultimately happiness of your employees? This is an incredibly broad topic and there are many answers. But if I would to distill it into couple of key points. I would suggest that as a leader, a manager or an HR practitioner your role is quite simple:

  1. You need to set a clear mission for the company or the team and be able to paint a picture of what the organization is all about and where it is heading.
  2. You need to hire people whose life mission aligns with company’s mission and thus who will be excited by what the organization is doing.
  3. If you already were handed a team, you need to help them understand what their values are, and what their life mission is. Coaching is a good way to do it. And you may need to accept that some of them will select themselves out.
  4. If it is too abstract to link meaning of the work to the mission of the company then show them how their work affects the lives of other people. The most satisfying moments come from being able to point to a specific person you helped.
  5. You need to show that you care about them as a person. Don’t limit your conversation to work related topics but show a genuine interest about what’s going on in their lives in general.
  6. You need to provide them the right tools, training and opportunities so they can learn and be really good at what they do. The better they are at something the more they will enjoy doing it.
  7. You need to give them enough freedom to get the work done the way they want to do it, thus providing enough autonomy,
  8. You need to treat them with respect like adult human beings. Way too often companies hire smart individuals only to treat them like five years old kids.

All this sounds simple but it is definitely not easy. Even something like coming up with a good mission for the company or a team is a non-trivial exercise since you need to take into account all the various stakeholders and there must be something that your employees, customers, partners, and stakeholders identify with. Very often organizations have missions that focus solely on the needs of one or two stakeholders (often customers and/or shareholders), and that makes it ultimately difficult for the employees to identify with the company goals and thus engagement suffers. If you manage all these aspects, you will have an engaged and consequently happy employees who will move the organization forward.

And if you still don’t agree with my argument why it is better to focus on engagement rather than on happiness I would ask you to consider this. Imagine that you are dead and how people would remember you. Do you want to be remembered as “a person who lived an easy life and was happy,” or as “a person who was a great friend and mentor, and who always helped others live fulfilling lives”?

 

Are you happy? How did it happen? Do you believe the ultimate goal in life is being happy or is it something else?

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