Is Too Much Workplace Happiness Really Bad?
During a discussion this week on the move toward more relaxed working environments, I was asked if too much happiness in the workplace could be a bad thing. It gave me pause. Though the question sounds simple, it really is complex. I focus on building better relationships, while recognizing that the only person you can change is you. However, ones happiness can never be solely based only upon him/herself. We are all connected. One person’s attainment of happiness could have a negative impact on the happiness of others. Is it really possible to create a workplace environment in which everyone is happy and maintain a healthy company?
Although it sounds like an oxymoron, I began to research the possible negative impact of happiness on a society. I found many articles on society’s right to the pursuit of happiness. This right has been held in such high regard as to garner placement in several historical documents, including the Declaration of Independence. With this inalienable right bestowed upon each American, how could too much happiness be a bad thing in any situation?
Though the Declaration of Independence was meant to establish individual rights, its essence was to create a unified society. However, I did not find significant information on the impact of the pursuit of happiness on society as a whole. This was not surprising given that until 15 years ago there was no real research being done on happiness at all. In the past we primarily focused on studying the impact of negative emotions. This makes sense in that negative emotions are easily perceived as a problem that needs to be solved. Impact studies require us to first understand the individual effect before we can then look out at a boarder impact. We are not far enough along in the study of happiness to have completed long-term research on its impact on society.
I did find several articles discussing the possible negative consequences of too much happiness on the individual. One article that I found interesting was Four Ways Happiness Can Hurt You by June Gruber on the Greater Good Science Center website. Dr. Gruber sited significant research that indicated the following ways in which the pursuit of too much happiness may be harmful to an individual.
1. Too much happiness can make you less creative and less safe. – Without stress we do not feel the need to solve problems; therefore, we are more likely to continue with the status quo. In addition, without at least a moderate sense of stress, we are much more likely to engage in risky behaviors.
2. Happiness is not suited to every situation. – There are simply some occasions that an abundance of happiness would make one an outsider. In the face of tragedy, happiness seems cruel.
3. Not all types of happiness are good for you. – Happiness is a broad term that applies to an array of emotions. One may feel a positive emotion about themselves too strongly causing others to be put off by them. For example, pridefulness can really tic some people off. You may feel great about that promotion you just received, but if you stepped on the backs of your co-workers to get it, they may not want to have much to do with you.
4. Pursuing happiness may actually make you unhappy. – Yes, that is correct. Research shows that it is possible to make yourself unhappy in your overzealous attempt to achieve happiness. It appears that once we decide to achieve happiness we set unrealistic expectations. Over time we never seem to reach the ultimate high we expect to receive upon attainment.
Dr. Gruber posed aspects that I had never considered. As I read her article I found her assessments to be plausible and applicable to the workplace. Reading the comments on the article, clearly some were upset by the notion that the pursuit of happiness is in any way a bad thing ever. Realizing that workplaces are made up of individuals, it helped me to identify ways in which too much workplace happiness could be a problem, but maybe her naysayers have a point. The pursuit of too much individual happiness could create a problem for the workplace. When we create a problem we now have something to solve and this helps us to remain productive. It seems that this cycle has been necessary to the development of the workplace environment in American society.
Americans created the workplace environment in this country during a time of greater enlightenment born from the innovations of the Industrial Revolution. As new technology developed the average working class man feared that he would lose his job to machines. Inventors crowed that men would not be put out of work. They simply would find their jobs easier, making it more enjoyable; thus, providing the average working class man with a greater level of happiness that until this time had been reserved for those fortunate enough to work in corporate offices. They asked employees to imagine simply having to oversee the machine that produced the hard labor, much like those in the corporate offices who simply sat back and oversaw the laborer who once provided the real brunt of the company. It was an idealistic scene.
Of course, we now know that there were truths from both sides of that tale. Machines made the tasks easier, but they required fewer men to oversee the problems and glitches that routinely needed to be addressed in order to keep the machines in good working order. As time marched on and technology improved, we moved from factories to offices fulfilling the American dream of less physically taxing employment. As Americans filled office spaces, as opposed to factories, the expectation was an inherent greater sense of happiness. After all that was the promise of the innovators. Perhaps that promise was fulfilled for a time as the Industrial Revolution made factory work easier and pushed us into a more service oriented society.
The average working class man now dawned a suit and headed into the office. Machines churned out more product than man ever could creating mountains of paper that now needed to be shuffled, if not managed. As the paper mountains grew, so did the stress. Once again we were faced with the stressors of work, albeit mental stressors. Our idealistic imaginings of more happiness behind a desk did not come to fruition. However, it eventually led us into our current age of the Technological Revolution. Those of us born of the 70s were promised throughout high school that greater job satisfaction was coming our way. We were encouraged to take the first computer classes ever offered in high school settings. Our teachers constantly reminded us how important these classes were and how fortunate we were to be entering the work force at a time when such simplicity was available. We just did not understand how easy we were going to have it.
Yet again, there was some truth on both sides of that story. Although computers were making tasks simpler, they were not yet fail proof. Computer crashes were not unusual and we did not yet have the internet. We could each produce our mountain of paper more quickly, provided your computer stayed “up,” but we could not share the information with others without having to copy a mountain of paper; thus, creating multiple mountains of paper that someone still needed to shuffle, if not manage. In addition, computer crashes meant we had to learn the “old” way and the “new” way of doing everything, for life must go on for humans, whether the computer wants to participate or not.
More importantly an erroneous managerial attitude was born from the early stages of the Technology Revolution. Older managers were intimidated by technology. They did not understand it, nor did they want to understand it. While corporate offices filled administrative desks with computers, you did not find computers in the offices of those who managed workflow. Computers were for those who created workflow. All managers knew was the sales pitch given to them by sales representatives. Conferences were held with flashy demonstrations using tried, true, and tested applications that may not even apply to the specific field in which these managers worked. All the managers heard and saw was how much more their employees could produce in a significantly shorter length of time. Therefore, workloads and hiring were adjusted to fit the promises of these sales representatives without accounting for the experience and knowledge required to operate these computer systems in that specific office’s environment. You probably guessed this already, but this led to frustration and the promise of easier jobs once again failed to increase the happiness of workers.
As technology improved and experience was gained, the workforce began to adjust to the advances in the workplace. As we entered the 21st century, it began to appear that perhaps machines and technology really could produce more jobs and provide the American dream; thus, finally society would reap the benefits of workplace happiness. More people were buying homes. The birth rate was increasing. The divorce rate…well, it was still hovering around 50%, but people were figuring out how to divorce more equitably and remain civil for the sake of the small tribe to which they had given birth.
But alas, workplace happiness was not to continue. It appears that too much of a good thing (or many good things) was in fact a bad thing. As we made more, we also placed a higher value on items than they deserved. We created significant bubbles in several markets, most notably the real estate market. All that happiness came crashing down around us. Since the fall of the real estate market, we have seen tremendous inflation, decline in salaries, and a pushing out of mid-level employees. We have gone through some rough times. Many of us faced years of uncertainty and had to redefine ourselves whether we wanted to or not.
My answer to the posed question, could too much workplace happiness be a bad thing, is yes, but perhaps it is a necessary evil. As we pursue happiness we cannot always see how our lives will really change. What we perceive will make us happier at our jobs will provide some level of satisfaction for a time. It seems that Dr. Gruber is correct in that a moderate level of workplace stress produces an optimum level of happiness.
Once we become too comfortable in our jobs we create a situation that causes more stress by expecting more from ourselves. Our society was quite willing to engage in risky behavior while we were enjoying a period of good times in the workforce. We all knew that sub-prime mortgages were a very bad idea and properties were over valued by intangible factors. No one wanted to stop it and many signed their name on the dotted line for mortgages that they knew they could not afford if their jobs went south. On the other hand we have now had cause to reexamine ourselves and our society. We are thinking more about what is truly important to us all.
We are working to create places where people want to work. We no longer look at the workplace as an environment that is meant to provide an easy paycheck in order for us to buy our happiness. We now consider that happiness is found in the small things. We recognize that building personal connections among employees produces a greater sense of teamwork; thus, the company benefits from the group effort. Rather than dividing employees with cubicle walls and writing them up if they talk too much, we recognize that the sharing of ideas is essential to creating a fully developed product. Integrating the thoughts of many, rather than just picking the one least flawed idea, gives us an opportunity to create an even better product. Interactions with co-workers outside of sending emails with attachments builds better relationships. We care about the people whom we actually know. When we care about those people, we are more likely to pick up the slack when a co-worker has a crisis, be more understanding when unforeseen events create unbalanced workloads, and stick together as a company when hard times hit.
As with each workplace movement in the past, there will come a time when we will once again begin to rethink our workplaces. It is hard to say what may come. One thing is certain. This current movement toward workplace happiness lends itself to building better relationships and this will be our saving grace no matter what comes our way to force the next movement. When hard times hit, companies will benefit from a more unified workforce. This concept has been proven by many companies, such as Southwest Airlines. Should employees be faced with losing employment, the connections made at work will help us get through those times together and once again create new ways of working. We run the risk of getting too comfortable and forgetting what we are really there to do at some point. This may be the catalyst for the next movement, but we will be better equipped to come together as a society to overcome it.