Happiness at Work: Workplace as a Source of Happy Life

People rarely expect their jobs to make them happy. They may like what they do but few think of their work as a path to happiness. Our popular culture sees work as drudgery that should be avoided if at all possible. People work because they have to, because that is what everybody does, because working is part of being a responsible member of society, and yes because the money we earn for doing work allows us to have a comfortable life. For many, happiness belongs to the private sphere: relationships, family, and friends. Until relatively recently happiness was not an important factor in our corporate culture. The main concerns of business owners, managers and economists were generally about profits, supply and demand, efficiency, productivity and such like. Happiness rarely, if at all, entered into consideration as a category operational in a business environment.

A few decades ago, however, the situation began to change. Publications on economics and management opened their pages to contributions that discussed happiness. Colleges and universities introduced courses with alluring titles “What Makes Employees Happy,” “The Foundations of Happiness at Work,” or “How to Create an Enjoyable Work Environment.” Many educational institutions included a new field of studies—Happiness Studies—in their curriculum. Special research institutes devoted to happiness studies–such as Happiness Research Institute in Denmark—reflected a growing interest in the subject. Today one can even get a certificate in happiness studies from the Happiness Studies Academy. And then there were books—many of them–with titles that sounded more like a motivational pep talk than works of scholarship that they were: How to Be Happy at Work (Annie McKee), Powered by Happy: How to Get and Stay Happy at Work (Beth Thomas), Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know (Jill Geisler), and others.

Study after study emphasized the important connection between happiness and production. Statistical data showed that happy employees were more productive–actually 12% more productive on the average. Research also demonstrated that work cheer makes stock prices grow on the average 19%, as opposed to a mere 10% for companies with low morale. And there was more. A Gallup State of the American Workplace study published in 2012 revealed that employees with high overall wellbeing had 41% lower health-related costs in comparison with employees who were struggling and 62% lower costs compared with employees who were “suffering.”

The numbers were significant enough for business owners and managers to start paying attention. They began to see happiness as a way to boost productivity and lower costs in the new technological environment where employee contributions were measured in innovations and improvements rather than in the number of hours spent on the job. Happiness has definitely gained increased traction in corporate circles. Companies today spend much money on happiness coaches and consultants. Google even has a Chief Happiness Officer in charge of maintaining high morale among employees. Some jobs come with extensive benefits well beyond traditional coffee, retreats, and parties for employees. Employers think big. Large companies may offer free haircuts, health food, swimming pools, gyms, billiards and ping-pong, rock climbing walls, laundry facilities, exercise classes, oil change, and even draft kombucha—all in addition to state-of-the-art health and retirement benefits. Employees can even bring their pets to work to keep them company and entertain their co-workers.

This is not to create an impression that such extensive and even bizarre ways of enhancing the wellbeing of employees are a norm in America. Only very few and very successful companies can afford to offer such enticements. However, the climate in American business has definitely changed. For business managers, happiness is no longer an exotic notion to entertain. Many companies take the business of keeping their employees happy extremely seriously and are looking to researchers to unlock the secrets of a happy life.

Researchers have certainly responded to the challenge. Today scholars from multiple fields—from psychology to sociology, to neuroscience, anthropology, management science, and even some esoteric meditative disciplines—are probing the secrets of happiness. They have collected huge amounts of empirical data, analyzed zillions of questionnaires, and published numerous studies. They seem to have no stone left unturned. Yet despite all these efforts, we are no closer today to answering the fundamental question of what makes people happy than we were at the inception of happiness studies.

The recommendations provided by scholars vary greatly both in content and numbers. Some see happiness resulting from a combination of three or four basic factors. Annie McKee, the author of a popular book How to Be Happy at Work, sees three components essential for happiness: a meaningful vision of the future, a sense of purpose, and great relationships at work. Others go as high as ten or fifteen ingredients, and a few produce an extensive list of dozens of factors contributing to happiness.

There is no shortage of expertise. There is also plenty of goodwill on the part of the employers and managers. Much is being done and yet the results are disappointing. According to most polls, anywhere between 55% and 80% of Americans see their work as something to be endured, not enjoyed. An alarming number of Americans seem to be indifferent to their jobs. According to a Gallup report issued in 2013, only 30% of the workforce in the U.S. is engaged in their work. What is even more alarming that material wellbeing—money—does not appear to be a critical issue. A surprising number of those in the higher income brackets—over 1 million a year—seem to be disappointed in and discouraged by their jobs.

The obvious discrepancy between the investment–in terms of money, effort, and expertise–and the results may be an indication of a flawed approach. The field of happiness studies is very strong on empirical research and data collection, but very weak on theory. The empirical data banks are enormous and keep on growing. By contrast, the theoretical foundation for happiness studies remains very thin. There is plenty of confusion in the way researchers understand happiness and its source.

Much of what constitutes the current understanding of happiness merely sums up various factors that have been identified in empirical studies conducted on the basis of very different and often contradictory assumptions. It is not a product of genuine theoretical synthesis. As a result, the knowledge we have accumulated is confusing and unmanageable. Its practical application is very limited. Businesses cannot realistically try to fulfill several dozen different recommendations.

Even our definition of happiness remains vague. In trying to define happiness, some researchers, for example, go all the way to Aristotle who associated happiness with a good life—not a particularly helpful definition for making specific recommendations. Others identify happiness with subjective choices that people make; and go even so far as to assert that in order to be happy people simply have to decide to be happy. Still, others look to culture as the determining factor of what we regard as happiness.

No doubt such diverse and even conflicting definitions point to a lack of solid theoretical foundation. The result of this confusion is that empirical research goes in all directions with no coherent common view emerging. There is little coordination among various lines of research that contribute little to each other.

There is one common view, however, that all researchers share. They associate happiness with gratification. They differ in what it is that should be gratified, but the very act of gratification as the source of happiness is not in doubt. It is hard to disagree with this view. Indeed, gratification pleases us and makes us feel happy. Think of a child who nourishes on mother’s milk or a child who smiles when seeing a familiar face. Why does a child smile? What is being satisfied in this case? There is no consciousness involved at this stage of a child’s development. The sense of gratification in these cases comes from the reinforcement of the function—metabolic in one case and vision in another. When seeing something familiar the child exercises and thus gratifies and conserves the very function of seeing.

The connection between conservation and gratification is hardly a surprise. Conservation is ubiquitous in our universe. It is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of our universe. Our universe is unique. It is all there is. Nothing comes into it from outside and nothing can disappear from it since there is nowhere to disappear to. Everything must be conserved.

Conservation requires resources. The entities, or systems, that we observe in our universe are finite; and finite entities have finite resources. Therefore, in order to conserve themselves, finite systems should gain access to new resources. Access to new resources can only be gained through evolution; only by creating new levels of organization that are more powerful in the sense of offering more possibilities can new resources be obtained. Thus conservation requires the creation of new levels of organization, which leads to evolution. Through the evolution, conservation has entered the human domain where it takes a different form but its essence remains the same.

We are what we do. Unlike animals, humans are capable of performing symbolic operations. We can create mental constructs. The capacity to perform mental operations is a distinctly human characteristic that makes humans different from animals. Therefore, conservation of mental constructs is a uniquely human kind of conservation that leads to the human kind of evolution—the evolution of culture or civilization.

All humans acquire the capacity for creating mental constructs—the function that leads to the rise of consciousness—by the end of their first year of life. We still do not understand how we acquire this function. Exercising this function gratifies and thus conserves it, and gratification is the source of pleasure and happiness. Thus creation–the gratification of our human function of generating new and more powerful levels of symbolic constructs—is the source of our happiness as human beings. A workplace environment that affirms, sustains and fosters our capacity to create will be a source of gratification and happiness.

What does the creation of such a work environment take? What do we have to change in our practice to achieve this goal?

First and foremost, we must understand better the process of creation and what it involves. People often view creative work as something that is practiced by select few–artists, poets, musicians, and intellectuals more generally. Sometimes they see creation involved in what scientists or entrepreneurs do (the issue whether scientists or entrepreneurs create or whether they discover what is already there remains unresolved). In fact, creation is much more common. It is involved in many types of activities that seem ordinary and mundane. For example, relationships with other people require a great deal of creativity since one has to create a frame that is capable of integrating differences. A happy marriage certainly requires a lot of creativity.

Creative acts involve the inclusion of differences. In order to include differences, one should recognize them and that involves embracing autonomy, both one’s own and that of others. The recognition of autonomy constitutes the basis of true morality that rests on the notion that all people are equal. Such moral attitude is incompatible with domination. What changes in our behavior are implicit in this moral attitude? Let me offer one example. When we argue with each other, we often try to prove that we are right and the other person is wrong. In other words, we try to assert our dominant position. This attitude is deeply ingrained in our culture and our psyche. The moral attitude based on the recognition of autonomy requires a different mode of action: rather than try to prove that one is right and the other is wrong, one should try to construct a common frame that integrates all differences as its particular cases—that is, cases that are true under specific conditions or assumptions. The advantage of this course of action is it will affirm differences, which will enrich and increase the power of all involved. It is a win-win situation for all.

If shared by all employees, regardless of their position in the company hierarchy, this moral attitude is an essential condition for fostering non-hierarchical interactions among them—one of the important conditions that make the process of creation possible. Combination of differences leads to the emergence of new and more powerful levels of mental organization that gives rise to new ideas, products, approaches–in a word, to new values.

The emergence of new and more powerful levels of organization creates a hierarchy. Therefore, hierarchical interactions have a legitimate role to play in the process of creation. They conserve new levels of organization. Without such conservation, no further evolution will be possible. Thus, the two types of interactions are equally important. Their integral and entangled relationship plays an essential role. The process of creation requires that hierarchical and non-hierarchical interactions should be in balance.

How can this balance be achieved in the context of a business organization? What will the maintaining of such balance involve in practical terms for the relationship between leaders/managers and employees?

Current perspectives on the role of leadership vary widely. One accepted perspective emphasizes the traditional command-control approach where leaders/managers make decisions and oversee their implementation. Another principal perspective advocates a much weaker role for leaders/managers as mere facilitators, regulators, or enablers who stimulate and foster interactions among employees. The proponents of this approach recommend re-educating managers in values and merits of organizational democracy and voluntarism. Finally, there are various hybrid approaches that offer different combinations of the two perspectives.

The current approaches to leadership discuss only various forms that will allow hierarchical and non-hierarchical interactions co-exist with one another. They do not see any positive need for a close integration of these two types of interactions. As the analysis of the process of creation shows hierarchical and non-hierarchical interactions do not merely coexist with each other; they work together and in balance. It is this balance that makes creation possible.

A practice that focuses centrally on the process of creation makes possible to achieve and sustain the balance between hierarchical and non-hierarchical interactions—between leaders/managers and employees. Even though the roles of leaders/managers and employees differ, both are involved in hierarchical and non-hierarchical interactions, which makes them equal participants in the process.

Managers rely on the creative power of non-hierarchical interactions that result in new and more powerful levels of organization by combining different views and ideas. Their global role as regulators of these interactions involves stimulating, fostering, and promoting these interactions; attempts to dominate these interactions can only hinder and disrupt them, thus making the entire company less productive and sustainable.

However, this regulatory global role is only one way in which managers contribute to the whole. Their other function is to make creative contributions, which requires non-hierarchical interactions.

A business organization is a system. In order to survive a system must create new and more powerful levels and forms of organization and thus evolve. If a system does not evolve, it starts to disintegrate.

A system has two distinct levels of organization: local and global. The global level of organization is essentially a regulatory level that regulates the functioning of the entire system. In order to perform this function, leaders/managers must function at a level of organization that is more powerful than the level of each individual subsystem or their sum total.

Conservation and evolution require inclusion and equilibration of differences. Therefore, if the system is to survive and evolve, the local and global level must be integrated. Employees cannot accomplish such integration. By virtue of their position at the local level they see only local interactions and have no access to the global level. Leaders/managers can accomplish this task since they can observe both the local and the global level of interactions.

Integration of the two levels is possible only if those at the local level can observe the global level. Leaders/managers can provide such access by representing global operations in terms of a local level of organization. Such representation requires constructing a new frame that has sufficient power to integrate both the local and the global level operations is its particular cases—that is, cases that are true under specific conditions or assumptions. Constructing such a frame is a creative act since it results in the emergence of something that has not existed prior to its creation. As an act of creation, it requires non-hierarchical interactions.

Access to the global level opens the path to adaptation. By adapting to the global level of operations, local agents can see more possibilities; they enrich themselves and enhance their power. In other words, they change in a positive way. Their enriched interactions create new and more powerful levels of organization and the entire system enters a new cycle in its evolution.

The above description shows that leaders/managers and employees both engage in hierarchical and non-hierarchical interactions. Their creative relationship is incompatible with exclusion and domination. It requires cooperation and close interaction between the two in the common creative work that sustains the evolution of the entire business organization. Managers and employees are equal partners in this process. They are all involved in hierarchical and non-hierarchical interactions that are closely entangled with each other.

New and more powerful levels of organization give rise to new ideas, products, and approaches. The practice organized around the process of creation will be able to achieve much higher productivity. In fact, it can achieve exponential growth that will create new values and wealth.

However, increased and sustainable growth is not the sole benefit of the new practice. Far more important is the fact that by involving all members of an organization into creative work, this practice opens the path for each individual to gratify his or her most important human function—the capacity to create. The affirmation, empowerment, and fulfillment involved in such practice will gratify this very important function and thus lead to a happy, fulfilling, and rewarding life—perhaps the most important goal that we all crave.