This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.
First, some bad news: Your employer doesn’t really care about making you happy. Now some good news: That’s probably for the best.
Over the past two decades or so, conversations about talent have steadily shifted from productivity and career success to personal well-being and happiness. The underlying premise is that employees need to prioritize their own happiness over other career goals: “Don’t like your job?” the logic goes, “Quit it.” The simplicity of this formula is appealing. But it often leads organizations to make poor hiring and managerial choices, and employees to make bad career moves.
For starters, the notion that organizations should be interested in making their employees happy puts the cart before the horse. What employers truly care about (and this includes nonprofits and public agencies) is productivity, performance, and organizational effectiveness—and rightly so. It’s only because employees’ so-called engagement or job satisfaction enhances these outcomes that employers have a stake in boosting them. In fact, “engagement” is shorthand for a set of factors that are often mistaken as synonyms for “happiness. Unlike engagement, however, happiness doesn’t translate into higher levels of performance or productivity, and a relative degree of dissatisfaction will boost productivity and performance more than happiness does.
In fact, nothing of value would ever be created unless people are somewhat unhappy and therefore motivated to change their state of affairs. Long before the first Chief Happiness Officer was appointed, achievements large and small in art, science, and industry have resulted from people who’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to address their dissatisfaction with some aspect of reality. For example, successful innovators and entrepreneurs are energized by their annoyance with the status quo, and they channel their productive dissatisfaction into creating progress and change. Anyone who’s entirely contented is unlikely to innovate. With no imbalance to address, they grow complacent.
That’s not to say that the evolution in the nature of work over the past century or so hasn’t been favorable. Fordism and Taylorization were pretty dehumanizing, regarding employees as extensions of a mechanical system that’s indifferent to them (and alas, they’re still alive and well in the call centers and sweatshops of the developing world). True, this era saw the emergence of management psychology as a scientific discipline, but its focus was explicitly to boost productivity, even at the expense of employee well-being.
The modern field of human resources (HR) emerged in the 1950s as the average employee experience started to improve. Still, the employer-employee relationship was merely transactional and “extrinsic” from a motivational perspective. Early HR was a bureaucratic procurement entity; it turned employees into salary-minded “homo economici”—rational, pragmatic minds pursuing rewards and avoiding losses. As humanist and positive psychology took over from the late ’60s onwards, HR began to focus on employee well-being, shifting the way many of us regard work, telling people to have careers rather than jobs. We’re still living in the aftermath of this era, the age of the spiritual workaholic.
You don’t have to look far to see the fissures and failures of such a model. While large swaths of the post-industrial U.S. and Europe are angrily demanding jobs of political systems that have failed to provide them, their generally better-off counterparts demand careers—not of politicians, but of employers, who rush to deliver consumer-like experiences, boast of their robust and fulfilling work cultures, and tout employment opportunities with a grandiose sense of purpose and potentially world-changing “impact.” Only a small handful of the modern workforce can ever hope to partake of such vocational adventures; the rest are left to fight for unexciting, bills-paying employment, often with incompetent bosses who alienate and stress them out.
It’s one thing to try and find a sense of purpose within an otherwise mundane job, but it’s another to expect your job to make you happy, as though it’s a universal right. Work has always been a poor vehicle for self-actualization, which is why very few people would do it for free. And pretending otherwise adds heaps of unfair pressure on the average employee to find their “dream job.” It’s raised career aspirations beyond what it is feasibly achievable for most, and a lot of the time it backfires. Challenging goals motivate only up until a point; unrealistic goals are defeating.
What’s more, many scientific studies have shown that trying to coax people into being happy usually generates the opposite result. In other words, happiness may or may not emerge as the product of the work you do, but the work you do will invariably either drive or diminish how happy you already are—that’s why psychologists consider happiness a “collateral symptom.” It’s just as possible to do great work and be unhappy as it is to be happy without doing any great work, but organizations are much more interested in the former than the latter.
If all this sounds awfully cynical and pessimistic, consider this: First, there’s no objective indication that people over the past hundred years have experienced any significant increase or decrease in either job or life satisfaction—before the era of Chief Happiness Officers or after its advent. Global engagement levels have remained exactly the same for the past decades, even though spending on engagement has increased substantially. Second, even if businesses somehow could boost overall employee happiness levels, they probably wouldn’t perform much better. It’s not hard to imagine happy work environments where employees are having way too much fun to be productive; too much getting along can inhibit getting ahead.
After all, the benefits of improved happiness are mostly confined to the individual, not the collective. The true source of your personal happiness is likely disconnected from any corporation’s objective indicators of well-being or achievement—it’s “intrinsic.” (There’s a reason why the academic term for happiness is “subjective well-being.”) There’s no shortage of business leaders and consultancies striving to connect the work that people do with those intrinsic motivators, but the better solution isn’t organizational: Find ways to make yourself happy on your own terms—and don’t worry if they don’t match your employer’s mission statement or your job description.
This article is adapted with permission from The Talent Delusion: Why Data, Not Intuition, Is the Key to Unlocking Human Potential by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.