The Complexities of Happiness

Happiness has been a hot topic for the past couple of years. Dan Gilbert’s book and Tal Ben-Shahar’s course at Harvard made plenty of headlines. One of the more interesting projects I’ve been involved with in this area was a half-day brainstorming session in which I brought together a number of experts on happiness, laughter, and positive psychology at the behest of a major consumer package goods company. We explored the major lines of thought and research. Given the peculiarities of academia, many of these people had never met each other and really enjoyed the experience.

You can check out a summary report of the session here: Happiness Report

I find sustainability and leadership to be deeply connected to happiness. Certainly understanding that wealth beyond a certain point does not boost happiness should be instrumental to slowing the growth, or reversing, our resource-intensive culture’s mad never-ending pursuit of the next geegaw — a climb that has us on the Hillary Step of Maslow’s hierarchy climbing without supplemental oxygen, reaching the point where the brain begins to degrade until all judgment is lost. Fortunately, there seems to be a growing realization that our deep interpersonal connections, experiences, and contributions are far more important to our sense of well being than the number of adjectives attached to our favorite latte.

If leadership is meeting one’s needs while also meeting the needs of followers, then it too is inextricably linked to happiness. Too often, “leaders” — authorities, really, try to define happiness for their followers in terms that meet the leader’s needs or those of the organization but not necessarily those of their followers: Get that next promotion and you’ll be happy (I love the story told by Tammy Erickson in HBR of someone offered a promotion that required a move to Topeka. Not only did she decline it, she quit — sorry Topeka, sorry employer). Get a raise, you’ll be happy. Get assigned to that project that will take 20 hours a day and you’ll be happy. Little attention is paid to what people actually want in life. Real leaders know that  by engaging people more deeply and acknowledging that they have some wants and desires that have nothing to do with the corporate mission, they can gain their deeper commitment to that goal.

I recently interviewed Dr. Christopher Crow for the forthcoming second edition of Renegotiating Health Care: Resolving Conflict to Build Collaboration and he identified what he described as a golden triangle that his firm tried to deliver to its employees: sufficient financial rewards to meet their needs (and in line with their peers), the chance to have professional impact (to be challenged to practice at the top of their game), and to sufficient time for a rich personal life. While the specifics might vary, this seems like a good target “happiness trilogy” for most firms and individuals.

What do you think?

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  • Amanda Crater

    Great post, Eric.

    “Too often, “leaders” — authorities, really, try to define happiness for their followers in terms that meet the leader’s needs or those of the organization but not necessarily those of their followers.”

    The key to effective positioning is to think like your audience and approach the messages in terms of their needs. While current leaders, Gen X, the manager and bosses, have been conditioned to see corporate success as motivating in and of itself – work on Saturday and you’ll eventually get a corner office – you are right, people have other needs. Appeal to their sense of balance and happiness. Work/life balance doesn’t seem to exist, especially trying to succeed in the first few years of a job. If success means working longer, harder and sacrificing the present for some future that might crumble by the time we get there, that model doesn’t work for me. I think the current pace of corporate/institutional America is toxic if people want to experience real happiness in the moment or even later. How many people slave their lives away at computers under fluorescent lights and commute hours each day on little sleep only to be let go as soon as a company needs to restructure? Know your audience – leaders, if you want to get people on board with sustainability, think about sustainability as it applies on a personal level.

    Thanks for getting me thinking!
    @AmandaCrater

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