The case for happiness

Mike Carden
Mike Carden | March 03, 2020
Employee Experience
The case for happiness

We have relegated employee happiness in favour of employee engagement. Are we missing something?

History doesn’t care about happiness.

It’s easy to find information on living conditions for peasants both before and after the French Revolution - but good luck finding anything on how much happier they were after revolting.

And even though the US Declaration of Independence makes the pursuit of happiness a fundamental right, little has been done to measure the success of this objective.

Turns out that happiness is hard to quantify. We even think about happiness in different ways.

Thinking happy thoughts

Biologists keep it simple. Happiness is about pleasurable sensations. It’s about the presence of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and other hormones in the brain. Those hormones are present simply to drive behaviour. So for example, sex is pleasurable as an incentive to reproduce.

Psychologists define happiness as subjective well-being. It’s how an individual feels about their life, moods and emotions. Researchers get people to self evaluate ‘satisfaction with life’ as a proxy for happiness, and this shows a strong correlation with other life factors. For instance, people in stable relationships are happier (although the direction of causation is unclear).

Sociologists look at happiness as it relates to life purpose. Enduring happiness occurs when a person is involved in something meaningful: child-rearing is the typical example. Parents will tell you that raising a child is a rollercoaster of emotions with plenty of dips, but most will still say parenting gives them ongoing happiness.

The employee engagement movement

Sometime in the last 20 years, the employee survey business became the employee engagement industry. Employee engagement is a measure of an employee’s emotional commitment to their workplace and can predict the amount of discretionary effort someone will apply. Because it’s based on emotional commitment, it’s a more stable metric than the traditional happiness measures. And it makes sense to measure and manage it, because an engaged workforce is more productive.

But is striving for an engaged workforce as important as striving for a happy workforce?

It is very human to want the people around us to be happy. Imagine wanting them to be unhappy; or even being indifferent to their happiness. Both of those options are called “being an arsehole”. And wanting people to be happy comes much more naturally than wanting people to be engaged. Happiness is powerful.

Spurred on by our purpose at Joyous – making life better for working people – we’re in the middle of a deep dive into happiness. It’s revealing some surprising ideas.

Happiness at work

The biological case is clear: employee happiness starts with well-being. Work has a huge impact on well-being, and vice versa. Physical and emotional well-being increase the brain chemicals associated with happiness. Employees with high well-being are more productive, take fewer sick days, are more creative and innovative, and exhibit fewer exit behaviours.

The most interesting insight from biology is this though. Pleasure only works as a counter to “not-pleasure”. To paraphrase Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens, “If orgasms lasted forever there would be no such thing as an orgasm.”

If happiness is about pleasure, and pleasure only works if there are times without pleasure, then humans can’t be happy all the time. Which is both a reality of work, and an interesting way to think about employee experience: it’s not about being happy all the time; it’s about intermittent periods of deep satisfaction.

There is a lot of organisational psychology research into what makes people happy at work. Feeling heard, and feeling like their opinion matters. Doing meaningful work. Being recognised. Being treated fairly.

But the most interesting insight comes from outside the organisational sphere: being part of a community drives happiness.

Working for the same employer doesn’t necessarily mean being part of the same community however. For guidance on building a true community, we turn to the sociologists…


Shared purpose defines communities

Everyone admires the way nurses manage the highs and lows of their relentless physical and emotional work. How do they do it? A sense of purpose and meaning - making a positive difference for patients and their families - drives long term happiness, and smoothes out what can often be a rocky road.

If the people you work with all share the same purpose, a true community is more likely to develop, and you’re more likely to be happy in your work as a result.

So where does all this happy talk lead us? If we want people to be happy at work there’s a few things we can do: Build a shared sense of purpose. Support community development. Recognise that work has ups and downs and that happiness is still possible when there are challenges.

This is the case for happiness.

Let’s revisit the French peasants. While we don’t know how happy they were post-revolution, simply being involved in the movement may have made them happier.

Revolutionaries had common purpose and community, which we know are both correlated with long term happiness. This likely helped them deal with the ups and downs of overthrowing the aristocracy; instilling a sense of happiness despite the demands of barricade building and bastille-storming.

Further reading:

Leyton, M. (2010). The neurobiology of desire: Dopamine and the regulation of mood and motivational states in humans. In M. L. Kringelbach & K. C. Berridge (Eds.), Pleasures of the brain (p. 222–243). Oxford University Press.

Baixauli, E. (2017). Happiness: Role of Dopamine and Serotonin on mood and negative emotions. Emergency Medicine, 7, 350-352.

Diener, E., Lucas, R. E., & Oishi, S. (2002). Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and life satisfaction. Handbook of positive psychology, 2, 63-73.

Gundelach, P., & Kreiner, S. (2004). Happiness and life satisfaction in advanced European countries. Cross-cultural research, 38(4), 359-386.