The Pursuit of Employee Happiness

by Mark Daniel Suwyn

Recently, in three vastly different venues, three CEOs tried to make the case for using technology to create “happy employees:”

  • The CEO of Wells Fargo described in Fortune magazine how he uses an app to create a daily “happy-or-grumpy” index of employee mood.
  • The founder of Upworthy argued employees have the right to be happy at work.

But what really matters is the pursuit of employee happiness, not the measurement of it.

Happiness confuses culture with biology — and emotions with decisions

This fixation on “happiness” is evidence of a significant change in people’s relationship with work. It also signals a dangerous, knee-jerk reaction to employee concerns that confuse culture with biology and emotions with decisions.

In fact, our research shows that having “happy employees” is not a goal worthy of an organization’s energy and brainpower. Not only can it be insulting to employees, but it’s also counterproductive for business goals when leaders insist on happiness.

What we think of as “happiness” is actually a biological process

Neuropeptides attaching to receptors and stimulating an electrical charge on neurons. There are no “good” or “bad” emotions. I can be happy when my rival fails. Fear can keep me from making a critical mistake. In both cases, the initial emotion is a chemical reaction in the brain that lasts for only seconds, at most. Then a decision has to be made to either cling to the initial emotion or take a deep breath and respond differently.

Either way, emotions are decisions made in response to stimuli. Measuring happiness suggests that being constantly happy is good. It is, in fact, a sign of mental illness. And as Thomas Jefferson noted, all a country — or a company — can guarantee is the “pursuit of happiness.”

Employee engagement is not about happiness

Employee engagement is about creating a culture in which the barriers to employee engagement to excellent performance have been removed. At Energage, we’ve studied employee engagement for a decade. Our survey research tells us this about the relationship between happiness and engagement:

  • When people feel competent, respected, and part of something successful, happiness is a likely result.
  • There is a strong correlation between how well leadership is perceived to understand employee challenges and a company’s financial success.
  • Most workers today are paid to think, not simply to do. Companies that craft benefits and consequences around that responsibility have higher levels of loyalty and engagement, and thus employee satisfaction.
  • Employees and managers routinely overestimate how “happy” something will make us, whether it’s a promotion, a raise, or winning the lottery.

New York’s Conference Board, a century-old research firm, began studying employee engagement 25 years ago. Its work shows that worker engagement has fallen every year, in both good economic times and in bad. Today, more than half of American workers effectively “hate” their jobs. More worrying: As companies have recovered from the financial crisis, employee engagement has worsened.

What makes people happy in their jobs is profoundly personal

Consider these employee engagement survey questions:

  • Do I agree with the direction and values of the organization? 
  • Does my boss care about my concerns? 
  • Is the work I do meaningful?
  • Am I able to work to my full potential? 
  • Do I feel genuinely appreciated for the work I do?

We know that things like values, meaningfulness, and purpose matter to employees. We also know workers generally don’t quit jobs when these basic needs are met. In the more than 57,000 organizations Energage has surveyed, fewer than 40 percent of employees feel respected, challenged, and motivated by senior leadership.

Create an engaged culture that allows employees to pursue happiness at work

Smart leaders realize this. Within that focus, there is a role for fostering positive emotions like happiness. When companies emphasize and train to build character strengths, employees’ sense of wellbeing increases. An extensive study by the University of Zurich demonstrated companies that stressed “curiosity,” “gratitude,” “optimism,” “humor,” and “enthusiasm” outperformed the market.

To the extent these traits are “morally positive” and associated with “happiness,” both the individual and the company benefit.