Is Happiness Frivolous?

I recently supported the World Happiness Summit as a “Tribe facilitator.” It was an amazing coming together of economics and psychology researchers, coaches, business executives, government leaders and just regular folks. Each had invested time and real money to deepen their commitment to increasing personal and global happiness. Some were motivated by “selfish” reasons; others wanted to strengthen business results; some were driven by curiosity; others by an altruistic desire to move towards world peace.

If I had to distill the three days of lecture, motivational speeches, meditation, exhibits, and group discussions into one idea, it would be this: Happiness, well-being if you prefer, is a selfless choice that benefits individuals, teams, families, businesses, countries and, indeed, the planet. This conclusion begs the question, “Why do many business leaders want to dismiss happiness as frivolous?” 

I’ve drawn three possible explanations for why executive leadership teams haven’t all jumped on the positive psychology bandwagon.

It’s hard to explain what happiness is.

We all know what happiness means for us, but it’s hard to put into words. When he spoke to us at WOHASU, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar said, “Happiness cannot be conveyed in words or in gestures.  Our being is much much much larger than our expressions.” The Western mindset can’t accept this, and we strive to define it so it can be studied. Psychology researchers each have a different definition of happiness. As our understanding of the neuroscience of behavior has evolved, thought leader Martin Seligman is moving beyond happiness toward “well-being” as the state we should be exploring. Tal Ben-Shahar is promoting the idea of “whole-being.” In the Western world that craves scientific evidence of value, it’s hard to get buy-in if we can’t even agree on a definition!

I allow both “Western” and “Eastern” ways of experiencing the world. I have my own (Western) definition of happiness, which is based on Shawn Achor’s: “Happiness is the joy we feel when aware we’re moving toward our potential.” In a more mystical way to be with the concept, I love Thich Nhat Hanh’s expression, “There is no way to happiness; Happiness is the way.”

Here’s the bottom line for me: happiness is a way of being. It is a lens through which you view the world. It’s not something you can get. It’s something that comes to those who choose to be open to it. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar concluded his address with these words: “And that which brings the stability within us, which makes our happiness strong, that I call wisdom. Wisdom for life. No wisdom. No happiness.” I thought those words were a great reminder that our experience of happiness grows with our experience of life. Instead of seeking happiness, seek wisdom. Expand the context of whatever it is you’re viewing. That broader view is what brings us to Level 6 in the Energy Leadership process.

It’s easy to question whether the links between happiness and performance are “real.”

Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage is a popular distillation of the many studies relating happiness to positive business results. One of the most powerful professional papers on this (cited by Achor) is Sonja Lyubomirsky’s “The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?” She concludes that “…happiness causes many of the successful outcomes with which it correlates.” The work, though, is a meta analysis and leaves plenty of room for skeptics to dismiss its paradigm-changing conclusions. My favorite study demonstrated that optimistic sales people at Metropolitan Life Insurance sold 37% more than their pessimistic counterparts. There are a ton of similar stories, but none definitively can say that happiness (or optimism) caused the success. So do you need proof? Or since others have experienced a bump in performance when they were feeling optimistic, happy or positive, might you accept that you or your team might also improve performance this way? By the way, you can take the test that predicted MetLife’s amazing bump in sales here.

“Command and Control” leadership approaches don’t have room for fluff.

Older, “tried and true” management philosophies, in business and in the military, emphasize leadership setting the strategy, directing subordinates to execute the tactics designed to accomplish the intended result. There’s very little room in this approach to business for happiness, emotions, creativity or other such distractions. While this approach is still appropriate for some types of work, we know now that in professions (like sales or marketing) that involve creativity, experimentation with possibilities and creation of novel solutions, command and control management and carrot and stick reward systems lead to demotivation, disengagement and poor performance.

For the majority of jobs in today’s economy, intrinsic motivation is what drives performance. Autonomy, mastery and purpose are the key drivers of intrinsic motivation, and each of these three are also key determinants of happiness! Happiness is what we are all intrinsically motivated to experience. Excepting jobs that require autonomous, repetitive tasks, all we’re learning points to the wisdom of allowing happiness as a key performance indicator into our management mindset.

So what?

If you are one of those people who has decided life sucks and that’s not going to change, there’s no need to consider this any further. You’re not ready. If you are one of those people who is already the embodiment of happiness, then please – go spread it around. This is your (and my) job! If you aren’t really there in that happy place yet, but you’re open to exploring whether it’s something that might be of value, you are the hope of the world! Whether business leader or just an open-minded human, please step into that curiosity with enthusiasm. I’d love to hear from you, understand your goals and obstacles, and help you onto what is an amazing path toward, well, you’ll see!

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