Investing in Happiness a Profitable Pursuit

Published in UT San Diego, January 5, 2014

First column, 2015. No predictions.

Instead we are going to discuss happiness — happiness in the workplace. Now tell the truth, you’re happy at work, aren’t you? Well, finding out how you feel is a big business. Eighty percent of firms have conducted a survey to gauge how employees are feeling. And what used to be an annual survey is now much more frequent. Called “pulse surveys,” companies send out one to two questions multiple times per year. And the questions are a bit random — e.g. “Did you have an embarrassing haircut as a kid?” and “Do you prefer Prince or Michael Jackson?”

The “big idea” behind the surveys is to mine data, to know what it takes to increase productivity etc., and of course, the single most important driver is — happiness. Now this is an area about which I know very little (how many short, neurotic Jewish entrepreneurs do you know who are really happy?), so I went to consult a couple of experts.

Dr. Aymee Coget teaches happiness. She is a happiness doctor — she actually has a Ph.D. in happiness. One of my companies hired her for a morning seminar. I don’t know if we ended up happier, but at the end, we were hopping up and down and singing the happiness song. (Shortly after that, the company got a round of funding, so who knows.)

Coget teaches empowerment, positive mood, resiliency, contentment and bliss. (If I had known this, I could have fired my shrink 35 years ago but I wonder if he would have been happy about that).

Coget has real statistics: three out of four doctor visits are stress-related, 25 percent of Americans struggle with mental challenges, 8 percent of the country is depressed (that actually sounds low given current events), and American companies spend $24 billion per year on depression disability. OY! I mean America cannot afford to not be happier since being miserable is killing our productivity. According to Coget, Harvard, Stanford and UC Berkeley have courses in teaching happiness.

So, still looking for guidance, I went to discuss the topic with another expert, Dustin Milner, CEO of Opti, a company dedicated to “positive intervention technology for population well being.” Milner wants to move employees from one side of the spectrum (miserable, depressed, suicidal and hates the boss enough to slash the tires on his car) to the other side (positive emotions, resilient, engaged, no stress, coupled with patterns of happiness and well-being).

Opti has confirmed that salary is not an indicator of happiness (I’ll remember that the next time I negotiate with my teams), but it is also not just about vacations or lunches. To create long-term employee happiness, change must occur at the organizational level. So that means assessing an employee’s personal strengths and showing them why they are a valued part of the company. But Opti also believes it can “train your employee in the art of happiness.” You can learn to practice gratitude (venture funding of my deals coupled with deferral of legal fees), and they also teach “altruism, mindfulness, savoring and flow.”

Lastly, I went to my pals at the Harvard Business Review, and their lead article is titled “Employees Who Feel Love Perform Better.” Employees who work in a loving, caring culture report higher levels of satisfaction and teamwork — in other words, they are happier. Whole Foods has a mantra about “love” and Pepsi talks about “caring” as a guiding principle.

Now, while I have been a bit tongue in cheek in this column, let me end with my clear affirmation that it is important to try to make people happy. Maybe you cannot “make” happiness, but I believe deeply in the value of trying. All the data, all the studies show that there is a clear correlation between positive feelings and successful outcomes. (Perhaps Congress could take some happiness lessons.)

Of course at the end of day, it is each person’s individual responsibility to search for their own happiness — it cannot be mandated, but it seems it can be “encouraged and taught.” If only my mother had known.

Rule No. 384

You mean it’s OK to be happy?

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