Not To Get Too Sappy But People Work Better Happy

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, May 23, 2016

Happy, happy, happy – yuk.

Happiness is big business, and it is studied incessantly. Papers on happiness are published in Science Magazine, people who study happiness win Nobel prizes, and everyone wants to measure just how happy you are.

Happiness in the workplace really matters. Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard Business School professor, has done some studies in this area. “Employees are happiest when they are trying to achieve goals that are difficult but not out of reach,” he says. This reminds me of my yoga teacher (or any trainer) who pushes me hard, but not so hard that I pick up my mat and walk out. Namaste to you, pal. The lesson here as a leader is to set goals that can be reached – but not too easily.

Gilbert points out that we “synthesize” happiness – which is code for we always find silver linings, and we have the human desire to make lemonade out of lemons. If you go blind or lose a fortune, he says “you’ll find that there’s a whole new life on the other side of those events.” (Listen, Gilbert, I’ll take your word for it.) He says we would learn to be just as happy as we were before – before your wife divorced you, took the children, moved to Arkansas, bought a pickup, fell in love with a rodeo rider, and got a good lawyer who took you for 89 percent of your assets. But Gilbert promises that you will find a way to smile.

So now let’s take happiness (or the lack thereof) into the entrepreneurial office. Are contented employees the most productive employees, or is it better to keep people a little uncomfortable, a little anxious about losing their jobs? (Think Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, etc.) The studies are clear. Challenge and threat are not the same thing, and reward and encouragement always work better for your team.

Is frequency of positive experiences more important than intensity of them? It is the little things, the dozen small things on a regular basis that really set the happiness barometer. That argues for pizza on Fridays, rather than a massive, expensive Christmas party. Gilbert tells us to kiss your partner, sneak a french fry, wear comfortable shoes, and your productivity will increase. (The problem with happiness is that it is obvious – but elusive.)

Another big idea on happiness is that it is “moment to moment.” Humans calibrate their happiness hundreds of times a day, and small stuff (whether annoying or satisfying) has a big impact. One of the researchers, Matt Killingsworth, has built an “experience-sampling application” called Track Your Happiness. It queries you multiple times per day, checking on your emotional state. Killingsworth is exploring not if you are happy, but rather “when you are happy.”

On a personal note, I had breakfast recently with an old friend, an investment-banking analyst, and he looked great. He said he was happy. Turns out he had given up drinking, cut up his Net Jet card, started yoga, stopped yelling at his wife, sold his race cars and is leaving his job, which he hates. Duh.

I can tell you that I spend a lot of time at my various companies checking on people’s happiness. I can actually see if they are not – it is obvious – and my job is to figure out how to help them get to a better state (without medication).

Talk therapy has benefits; train yourself on how to listen.

It is incumbent on the CEO to set a culture of happiness. I know that sounds goofy, but it is real. Encourage social interaction (volunteer at a homeless shelter), practice gratitude (I know we are going broke, but not for another five months), support exercise (the team softball nonsense seems to work). One of the most selfish things you can do is to help others. It will make you happy. (Unless you are a short, Jewish neurotic – but that is a tale for another time – on the couch.)

Rule No. 466

“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.” – Viktor Frankl

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