Memo from the land of obvious: We live in a culture that hawks happiness like a drug.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a curmudgeon who would begrudge people their happiness. In fact, I consider myself to be a fairly happy guy.
But somewhere along the line, we seem to have lost sight of the point. Happiness has become a cultural expectation for all people at all times. Happiness gurus teaching happiness courses and writing happiness books have sprouted everywhere to help all of us – not just Americans – realize the promise of our forefathers: life, liberty and happiness.
What? Oh, right – it’s the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself that we’re guaranteed. I’ll get back to that point in a moment.
I muse often about this topic as my work requires me to consider the qualities of a happy employee and a happy company. Is a happy employee the same thing as an engaged employee, and how does this distinction contribute to a dynamic corporate culture that underlies an irresistible workplace, with top talent lining up around the block to apply and nobody ever leaving?
I recognize that by opening a discussion of the nature of happiness I’m wading into a heady pond of navel-gazers. As Stuart Jeffries wrote for The Guardian, “Every undergraduate who has written an essay on the distinctions between pleasure, well-being and happiness (as I remember doing), knows that you’re getting into a conceptual morass by invoking happiness as an achievable societal goal. Kant wrote wisely, ‘The notion of happiness is so nebulous that although every man wishes to attain it, yet he can never convey accurately and distinctly what it is that he really wishes and wills.’”
Many have argued that suffering “enriches one’s existence,” as the German sociologist Professor Klaus Bergdolt expressed in Well Being: A Cultural History. He argued that permanent well-being is not realistic in everyday life and suffering is important to one’s development as a human being. As Jeffries pointed out, “Graham Greene remarked: ‘Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either egotism, selfishness, evil – or else an absolute ignorance.’”
But how does a CEO apply these philosophical perspectives to the leadership of his employees? By inviting suffering upon his staff as a pathway to a deeper working life? Somehow, I don’t think this is the answer.
Let’s consider another perspective. In her excellent article in The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith refreshed my awareness of the great mid-century psychologist and neurologist Victor Frankl. A Jew in wartime Vienna, Frankl endured unimaginable suffering in a Nazi concentration camp, with his pregnant wife and parents perishing. He wrote the bestselling book Man’s Search for Meaning about his experiences at the camp and the lessons he drew about survival of the spirit. Frankl found that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning.
With his experience as a prominent psychiatrist, Frankl served as a counselor to his peers in the camp, many of them suicidal. Smith shares an excerpt from the book describing two suicidal inmates who were hopeless and thought that there was nothing more to live for. “In both cases,” Frankl writes, “it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.”
He who knows the “why” of his existence, Frankl found, can find the resilience to bear almost any “how.”
As reported by Smith, the Center for Disease Control has found that about 4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. “Forty percent either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose,” she notes. “Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression.” On top of that, research has found that the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy.
Smith cites a study from the Journal of Positive Psychology in which researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap but are ultimately quite different. She writes: “Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a ‘giver.’”
Happiness is a state in which all of our needs are met. But meaning transcends the self and the present moment. Happiness alone is fleeting and fades away. Meaning, while not always directly correlated with happiness, is enduring.
Frankl’s masterpiece has gone on to be declared by the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club as one of the 10 most influential books in the United States, with millions of copies sold worldwide. Its message about going beyond the pursuit of individual happiness to search for a meaning that is greater than one’s self might get lost in today’s happiness culture.
But it’s not lost at companies whose leaders recognize that giving employees a sense of larger meaning with their work is the thing that will get them out of bed every morning. These leaders understand that you can’t simply make employees happy, not with free bagels, casual Fridays or even modest pay raises.
As Jeffries notes, “Happiness is a goal that retreats the closer one tries to get to it. Perhaps happiness is an unnecessary goal that confuses us when we try to tackle real social problems.”
But tackling real social problems – while difficult, and potentially in opposition to surface happiness – is precisely what lends life meaning. Truly making an impact in the world is the very thing that all of us crave, even if we can’t always hear that need beneath our latest podcast on happiness.
“To the European,” Frankl wrote, “it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.'”
If, as Frankl and so many other great thinkers have observed, the very pursuit of happiness thwarts happiness, then the concerns of company leaders should not be about simply making employees happy. Rather, leaders should create a working environment that fosters the pursuit of meaning and helps employees achieve something far greater and lasting than mere happiness.