workplace psychology

Maybe Companies Should Chill on Employee-Happiness Programs

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Many U.S. companies have started to recognize the importance of employee happiness, which sounds like a good thing — and, sure, it can be. But political economist Will Davies is critical of what he calls the current “happiness obsession” among businesses and governments, something he wrote about in his recent book The Happiness Industry and revisited on Friday in a Reddit AMA. When positive thinking becomes mandatory, he argues, it can start to seem a bit like happiness bullying. 

Here are some of the highlights from Davies’s question-and-answer session on the ways companies are using (and misusing) the scientific research on happiness. 

On the downsides to employee-happiness programs: 

Happiness is now an obsession amongst marketers and managers, who view positive emotion ultimately as a way of influencing how people behave – to buy a product or to work harder or longer … There are some rather disturbing examples of how positive thinking is being used to try and increase motivation and enthusiasm in areas such as sales and marketing, where people are required to chant certain slogans and take part in enforced dance routines. Of course, you could say that that’s just another form of discipline, or even bullying, rather than ‘happiness’. But the ideology or mantra of happiness is the veneer which is placed upon these types of managerial interventions.

On whether it even matters if people are happy at work: 

I think that one thing that often gets lost in lots of the discussions of happiness (especially in the business world) is the possibility that happy work may mean less work. This is why policies such as ‘basic income guarantee’ are so enticing right now, especially with the growth of automated production, which in principle ought to relieve our need to work as much as we do. Many medical experts have also started to challenge our obsession with work as a basis for fulfilment, seeing it as a source of stress and ill-health.

On how he manages his own happiness: 

 Cold beer.

And how he came up with that strategy:

Randomised Control Trial, using coffee as the control.

What Good Are Employee-Happiness Programs?