Happiness Matters. Got Some?

You know things are changing when the cover topic for Harvard Business Review is Happiness at Work. What? Those of us working in leadership with a focus on emotional intelligence, resonance and neuropsychology research have long seen conclusive links. Performance, loyalty to an organization, discretionary effort—it’s all linked to a person’s happiness—both at work and in life. That’s right: Happiness matters, in a very big way.

Teleos is grounded on the firm belief that professional development requires personal growth. Why? Because to become different at work, we must become different. Period. If I want to be less conflict averse at work, I need to become less conflict averse as a person. Research shows that we are who we are. At home. At work. Core behaviors, core skills, core defaults or tendencies are true for us across contexts.

But it begs the question: So what about people who really do act differently at work than home?

Say the person who rules the roost at home, but seems to be deferential to a boss. We all know them: quiet in meetings, agrees with the CEO, doesn’t seem to lose his/her temper at work. But at home, it looks different. That same person talks over a spouse, sets rules and expects them to be followed—no questions asked or watch out! Doesn’t that disprove this core assumption: as at home, as at work?

Actually, no. Sure, we may see someone who is more deferential to a boss than to a spouse, but that’s about power, not capability. The deeper issues calling out for development appear in both places: not letting power determine levels of openness, kindness, listening or participation. And addressing that requires personal development. If done, it will allow for a more authentic, more effective worker who can respond to a boss with respect, and still not defer. And a  person who can listen, or respond, to a spouse or kids with respect, and not expect deference.

And this circles back around to happiness. We are a social species. We are built to be in groups, not solo like polar bears, eagles or jaguars. We are emotional creatures, we are wired to receive data from our environment on an emotional frequency that helps inform and protect us. Therefore, we tend to live and work in groups, and we tend to respond to emotions. Happiness is connected to both of these realities about our species—we are at our best when we are in satisfying emotional relationships with other people. We are at our best when we are happy. At work, and at home.

So, I share with you an excerpt from HBR, this month. If this speaks to you, I invite you to read a piece Annie McKee and I wrote a few months back: Good-Bye Adam Smith; How Empathy and Awareness Just Might Save the Planet.

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Money isn’t everything. But for measuring national success, it has long been pretty much the only thing (other than, of course, sports). The specific metric that has prevailed since World War II is the dollar value of a country’s economic output, expressed first as gross national product, later as gross domestic product. This is an improvement over ranking by military victories—the most time-honored gauge. And the era of GNP and GDP has been characterized by a huge global rise in living standards and in wealth.

At the moment, though, GDP is embattled. Economists and national leaders are increasingly talking about measuring a country’s status with other metrics and even with a squishy-seeming concept like “happiness.” A 2009 study on alternatives to GDP, commissioned the year before by French president Nicolas Sarkozy and led by the economists Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi, has become a global wonk sensation. In October 2011 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—a club of the world’s wealthy nations—followed with a “How’s Life?” report on “well-being” in its member countries. Each year since 2007 the private Legatum Institute has published a global Prosperity Index, a sophisticated mix of economic and other indicators. Individual nations are getting into the game, with Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK making the biggest waves by unveiling plans to measure national well-being. There are decades-old challenges to GDP as well, such as the United Nations’ Human Development Index and the Kingdom of Bhutan’s insistence that it is out to maximize not GNP or GDP but GNH—“gross national happiness.”

As everyone in business knows, you manage what you measure. So although the replacing-GDP discussion may seem a little airy, its growing credibility in important circles could give it a real impact on economic policy. And it parallels efforts in some boardrooms to use new metrics to measure overall success. So it’s worth exploring where the movement is coming from and where it might be headed. (For more on how the expansion of performance metrics leads to new management priorities, see “Runaway Capitalism,” by Christopher Meyer and Julia Kirby, HBR January–February 2012.)

 

The story usually begins with Jeremy Bentham, an Englishman who in 1781 outlined a philosophy of utility that assessed the merits of an action according to how much happiness it produced. This was during the Enlightenment, when thinkers sought to replace religion-based rules with rational, scientific guides to decision making and life. Bentham suggested creating a sort of happiness calculus for any action by balancing 12 pains (the pains of the senses, the pains of awkwardness, and so on) and 14 pleasures (the pleasures of amity, the pleasures of wealth).

Although the basic idea of utility took off, Bentham’s approach to it did not. Calculating pleasure and pain in a way that could be compared from person to person was too difficult and messy. Economists, the most enthusiastic adopters of the concept, came to focus instead on the tangible expression of people’s needs and desires: what they were willing to spend money on.

This work reached an apotheosis in the 1930s, with Paul Samuelson’s attempt to explain welfare economics in purely mathematical terms. At about the same time, the economists Simon Kuznets, in the U.S., and Richard Stone, in the UK, were developing the systems of national accounting from which GNP and GDP are derived. They were not really concerned with utility; the main goal was to make it easier for policy makers to manage a national economy through financial crises and wars. But the combination of a straightforward metric, the belief among economists that spending patterns revealed all, and the rise in economists’ clout and prestige was a powerful one. In the 1940s GNP was adopted by the newly formed International Monetary Fund and World Bank as the key indicator of economic growth, and over the years it took on deeper connotations of success and well-being.

For its original purpose—measuring short-term economic fluctuations—GDP is not likely to be supplanted anytime soon. It may even be gaining ground: A major discussion is under way concerning whether the U.S. Federal Reserve and other central banks should in times of crisis focus not on inflation but on GDP growth.

When one moves beyond short-term ups and downs, though, things get more complicated. “Our gross national product…counts air pollution and cigarette advertising and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage,” Robert F. Kennedy said on the presidential campaign trail in 1968. “It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.…Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play.” Read full piece.

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Want more?  Read Good-Bye Adam Smith, by Annie McKee and Suzanne Rotondo

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2 Responses to Happiness Matters. Got Some?

  1. Fran Johnston says:

    Suzanne, it makes me happy to read this blog, and to settle into the perspective that the business reality is, indeed changing to consider “intangible”workplace elements such as employee happiness as central to measuring organizational performance. I am happy that we have had so many successful experiences helping leaders integrate their own values into their leadership mantra. Happily, the mantras almost always includes having their employees’ feel satisfaction and dare we say, happiness, in their work. Let’s hope that this collective imperative continues to permeate the world of work. Thank you, HBR, for putting this idea on the cover, and thank you, Suzanne for focusing our attention. Fran

    • Ann Begler says:

      Suzanne, thanks for a great piece. I’ll be sharing it with at least three clients within the next week. I re-posted on Facebook after seeing Fran’s post, thinking it was hers. Sorry for the oversight. I did a subsequent FB post. Appreciate the inspiration.

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