THE DARK SIDE OF HAPPINESS
When we’re completely consumed with trying to be happy all the time, we overlook the value of unhappy emotions, such as anger, embarrassment, and shame. Those experiences may not feel very pleasant when they’re happening, but they exist for a reason. Negative emotions help direct our attention to elements of our environment that require a response. From this perspective, artificially blunting negative emotions comes with a cost. It prevents us from acknowledging errors and adapting our behaviors.
When we feel sad for example, we send a social signal to those around us that we need help.Think about the last time you saw someone cry. If you’re like most people, you felt an immediate impulse to provide comfort and support.It’s the sadness that drew you in. Feeling guilty can also be useful. It motivates us to repair something damaging we’ve done to hurt a relationship. Even embarrassment has its upside. It tells us we’ve committed a social infraction and pushes us to make amends (for example, by telling yourself never to gamble again). Interestingly, research suggests another downside to exclusiveness: an increased tendency for making mistakes. When we’re happy, we grow confident, which at times can lead us to overestimate our abilities and ignore potential dangers. We can become more trusting, less critical, and occasionally unrealistic.
Research show that, extremely happy people reported better relationship and more community involvement, but surprisingly, they also lagged in income and education. Who collected the biggest paychecks and earned the highest academic degrees? That distinction belong to those who were slightly dissatisfied. Because these results are correlational, we can’t say for sure whether dissatisfaction causes higher levels of achievement per se. But what we can conclude from the data is this: Higher income and education are more common among people who are not continuously ecstatic about their lives.
So what are we to make of these findings?
Several observations are worth noting.
1st – happiness in the workplace is beneficial, but only up to a point. As a general rule, employees who are happy at their job are more productive than those who feel dissatisfied. But extreme levels of happiness can also interfere with work quality. Despite what we often hear, happiness in the workplace is simply not an unqualified good.
2nd – being in a positive mood can benefit some activities more than others. That means feeling happy can make us better at certain aspects of our jobs while also making us worse at others. Instead of simply assuming that intense happiness will improve everyone’s performance, it’s wise for managers to first consider the types of activities employees are expected to do. An emotional climate that’s advantageous for a team of salespeople is often different from one that’s beneficial for a group of accountants.
And finally 3rd – when organizations convey an expectation that every employee should feel happy at work all the time, they do their workers a disservice. It’s one thing to promote happiness in the workplace, but another to make it a job requirement. Studies show that the more pressure we place on ourselves to feel happy, the less likely we are to succeed. And as we’ve seen, negative emotions can occasionally be useful and actually improve performance on certain tasks, particularly ones requiring persistence and attention to detail.
The Lessons of Happiness
I. Action items for Managers
Plan happiness boosts around specific work activities.
Research shows that when we’re happy, we’re better at connecting with others, seeing the big picture, and generating creative ideas. That means that if you’re trying to get a group to bond or think flexibly-as in a client meeting or a team brainstorm-elevating people’s mood at the start by using refreshments, good news, or an interactive activity can be a wise approach. However, beware of applying the same strategy when your team is tasked with rooting out mistakes or conducting careful analyses. Feeling good can lead them to overlook potential threats, undermining their performance. Remember, positive emotions can help or hurt depending on the task. The trick is to promote a mind-set that benefits the activities you’re about to undertake.
You can get a bigger psychological bang for the buck with small, frequent positive experiences (e.g.workplace benefits that employees experience on a daily basis) than from larger positive experiences that only occur infrequently (e.g., the annual bonus). Modest workplaces perks, such as a high-end cappuccino maker or artisan pastries, might appear frivolous, but in many instances they pay for themselves by elevating employees’ moods, making a workplace feel distinct, and improving productivity.
Some perks are wiser than others.
Organizational perks can do more than sustain positive moods, they can also nudge employees into making better decisions. Having fruit and almonds available in conference rooms, for example, promotes healthy eating. Complimentary passes to a nearby gym encourage employees to exercise. Another smart perk worth considering: incentivizing employees to live near the office.
Imo, a Silicon Valley tech company, for example, pays employees who live within five miles of work an extra $500 a month. It’s by no means a small amount, yet the company views it as an investment. Shorter commute times mean their employees get better sleep, spend more time with their families, and presumably, have closer relationships with colleagues who also happen to be neighbors. When living near the office is unrealistic, rewarding employees who carpool together can also deliver considerable benefits to an organization.
II. Action Items for Emerging Leaders
Ask for variety.
It’s easy to grow bored with a job that involves doing a small number of tasks over and over. When the work we do becomes predictable, our attention falters and our engagement slips. Research shows that employees whose work involves a wide range of activities tend to enjoy greater job satisfaction, in part because variety delays adaptation. For a happier work experience, look for new ways of applying your skills instead of hoping that the same old routine will somehow recapture your interest.
Feeling unhappy can be good for you.
While the mind is designed to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, research suggests that interludes of unhappiness allow us to better enjoy the positives in our lives when they occur. When we experience anger or sadness, there’s typically a good reason for it. Noticing the way you feel and then examining the reasons behind the emotion-whether at work or elsewhere-can help you identify the changes you need to make to foster genuine happiness.
Find a way of making gratitude work for you.
Appreciating the things that are going right in your life is a basic requirement for sustained happiness. Yet gratitude is not something that often comes naturally. Journaling about the positive aspects of your day is one approach, and several smartphone apps (like Happy Tapper and Gratitude Journal 365) send automatic reminders that make the process easy. Some even allow users to take photos of positive events, doing away with the writing requirement that turns so many people off.