Ask the CHO: What’s with all this happiness crap?

QuestionAllengirl4 asked how you can spruce up an otherwise boring workplace and Mack came back with this question in the comments:

Sorry I just don’t get this!! Work is work play is play. I cannot stand it when people “decorate” their cube etc. this is not kindergarden it is a place of work treat it as such.

Grow up! This constant moaning from people really annoys me. If you are not happy at your Job leave. How about this for a motivation to do your job, your SALARY!!

Look at people in the third world and their plight and get some perspective! Be glad you have a Job!

I believe there is relevance to Mack’s question. Why do we want to be happy at work? Why is it not enough to go to work and get paid for it? Why do we want work to be more engaging, playful and fun?

What’s your take?

38 thoughts on “Ask the CHO: What’s with all this happiness crap?”

  1. I spend more time at work that doing anything else in my life. If I’m not having fun… what’s the point?

    Salary isn’t a motivation. Salary is a necessity. Everyone needs to work to pay the bills in western society. You can get a salary at any job but if you’re spending 40+ hours a week stressed out, miserable, with an ulcer and hating your job (and perhaps even yourself) – again, I ask, what’s the point?

    I could work myself to an early grave, or I could try to be happier. There are thousands of companies out there that are willing to wager that my happiness makes them a heftier profit through better productivity.

    It sounds like a lot of common sense, to me.

  2. It’s not really that they want us to be happy – obviously, we’re more productive when we’re happy, and it’s an awful human being who actively wants their workers to miserable. It’s that their way of going about achieving this is so utterly superficial because it insists on keeping that happiness subject to corporate perrogatives. Instead of giving bonuses or providing personal rewards that make work more valuable to people within the context of their own lives, they’d rather keep their money and ingratiate people to the organization itself through lame parties, prizes, etc. I’m not saying all “fun” activities at work are bad, but it’s clearly an alternative expenditure to simply giving bonuses / raises, and there’s an institutional reason they do it: make work a bigger part of employees’ personal lives, promote the corporate identity, and hope for added value.

    At a lot of bigger orgs, the people responsible for HR and “biz happiness” tend to be people who have a very superficial grasp of the human condition, to say the least. Most productive workers steer clear of that stuff because they realize it’s just a scam, but a certain type of person naturally gravitates towards the fluffiness of these kinds of activities, selling organizational identity instead of actual value. If they treat their coworkers like kindergartners, thinking bright colors will make them crank out more product, they can be pitied for never growing out of that mindset.

  3. In his essay ‘how to do what you love’ Paul Graham says “The very idea is foreign to what most of us learn as kids. When I was a kid, it seemed as if work and fun were opposites by definition.” It seems to be that continuing this line of thought seems natural to some people. But is it really so strange to think that work can be just as fun as not work? It’s a good essay and has stired up some discussion among my coworkers and friends.

    In short though, i’d say my answer that work can and should be fun. Yes, i’m lucky to have a job and to live somewhere that has all the perks it does, but that shouldn’t keep me from wanting things to be better.

  4. In other words, happiness initiatives are about control, if that wasn’t clear. :-) There’s this mindset in the corporation that problems can be reduced to atomic units and addressed with “programs” and “initiatives”. So of course something as irreducable and complex as a person’s own life is going to be understood within the context of the organization’s available options. I don’t think it’s pernicious – it’s simply the result of a business trying to do something it’s not designed to do.

    If businesses actually want people to be happy, do the following:Pay more and reward productive effort fairlyTreat employees with respectShow respect for a person’s private life by not overworking them and acknowledging it when you do, instead of expecting itThe problem is that businesses want leverage, not necessarily happiness.

    The sad, sad thing is that business feels like it has to be responsible for a grown person’s happiness as a business priority. We really have surrendered a lot of our inner personal terrain, responsiblity, and maturity.

  5. This world has a lot of problems… most of them caused by us: the people. You name it: pollution, war, discrimination, poverty…

    However, how can you expect that people care about, say, they environment, if they feel miserable with their lives?

    When people feel powerless, they grasp for power in the most unexpected ways, like beating their wifes and kids, yelling while driving, or even spitting in the annoying customer’s hamburger. I’ve seen it (all but the hamburger thing – there’s a comment of someone in this blog about this).

    Or what about people that instead of a job of misery salaries, with bad conditions, with a jerk of boss, etc., decide that it is better to beg, or steal, or kidnap, because doing it “the right way” is too unfullfiling?

    Or when people is defensive when you ask them to recycle because they are annoyed from their jobs? Or drive aggressively to-and-form work?

    Is it really that hard to let everyone have their office decorated their way (or even undecorated, if that’s the case)?
    Is it really that difficult to respect people, and expect respect from them?
    Is it really a bad thing?
    Is it really that much to ask for a job where you actually enjoy what you do?
    Is it really that difficult that you’ll settle for less?

    Yesterday I finished a piece of furniture for my home. It was hardwork, but I was delighted with it and with the results (and I’m not a carpenter =).

    Hardwork unhappiness

    By the way… greetings from the third world.

  6. I wonder what Mack does for a living.

    Either he’s content to have his corner office, with view of the park, as a sterile professional environment, or.. he’s flipping burgers for the rest of his life.. and he knows it.

    It would be nice if we could just do our job, get paid, go home, live happily ever after, but thats not the way things work. Sometimes you have to work longer hours, put up with extra &*%# from co workers, and if decorating your cube keeps you from pulling all your (or that annoying co-workers) hair out, then so be it.

    Personally I move around the world alot, so have to travel light, and never accumulate much for my workspaces. However, I do bring an extra laptop in everyday just for Gmail and Google Reader (blocked on my work laptop), according to Mack, I shouldn’t do this and should suffer in silence all day?

  7. Oh and my iPod.. I forgot to mention my iPod. I’ve only ever forgotten to bring it to work twice, and on both occasions I actually went home to get it. (Very short commute)

    Without these “niceties” the day drags, if the day drags I get less done. If I get less done then no one wins.

  8. Hardwork “is different from” unhappiness.

    (some characters were removed… html =)

    I guess I should write

    Hardwork != unhappiness

  9. Work is work and play is play.

    Except that, in my job, work is boring when I have anything to do at all, which isn’t often, but I’m required to sit in this chair for 40 hours every week anyway.

    Also, the decorations in our cubes are reminders to ourselves and our colleagues that we are humans with lives and families. Not automatons that you can pack away into barracks or pods when the workday is over, letting us out into the sunlight one day out of every ten.

  10. Also, the decorations in our cubes are reminders to ourselves and our colleagues that we are humans with lives and families.

    Does anybody find it abhorrent that co-workers/bosses/clients need to be reminded of this? Is this not indicative of a larger problem with modern work?

  11. As far as I know we only live once. Therefore, I see no reason to spend the preponderance of my time being miserable and serious. If I were a manager I would see no reason to expect my employees to be miserable and serious all the time.

    Some situations certainly call for furrowed brows and sweaty palms. Arguably, if you find yourself in such situations for most of the work day something has gone awry.

  12. I posed the original question and believe it or not, I agree with what Mack is saying. I don’t like ‘decorated’ cubicles either, and I think there is certainly a limitation on the amount of ‘personal’ stuff that should sit on a desk, in most environments.

    More what I was pertaining to was how individuals creatively customise their workspaces in fairly regimented environments to increase their workplace happiness which in turn impacts on those around them, and in the long run probably contributes to improvements in productivity and quality of work for all concerned.

    My workspace doesn’t steer my motivation to do my job – it’s a whole lot of contributing factors together, such as salary, job requirements, workplace culture etc.

    We spend such a large percentage of our time at work, that I think it is vital that the environment in which we spend this time is conducive to happiness.

    I’m tipping that Mack isn’t a fan of the “Fish” principle which has revolutionised so many workplaces…. heaven help us that we would have fun at work!

  13. Speaking directly from the ‘third word’, I’d be very happy if I could have a job that makes me happy without worring about the salary, but it’s obviously impossible. So if I have to work 40 hours per week, and spend more time with my co-workers than with my family or friends, I think I deserve a good salary, a motivating ambient, be happy, satisfied and decorate my minuscule cubile as I want (I decorate my house, where I stay less time…). If a person doesn’t feel like puting some personality in your desk, I could figure how your house will look…

  14. My desk has reference books on particular facets of my job that I’m interested in, and training manuals… it also has some blown up landscape photos from holidays I’ve been on (courtesy of my salary! a nice reminder), artwork from one of my teammate’s kids who visits the office sometimes, a poster of the Desiderata, a poster from the last Harry Potter movie, and a picture of my family.

    Some things are there because they’re good to distract my eyes while my brain’s ticking over a complex problem, some things remind me about the benefits when things are frustrating or annoying, some things just make me happy! I spend 40 hours every week sitting in it – it’s *my space* :)

  15. Mack – Well perhaps it should be, I can think of instances here (UK) where people were being offered the chance of prizes simply for turning up to work, my personal view was that if they were consistently not showing up they should be replaced with people who would.

    Against that I fail to see how a comparativelyy poor salary and no prospects can motivate people – not everyone is fortunate enough to have a hig paying job (even within sectors where the average is high ). If it comes to that not everyone is motivated by money (this is the only reason thtat society can get away with paying some professions so poorly). Unfortunately the attitude that a salary should be motivation enough is one which allows companies to treat people like dirt – which in turn means those people have no loyalty to the company and are likely to do a lower quality job while they are there.

  16. Wow! I am really amazed at the amount of discussion my opinion raised and I must commend you all for the quality of your argument. I truly expected a barrage of personal attacks.

    I think what I am trying to articulate is that the coporate happiness stuff is trite and transparent. (Jeremy nailed this) I understand the fact that people want to be happy at work but it is the level of expectation that floors me. Western Society seems to have fooled people into believing they have the RIGHT to a happy life when in reality this is rarer than is made out, it is similar to the great myth that we can all be winners while the reality is that this is not the case. You have to work to achieve both and sitting around moaning about it will not change anything. That is why I say if you are not happy in work take action to change this by moving company, starting your own company whatever. Adding a few toys to your cube will not address the underlying problem.

  17. Thanks for all the great, constructive comments people. THIS is why I blog. Thank you!

    Wilerson: I find exactly the same thing! In fact, when I’m unhappy, I suck at just about everything :o)

    Shel: That’s pretty much the same as Herzberg points out in his motivation-hygiene theory. Salary is not a motivator, in that it can’t make people happy. It’s a hygiene factor, in that a wrong salary can make people unhappy.

    Jeremy: You’re right, some companies botch happiness horribly – and the sad thing is that they end up giving happiness at work a bad name. It becomes a tool to manipulate people.

    What the good companies get, is that there is no dilemma between happiness at work and the bottom line – they don’t need to choose either on or the other. They also have people at the top who have a genuine interest in other people’s happiness, not as a tool to business success, but simply because it’s right.

    And I think we’re seeing more and more of these kinds of people and companies.

    Geoff: I agree – there is no reason why work couldn’t or shouldn’t be fun.

    Jach: Thanks again from the great input. Yes, a difficult work situation tends to spill over into other areas of life, no doubt about it. That’s one more reason to enjoy your job.

    James: I agree. And maybe it’s not the cube decorations themselves, but just knowing that you have the freedom to do so and to express yourself. I wonder what that says about companies that DON’T allow it..?

    Constance: It IS a little about bringing and expressiong your personality, isn’t it?

    Travis: I’ve always felt the same way. Might as well enjoy it all while we’re here!

    Allengirl4: I agree, the design of the workplace is not the most important factor here – but it does matter. And it’s funny how some people like Fish! and some people are vehemently against it.

    Camila: Sure – if we decorate our homes, why not our workplaces. Good point.

    Vicki: Nice way to personalize the workspace, and make it yours.

    Mr Pete: I think we can take it a step further: No one is motivated by money. At least not sustainably and reliably. Raises and bonuses simply aren’t the motivator that many companies think, and it’s a little sad that some companies rely almost exclusively on that.

    Mack: I’m particularly glad that you liked this exchange. I agree completely with you, that many businesses take an approach to happiness at work that is just plain dishonest. They don’t really give a crap about people, but they do pretend to. Luckily, there are also workplaces out there that truly, honestly care about their people.

    And I agree that happiness at work is not a privilege, not a divine right. If I’m not happy at work, I need to act, rather than moan. My happiness at work is my responsibility – and no one else’s.

    I kinda like the phrasing in the american constitution where you have a right to the PURSUIT of happiness. If you can’t pursue happiness, something is wrong. But if you’re free to pursue it, and you’re problem is that you’re just not happy, the ball’s in your court.

    Thanks you for asking the question that started this conversation!

  18. Mack’s latest point is worth pondering, but it changes the nature of the argument (not necessarily for the worse). Decorating your cubicle might make one person happier at work just as easily as minimalism makes someone else happy there. But when that’s broken out to the context of having a “happy life” those efforts may only be contributing factors, if at all. And that’s partially because our individual lives represent our own social experiments where we go through phases of trial and error to obtain happiness. Many people probably decorate their cubicles because the seemingly happy guy next to her does – “if it makes that guy happy, maybe it will work for me.” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

    But this position shouldn’t be mistaken with a cynical or ambivalent world view. Mack’s latest point risks doing that, but within it he re-introduces us to the important concept of addressing “the underlying problem.” Being Happy is a very subjective state, but one that we have all experienced or at least percieved in the many moments that make up our lives. And I can’t help but wonder if having a happy life is merely a consistent collection of those moments. If so, maybe those decorated cubicles are the attempt to reconnect with those moments.

    Perhaps it’s not such a bad endeavor afterall.

  19. Heh, thanks for the props, Mack.

    Western Society seems to have fooled people into believing they have the RIGHT to a happy life when in reality this is rarer than is made out, it is similar to the great myth that we can all be winners while the reality is that this is not the case.

    That’s true, and it’s even worse: with this emotional engineering that the corporation is trying to do, they’re effectively selling the idea that a persons happiness is not that person’s responsibility at all! Happiness is rather something for which the worker should depend on an outside force, such as the employer. That way, attitudes can be moderated and managed centrally.

  20. Alexander: the proof is in the pudding. Caring about your employees is not reducible to policies and initiatives. Period (at least IMHO).

    I’ve seen businesses make drastic moves and have a groundswell of support from the employees regardless of the sacrifices they endure. I’ve seen businesses throw goodies at employees and they still complain. What it’s about is trust, and it’s more than just having an HR slogan of “we will be trustworthy”. The problem is that corporations don’t want people working for them, they want human resources. Trust?

    If you’re arguing to make corporations see the bottom line from the long term picture (by promoting trust and human decency towards employees), you’re fighting the entire history of business in this country, buddy. Good luck!

  21. Mack’s original response isn’t bunk. However, I think it’s fair to demonstrate that it also isn’t the final word by substituting fun/happiness for flavor/taste and work for food.

    We all should be very grateful to have food at all, since many people are starving. The ‘sauce of hunger’ (ie hunger is the best sauce) should provide all the enjoyment we need. Like the food in the Nebuchadnezzar (see The Matrix movie), it has ‘everything the body needs.’

    Fair enough…. But somehow it doesn’t have everything the body needs. We want some flavor, because once our fundamental hunger has been met, we have a whole hierarchy of needs. And I don’t think it is inappropriate to look for ways to season our food so we enjoy it more.

    Or to find ways to be happy doing work so that our rewards are more than ‘just’ a salary.

  22. For me its pretty simple. If I’m not happy, my work suffers. I am a graphic designer and my work does not fall into the same input-output formula that most jobs tend to feature. There is a very large portion of my profession that has to do with ‘spirit’ and ‘inspiration’ and other qualitative quirks. Stress and true un-happiness cause my work to suck. Its a career sinker. Advertising and design agencies look the way they do for a reason.

  23. What strikes me is the form of Mack’s original comment: “I cannot stand it… This constant moaning from people really annoys me.” One might think he was unhappy with others’ happiness. In his own words, maybe he should “get some perspective.”

    The fact is that I do not live in the third world. And I should not expect myself to live a third-world life. If I have a limp, and I meet a man who has a broken leg, should I break my leg just so I can be more like him, just so I can “get some perspective.” I think not. By the same token, I’m not going to apologize for wanting to have fun at work, nay, for insisting that I have fun.

    If it makes you feel better to insist that I have no “right” to be happy at work, go right ahead. I’m still going to do whatever is necessary to be happy at work, whether you like it or not.


  24. Happiness at work is a form of compensation. I’m not terribly worried about the money I make, and part of my compensation package is an interesting work experience that makes me happy. That’s partly because I have more money than I need (although I’m not rich by US standards), and partly because I really am worth that much, and know I can go somewhere else. I’m a human being who benefits from these situations, and my employer will benefit as well even if they don’t realize it. Some people decorate their cubicles more than some might like, but the corporate world isn’t supposed to be a sterile padded-wall environment. A corporation solves real world problems for real people, and simulating an environment internally that is counter to the situation externally is silly frankly.

    I’m glad that Mack brought up third world countries in comparison to western countries because we should consider why they’re different. Western countries are arguably more advanced, more economic, more prosperous, and more desirable. Why? Because the employees and visionaries of those countries demanded more. They demanded fair pay, safety at work, and even happiness at work. Anyone who thinks that a sterile corporate environment where one does what they’re told for what they’re paid is good isn’t looking at the numbers.

    Going back to the happiness as compensation. If you so choose, you could be paid tons of money to do work that you and few others want to do. That happens, but people shouldn’t be forced into that situation. Managers and company owners don’t have an inherent right to all of the profits they can possibly squeeze from a company and it’s employees. Hence employees do actually have a right to happiness at work as an integral part of an organization.

  25. I love my work, but since the culture is great I can stand living in a cublicle farm (barely, just barely). I do feel that I would be better personally if I were working in, say, the Red Bull offices. Environment does play a big role in peoples lives. I learned this personally by living in Hawaii and then moving to Kansas. Yeah.

  26. To say that work is work and play is play is either overly simplistic or not simplistic enough. I would rather simplify this by saying “Life is life”. Sometimes your life is about work and sometimes it is about play, but it is unrealistic to completely seperate your work and personal life. The only way as a IT professional for me to keep my work life completely out of my personal life is to not have a job and the only way to keep my personal life out of my work life is to not have friends, hobbies, hopes, dreams, etc.

  27. I do decorate my desk! I have loads of pictures from families and friends on my desk and I can not understand why some people instead of trying to ‘hang’ some nice stuff in their desk decide to hang some procedure or some work related A4 piece of paper.

    I love my individuality and I want any person to come up to my desk look my pictures and my stuff and see the real me, not only another co-worker.

    I have Ronaldo’s autography in my desk, tickets from football match, pictures with my friends on a beach. It may sound silly, but I do need to look at them from time to time and smile ….

  28. Mack: Happiness at work is the great new discovery in leadership of companies. It’s as simple as this:

    1) If the company mission is about saving the world
    Happiness is a fundamental value to a lot of people and thus worth achieveing in it self.

    2) If the company mission is about making more money for the shareholders
    Encouraging fun and happiness at work is a way of adapting the workplace to humans. Like providing chair, table and canteen which are pure basics, career opportunities and welfare are among those further ways of getting the most of the company’s human resources.

    3) A combination:
    There seems to be no good reason why a company can not have both missions and treat both shareholder value and human happiness as values in themselves.

    Furthermore there does not seem to be any evidence that we can’t all be winners. Most serious attemps that I have heard of or read about have succeeded. Of course we can’t – for example – all be equally happy and therefore there will always be relative unhappiness. But it seems to be quite possible to continue to make everyone happier than they were before – and that is probably a more meaningful definition of being a winner.

    Have a nice weekend!

  29. *keeps hand down*

    I took a job for less pay than I could have because I wanted to get out of the Military Industrial Complex, where working conditions are motivated by a rigid corporate bleakness, and into a small, dynamic company.

    Happiness is about control, not money, but money is a good indicator of where the balance of power lies.

  30. *raises hand*

    While its true money is by no means my top motivator, knowing your under paid is, for me, a major de-motivator.

  31. Pingback: Great comments
  32. Simple:
    We allready have jobs, now we just want to make it a pleasant thing to do? What is wrong with that, and how is that a bad thing to people?

    There is also a complex answer, which would include some talk of the fast paced nature of the modern world and so on.

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