4 Reasons Why the Quest for Happiness at Work is Misguided

To borrow from Pharrell Williams’ hit song “Happy:” It might seem crazy what I’m about to say

But I really don’t care if you’re happy at work. In fact, I think all the hype about happiness at work is a bit misguided. Now, before you blow up my Twitter feed with negative feedback or blast me in the comments section of this article, let me explain.

I’m all in favor of being happy. Personally, I much prefer happiness over sadness. If I have a choice, I’ll take happy every day of the week and twice on Sunday. When it comes to work, I’ll take happy there, too. I’d much rather work with happy people than mean people, and I know I’m more productive, creative, and a better teammate at work when I’m happy.

But here’s the deal…On the surface, all the talk about happiness sounds great. But If you aren’t careful and discerning about what you hear in the media and popular culture, you’d think that happiness of employees should be the primary goal of every leader and organization. I don’t buy it and here’s why:

1. Happiness is a fleeting emotion largely dependent on external circumstances – Defining happiness can easily lead to a battle of semantics, but a common, basic definition of “happy” is: delighted, pleased, or glad, as over a particular thing (e.g., to be happy to see a person). I’m happy when I come home from work and my kids have straightened up the house or loaded the dishes into the dishwasher. When it doesn’t happen (which is often), I’m not happy. Does that mean I love my kids any less? No. Is my life less fulfilled because I’m not happy? No. Happiness comes and goes, so it’s not something I want to build my life around. Happiness is too dependent on circumstances beyond my control for me to make it my goal. However, I can control how I respond to the circumstances of my life and I can choose to have a positive attitude. There are many times when work and life deal us a crummy hand. We have to work overtime, business travel takes us away from important family events, or we make a mistake and get reamed out by the boss; none of those things make us happy. But if we have the right attitude and perspective on work and life, we can put those situations in their proper place and learn and grow from the experience.

2. Happiness should be a pleasant outcome of good leadership and organizational culture, not the goal – My job as a leader is not to make you happy. If that was the case, then I’d serve ice cream every afternoon and cater to your every need. No, my job is to help you develop to your fullest potential while accomplishing the goals of our team and organization. If I’m smart, I will lead in a way that builds your commitment to the organization and fosters engagement in your work. I’ll also strive to create a culture that supports your health and well-being and makes your work enjoyable. Oh, and by the way, if you’re happy as a result, then great! Your happiness is not my goal, but you’re free to make it your own.

It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness. ~ Viktor Frankl

3. Happiness is negatively correlated with meaning – It didn’t take scientific research studies for Viktor Frankl to understand a fundamental truth: pursuing happiness as your primary goal is like a dog chasing its tail. Studies have shown that people who place more importance on being happy end up becoming more depressed and unhappy. Rather than happiness, we need to pursue meaning and purpose. Sadly, according to one study by the Centers for Disease Control, 40% of Americans either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose.The same study also reported that nearly 25% of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Having purpose and meaning in life and at work increases overall well-being and satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency and self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. As a leader, your efforts at helping employees understand and connect to the purpose and meaning of their work will reap more benefit than striving to make them happy.

4. Happiness is self-focused; true fulfillment in life (and work) comes from being others-focused – At its core, happiness is a pretty selfish motive when you think about it. Psychologists explain it as drive reduction. We have a need or drive, like hunger, and we seek to satisfy it. When we get what we want to meet the need, we’re happy. However, lasting success and fulfillment in life comes from what you give, not what you get. The greatest example of this is Jesus and his demonstration of servant leadership. This ancient truth is echoed in contemporary research by Adam Grant, the youngest tenured and highest rated professor at The Wharton School. In his book Give and Take, Grant identifies three ways people tend to operate in their relationships: as givers, takers, or matchers. Not surprisingly, although givers may get burned occasionally, they experience higher levels of fulfillment, well-being, and success in life compared to takers or matchers. I’ve experienced it in my own life and seen it in the lives of others. Those who chase happiness as their primary goal tend to be the most selfish and unhappy people I know. Those who give to others tend to be the most fulfilled, joyful, and happy people I’ve seen.

Happiness is a great thing. As I said, I much prefer it to the alternatives. But when happiness at work becomes such a primary focus that organizations start having CHO’s – Chief Happiness Officers – you know happiness has jumped the shark. Happiness at work is a byproduct of doing a good job in all the other fundamental areas of leadership, but it’s misguided to make it our ultimate aim.

Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts, opinions, or questions.

Randy Conley is the V.P. of Client Services and Trust Practice Leader at The Ken Blanchard Companies and his LeaderChat posts normally appear the fourth or last Thursday of every month. For more insights on trust and leadership, visit Randy at his Leading with Trust blog or follow him on Twitter @RandyConley.

29 thoughts on “4 Reasons Why the Quest for Happiness at Work is Misguided

  1. Es cierto la felicidad no es un objetivo es un camino para llegar a tus objetivos de forma plena y satisfactoria.

  2. Rodolfo – Thank you for your comments. I agree that happiness isn’t our primary goal, but it’s a result of putting in the hard work to achieve our goals and feeling the sense of satisfaction and meaning that it brings.



  3. Wow! This is quite possibly my favorite blog post of the year. I’ve had an itch that I just couldn’t scratch related to happiness in the workplace for sometime now. For me, this itch started when I read of Bhuton moving from Gross Domestic Product (GDP), to Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH). I get what they are trying to do but something was misaligned with the concept in my mind. Your mention of Chief Happiness Officers (CHO) is another rub of mine. After reading your post, which was incredible well written by the way, I think I am closer to understanding my rub with this concept of measuring happiness and using that measure as a gauge of any kind.

    Happiness is so ephemeral, and as you stated, is so self-focused and dependent on circumstances, that it is quite possibly the worst indicator to extract meaning from. Better to just put a mood ring on everyone in the country and hope for pink (the only mood ring color I could find that used the word happiness).

    What drives me and those who work for me is effectiveness and satisfaction. That might sound old-fashioned, but it’s true. At the end of any given day, I will have been through the wringer a few times and if I leave work feeling effective, them I am satisfied and can repeat that process the next day. Happiness really doesn’t enter into that equation.

    Ultimately, I believe individuals want to do their best at everything they do. No one comes to work with the goal of setting a new low for production or quality. If leadership is solid, management is empowered and functioning well, the team will leave work feeling that what they did mattered. They will feel their efforts for the day were effective, and will leave work satisfied. Perhaps people confuse or misinterpret satisfaction as happiness.

    Fantastic article Randy!

  4. Thanks for the feedback Cale! Mood rings for everyone!!

    Seriously, though, I’m in complete agreement with you. The happiness movement is well-intentioned, but misses the mark. As you point out, people want satisfaction, meaning, and purpose in their work. If we design our organizations well and apply fundamental, solid leadership principles, the rest (happiness) will usually take care of itself.

    I appreciate your insights.


  5. Hello Randy,

    Thanks for some sanity about happiness in the workplace.

    The hierarchy of job success and happiness; 

    #1. Employers prefer to have successful employees who are happy. 

    #2. Employers prefer to have successful employees who are not happy. 

    #3. Employers prefer not to have unsuccessful employees who are happy.
    #4. Employers prefer not to have unsuccessful employees who are not happy.

Job success trumps employee happiness. 

    Hire for job success and then manage wisely.

  6. A reasoned opinion on just aiming for “happiness” at workplace. Makes sense in one way – if employees are happy but not successful in their work, the organization will not benefit, and in long-run will not be able to keep the employees happy either.

  7. Excellent points, Randy. Happiness isn’t necessarily the goal. As you highlight, happiness is the result of the actions we take — what we do and how we do it. Our attitude needs to be a happy one though, designed to delight in conversations and work. Thank you for great thoughts here! Jon

  8. Pingback: four Causes Why the Quest for Happiness at Work is Misguided | Posts

  9. Pingback: 4 Reasons Leaders Should Stop the Foolish Pursuit of Happiness at Work |

  10. When companies or others who focus on happiness at work – I think their sole focus might not be on direct happiness. But it is a good starting point to understand what will be required to drive that in the organization. As per the book ‘The How of the Happiness’ – 40% of happiness is linked to actions and thoughts. How companies drive those thoughts and actions at workplace is the challenge which CHO or leaders have to take.

  11. Happiness — just as motivation — is primarily an intrinsic pursuit/phenomenon. To outsource one’s happiness to someone else such as a boss or an entire company for which one works is akin to forego the process of creating meaning in one’s own life — Viktor Frankl has it right — we are the architects of meaning in our own lives — and that meaning is the foundation to a fulfilling life. Fulfillment — not happiness — is the pursuit.

  12. Randy,

    I guess I am the only naysayer in your audience for this post ☺

    I think if you are my boss, it is in your best interest to have some level of caring as to my happiness! I do agree it may not be THE highest priority, but it should come into the equation somewhere!

    Why should you care? Well, happiness increases effort for one. If I am less than happy, then I am not as likely to give everything I have to get the job done. That might translate into an unwillingness to work overtime, or even resent it (worse yet). The list goes on from there.

    Because if I am unhappy, I am more likely to stay at your place of work versus listen to the recruiters who call offering more money. And my staying makes us more productive vs having to retrain a new person (even with a similar skill set, there is still lost production) When I am happy and a place of acknowledgement, I will take LESS money (I once took a position and within a month was considering a $30,000 pay cut to get out of there)

    I disagree that happiness is a fleeting emotion. While it may not be permanent, it is far more lasting than the opposite end of the spectrum.

    I do agree that being happy is a byproduct and not any organizations objective. But perhaps it should be.

    Happiness self centered? While I might not embrace that, my response is tell me what we do that isn’t? And my happiness is not selfish. Because I think we can all be happy. There is no lack there, so there is enough to go around. Tell me the selfishness of that again? And would you rather have someone who is driven to be happy or just to satisfy their pockets at any expense to the company? So do you put the happy in the “taker” category??

    The Victor Fanki line is apt of anything that we chase at the peril of everything else. Happiness is no different in that regard.

    So if it is just the “quest” for happiness, I might agree. But my ability and desire to be happy? It is important. We all deserve it.

    Thanks for your time and listening this long ☺

    • I appreciate your thoughtful feedback. When all is said and done, I think we’re probably more in agreement than disagreement. I believe happiness is important in the workplace, and as a leader, I am regularly in tune with the emotional temperature of my team. I try to create a positive workplace experience that makes our office a fun and happy place to be, yet at the end of the day, an employee’s happiness is not my primary objective. For all the reasons I mentioned in the article, I find that it’s a better use of my time to help team members connect with the deeper meaning and purpose of the roles, and I work to remove the roadblocks they experience so they can experience more autonomy, satisfaction, and “happiness.”

      Thanks again for adding your insights to the discussion. It helps elaborate this important concept.


  13. Thanks I think most of this is spot on, except the first point “happiness is a fleeting emotion largely dependent on external circumstances” is wrong. In my experience, while happiness may be fleeting, it is largely based on your INTERNAL (mental) circumstances. How you deal with a “crummy hand” and having the “right attitude and perspective on work and life” is what allows us to be happy regardless of the present situation.

    • Thanks for your comments Sylvia. I believe people who are self aware and conscious about choosing to have a positive attitude (aka happy) are able to maintain that perspective longer and more routinely than those who don’t. I think those who are less self aware are more apt to experience the fleeting emotion of happiness.

      Thanks for adding your insights to the discussion!


  14. Randy,

    Great article. I have often thought about the “happiness” part of my work and I decided that this was a myth, something that was always unattainable to me…why because it is WORK!

    Now when I play am am very happy, when I leave my job and go home I am happy. Work…happiness an Oxymoron to me. Now if I was Michael Jordan back in the 90’s I could say…happiness = work, never had it that good

    Faye .

    • Hi Faye, thanks for your comments.

      I think we can find happiness in work or play as long as we are in tune with the meaning and purpose behind what we’re doing. It can take some soul searching and deep thought to tap into those reasons, but it’s possible!


  15. Interesting to point out as I reviewed all the comments to this post, that the following list of words stands out to me. Satisfaction, Meaning, Purpose, Success, Choice, Actions, Thoughts, Fulfillment, and Perspective. It would seem that happiness is about as hard to define as love, neither of which should be listed in an employee training manual or leadership philosophy.

    Maybe happiness is that warming sensation on our skin when all is right within ‘our’ world. You can’t feel it in the past or in the future, only right at the instant that you feel it and internally acknowledge it. That is why happiness is ephemeral and temporary. It only exists in the now.

    As managers, leaders, and/or entrepreneurs, we should focus, engineer, and strive to build an organization where that warming sensation occurs frequently and as a result of our equilibrium with everything around us at work.

    This is an awesome discussion and I’m grateful to all who are posting!

  16. Unbelievably well said Cale. I think you’ve captured the deeper essence of what was swirling through my brain when I wrote the post.

    I appreciate your insights into this fruitful discussion.


  17. Randy, the title mentions “happiness” but the body of the article discusses “happy”. You have constructed a straw man by taking the definition of “happy” as a fleeting emotion. This grossly simplifies this complex paradox studied by psychologists for years. People can be upset or feel slighted in the work place, but still posses a long-term sense of well-being. Most of us use the term “happy” when referring to our overall life circumstances. Thus, your straw man.

    • Thanks for your perspective Donn. I see a distinct difference between “happy” (which I defined as a fleeting emotion) and “well-being,” which to me has a much broader, long-term implication as you mentioned. Much of what we read in the popular press and blogs about happiness tends to focus on providing employees more perks like nap rooms, ping pong tables, and free lunches in the cafeteria, as if that will help them tap into a deeper level of engagement. We need to connect people to the deeper meaning and purpose of their work and not on superficial distractions to make them feel “happy.”

      Take care,


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