Whenever I came across a wishing well as a little boy (they could often be found in towns in Scotland in those days), and before I could conceptualise the good life, I only ever wished for happiness. It was a calculated thought as I figured if I got happiness, I would get so much more than a single wish allowed and with only one chance, it was wise to wish sensibly. Fast forward to today and I still wish for the same thing. To say that I am obsessed with the idea of happiness may be overkill but it’s one of the measurements that I use, not just for how my staff are doing but for how I am doing. If you are like me you will regularly (if not daily then frequently) ask yourself the question, am I happy? The fact that you ask it emphasises its importance in your life, and why not?
I have been doing a round of staff reviews this week because, at this time of year it always feels like the right time to reflect on the year gone by. One of the questions I ask to staff, and indeed the biggest gauge of whether it has been a successful year or not, is how happy they are. You can ask about work conditions, salary, meaning of work, relationships and job content etc.; however these are the means to an end, which is happiness and it is this that I am most interested in. It is not just because happy employees are more productive employees, but I really value happiness for myself and others as it’s the greatest currency we have in order to live a, yes let me say it, happier life. And it is probably more critical today than ever before.
Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence writes that each successive generation worldwide since the opening of the twentieth century has lived with a higher risk than their parents of suffering a major depression – not just sadness, but what he calls a paralyzing listlessness, dejection and self-pity and an overwhelming hopelessness – over the course of life. He goes on to say that 25% of European students and (in the case of Americans 60%) felt that they live in an “existential vacuum” a state of “inner emptiness, a void within themselves.
It’s a kind of crazy reality if I consider that modern-day life should be easier, better and happier, especially at work. When I think of corporations today and work in general, I intuitively surmise that workers must be happier than before. Consider the strides we have made towards things like a living wage, improvements towards general working conditions, the increased awareness managers have about how people want to be supervised and the flexibility which we offer many people to do their jobs – you would think its a no-brainer that employees are happier. Yet some studies have found that Americans are less happy today than they were 30 years ago thanks to longer working hours and a deterioration in the quality of their relationships with friends and neighbours. “Social contacts have worsened, people have less and less relationships among neighbours, relatives and friends.” Maybe it is that or another host of factors or is it simply that our expectations for the good life are greater and as happiness is fleeting by nature, we expect and want more?
People everywhere and always have sought the key to happiness. Plato institutionalised the study of the good life in his Academy while his star pupil, Aristotle opened the competing Lyceum to promote his own take on how to flourish in life. Then of course there was Confucius who walked from village to village to share with the people his take on fulfilment. So, while this interest in happiness has always been there it feels that there are some aspects of our time which suggest it is a harder goal to achieve, an elusive Holy Grail. This may go some way to explain why classes on happiness at university and in communities are oversubscribed and why universities are now spitting out degrees in the scientific study of optimal human functioning, of which I myself am a recipient!
So back to the question that I am asking my staff - are you happy? A simple question like this may not be that easy to answer, a term impossible to quantify and pin down. What is happiness? Is there a standard universal definition of the word and if so, how do you measure it? Is it benchmarked against others and if so how will you know how happy your colleagues are or workers in another company? ‘Are you happy?’ is a closed question suggesting that you either are or you aren’t. When I give my staff a Christmas bonus, at that moment they feel happy but I know that this may only be fleeting; that once they have had the material high, they will drop back to their previous emotional level as the fact of the bonus becomes an accepted part of their reality and the fleeting feeling of happiness cannot be sustained.
Happiness is not at the end of a process or a finite point. We can always be happier; no person experiences perfect bliss all the time therefore rather than asking myself am I happy a more useful and helpful question is how can I be happier? I am happier today than I was 5 years ago and I hope to be happier five years from now than I am today. You see, happiness is an unlimited resource and what we need to do is find the secret to attaining and retaining more of it.
So I won’t just wish you a ‘Happy Christmas’, I’ll go one better and wish you a very ‘Happy Life’.