The pursuit of happiness: have we been getting it all wrong?

Are you happy in your workplace? Employees’ emotional wellbeing at work is now something that nearly all companies are thinking about, and rightly so. 

The happier employees are, the more productive they will be, and the working environment will be more enjoyable for all. No one is saying that happiness in the workplace is a bad thing. But are we going about it wrong?

An article published last summer in the Harvard Business Review contained research that bucks the trend of all that has gone before. The authors raised a crucial and often-forgotten point: ‘when happiness becomes a duty, it can make people feel worse if they fail to accomplish it’.

To support this, the authors cite research that gathered data from two groups of people watching a film that was supposed to make them happy. One group, however, had been given a statement to read beforehand about how important it is to be happy. Interestingly, this group reportedly being distinctly less happy after the film than the group which didn’t have the statement.

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In a working culture where companies hire happiness coaches, organise team days and other activities on a regular basis, this is important research. The article also reports another danger: when people live more emotionally at work, the distinction between work and home can blur, and their relationships outside of work can suffer.

Read more: Five steps to better wellbeing as an entrepreneur

On the one hand, there’s research saying that happy employees are more productive, and that companies should do whatever it takes to make them happy, and on the other, we have research warning that we might not be going about this in the right way. So what’s the solution?

Encouraging natural friendships to form in the workplace could be the answer to this problem. According to one news article, ‘camaraderie is a key ingredient to happiness at work for male and female employees’. Fostering workplace friendships is essential to having happier employees, but it increases happiness in a way that isn’t artificial. Humans are relational beings, and having strong relationships in our lives is a sure way to build up emotional wellbeing. 

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Another big advantage of workplace friendships is that your employees will work better together if they like each other anyway. When research suggests that one of the benefits of workplace happiness is that employees work more collaboratively, it makes sense to encourage this further through relationships that make people want to work with one another.

If employers are serious about encouraging employees to form these kinds of friendships they need to make the space in the workplace for this to be accomplished. This can be as simple as having a comfortably furnished communal area with easy access to a coffee machine. This encourages employees to have a break now and then, and spend time getting to know one another.

Read more: How much does technology mess with your wellbeing?

This might seem counter-intuitive to productivity, but if your employees are happier, the research suggests that their productivity will increase. The great thing about fostering workplace happiness in this way is that it doesn’t have to be forced. Employees are free to form workplace friendships in their own time. This can be nudged a bit through team building activities and the like, but employees should ultimately be allowed to move at their own pace in the workplace.

By doing this, employers can avoid the pitfalls that current research is uncovering, and make a space where employees want to come and work whilst improving their emotional wellbeing in a natural, healthy way.

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