Is Happiness Enough?

By Chris Ihrig

When my copy of Harvard Business Review arrived with a bright yellow happy face on the cover in January 2012, I remember thinking that the benefits of employee happiness were finally going mainstream. In the seven years since, happiness has become a buzz word that often lacks the evidence-based understanding required to harness the proven benefits of happy employees.

We’ve seen title changes, such as Director of Talent and Happiness. The UAE appointed a Minister of Happiness, the United Nations commissioned a report from leaders in the positive psychology field. But mostly, we’ve seen companies that don’t understand how to harness the benefits of happiness. Companies rebranded jobs with high burnout rates like customer service employees who have low autonomy as Directors of Customer Happiness.

They’ve added ping pong tables, free snacks, and other happiness-inspiring gimmicks in a misguided attempt to increase employee happiness levels. It’s not working. Employee engagement numbers remain stagnant.

Happiness Remains an Inside Job

Happiness isn’t about what is going on around you. It is about how you perceive it. The aspects of your environment you choose to focus on heavily influence whether or not you are happy. There are simple things employers can do to harness the happiness factor. I want to share one of those small changes that can make a big difference with you today. This example is from a study published last year in Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research, and Practice. The researchers found that switching from a problem focused approach to a solution-focused approach increases positive emotions and improves results.

While no one would encourage ignoring the root cause of a problem because we all know that if the root is damaged, the results achieved reflect the damage. On the other hand, consciously focusing on solutions has its benefits. The Appreciative Inquiry approach to change management, which is often highly effective, focuses on solutions and the positive aspects of the environment.  

If we look at individual psychology, rumination is a mental habit of thought that focuses on problems. Rumination is associated with the development of mental illnesses and physical ailments. An organization that focuses on problems more than solutions culturally encourages rumination.

If you want to harness the happiness factor in your organization, ask yourself whether your conversations are problem or solution-focused. If you’re focusing on the problems, shift some of the focus to the solutions. Don’t try to do a full U-turn. If you’re focused on problems 80% of the time, make adjusting it to 70% the first goal. Note the differences in the outcomes you achieve. Gradually increase the focus on solutions as long as the change continues increasing results. The perfect balance varies in each organization and can vary situation by situation.