We all want to feel good and happiness is an answer, right? Well, according to Harvard Medical School psychologist, Dr. Susan David, it's more nuanced than "happiness equals goodness."

In Dr. David's upcoming book, Emotional Agility, she writes, "The paradox of happiness is that deliberately striving for it is fundamentally incompatible with the nature of happiness itself." She goes on to explain that for happiness to be meaningful it must come from finding intrinsic value in the activity.  "Striving for happiness establishes an expectation, which confirms the saying that expectations are resentments waiting to happen," writes Dr. David.

Dr. David's point about "intrinsic value" is central to longer lasting happiness: Happiness derived from meaning, self-awareness, and growth in life is intrinsic and helps a person become more fully functioning. This happiness fuels the pursuit of becoming your best self.

Conversely, hedonistic happiness, or fleeting happiness, is experienced when pursuing something pleasurable and its influence on us is short lived.

Adding another layer of reality, the author/psychologist explains that happiness can blind us from "threats and dangers." We develop biases against seeing the "negative" aspects of a situation when we pursue happiness as a means to an end. "The happy more often place disproportionate emphasis on early information and disregard or minimize later details," explains Dr. David, citing one disadvantage of the happiness mood.

While there are downsides of happiness, it's not all "bad."

At the award winning PR firm S3 Agency, CEO and founder Denise Blasevick, has tapped into the benefits of promoting a genuine sense of happiness in the workplace.

In an interview with Blasevick, she explained that to create an environment where happiness is authentic, the leader needs to be personally happy. "[It's] too big a lift if they're not happy." The feel-good emotion won't be genuine if the leader's intentions aren't honest.

The primary source of promoting workplace happiness at S3 is its high priority in the company's culture. Here are examples of how they promote intrinsic happiness:

  • The organization makes time to inspire employees even if it takes time away from client work
  • Vision boards are created to encourage a conversation about what's important to employees beyond work itself
  • Focus on and reward what's "right" and not focus solely on mistakes or what's "wrong"
  • Help employees find meaning in their work

Happiness is a source for Blasevick's leadership of the agency. One of her top priorities is to inspire employees' performance. She asks herself, "what can I do to energize the company?"

When I asked Blasevick a reason for promoting workplace happiness she explained, "Every business goes through bad times. It's easier to go through those times when people are close knit."

Blasevick points out an important nuance: Happiness at work isn't a constant. It ebbs and flows, just as how we experience the emotion. And it should be this way.

Dr. Susan David writes in her book, "When the environment is safe and familiar, we tend not to think long and hard about anything too challenging." Clearly this is not a characteristic indicative of a high performing culture. Leaders need to leverage both the upsides and downsides of emotions such as happiness.

What's more, the pursuit of happiness doesn't mean we should ignore conflicting emotions, like anger, for example. When we honestly recognize that the range of emotions we could experience in a day can be advantageous, we produce greater results. Those "darker" emotions provide a valuable window into perspectives and ideas that are hidden from view when we only seek to experience happiness.

Blasevick's pursuit of happiness at S3 isn't one shielded from the range of emotions employees experience. It's from a genuine interest in helping employees perform at their best levels and enjoy their work experiences. This comes with the understanding and acceptance that happiness can't always be present. However, intentionally building a culture and climate on a positive emotion like happiness can lead to powerful business outcomes.

"Positive emotions also drive us to success, help us make better decisions, reduce the risk of disease, and allow us to live longer," writes Dr. David. This is a vital takeaway for leaders who want to create a positive workplace culture and climate. It's a message that is better balanced when leaders tap into challenging emotions like anger. This encourages employees to consider a wider range of possibilities when looking to solve problems important to the business.

Published on: Aug 24, 2016