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Happiness and Engagement: The Pursuit of the Broad and Convoluted


I was perusing the internet recently, and I came across a piece called “Happiness is the New ROI.” The article equates happiness to a sense of engagement and being a part of a company that is a great place to work. The problem here is that happiness and engagement are not the same thing.

Unfortunately, both of these terms seem to be popular buzzwords in 2016 and have been for several years now. They have been pirated to promote a variety of nonsensical, pseudo-scientific self-help schemes – usually for the purposes of selling books, consulting services or life coaching. A search for the term “happiness” on Amazon will result in more than 92,000 hits on its list of books, and a search for “work engagement” (to avoid any books about getting married) will result in more than 14,000 hits.

Yet, the two constructs are fundamentally different from a scientific standpoint. Dr. Dan Haybron, a philosopher who has been instrumental in moving the study of happiness forward, would most succinctly define it as “emotional well-being” (for a more sophisticated explanation, you might also check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Engagement, on the other hand, would be best defined as "...a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption." It is the persistent experience of a high level of energy and identification with one’s work. It drives us to marshal the mental, physical and emotional resources needed toward the fulfilment of some goal (or set of goals).

While work engagement can contribute to one’s overall happiness, it is not happiness itself. 

Happiness is a much broader conceptualization of well-being, one that is affected by a lot more than just the workplace. In fact, research would also suggest that, at most, engagement is one element that influences happiness (along with others, such as pleasure and meaning). To state the situation more simply, engagement is insufficient by itself to produce happiness, and insufficient research exists to determine even whether engagement is a necessary to create happiness (though few researchers would deny that it is helpful).

In addition, the pursuit of happiness as a goal in and of itself is fraught with challenges. People are fundamentally flawed when it comes to knowing what will make them happy, and sometimes the pursuit of happiness itself can be counterproductive. In some ways, this is probably because people have a sense of when they are happy, but they are not necessarily very good at figuring out why they are happy.

Yet, we seem to live in a buzzword society. Self-help gurus and consulting firms generate an extraordinary number of sales with promises to create happy and engaged workers. They use faulty surveys and gimmicky, scientifically unvalidated tactics (like happiness projects) as their tool kit. Yet, for all their efforts and all the sales of books and consulting services, I have yet to read any headlines indicating that happiness and engagement have skyrocketed.

There is no universal solution for how to be happy, just as there is no universal solution for how to increase engagement among workers. 

However, what we can conclude based on research is that happiness is much broader than work engagement and defines a sense of well-being that extends far beyond the workplace. Instead of trying to focus on making workers happy or engaged, organizations should consider focusing on what they can do to make the organization a better place to work, asking questions such as:

  • How can we reduce or eliminate structures, practices, and processes that keep people from being productive?
  • How can we improve the ability of workers to flexibly respond to the various demands they face, both at work and at home?
  • How do we show people they are valued so they will remain with the organization?
  • How can we improve the management and leadership that exists throughout the organization?
  • How can we identify what is most important to our employees and take steps to address those needs?

I suspect that if organizations ask these questions, rather than focusing on how they can make their workers happy, they will find much greater long-term success. As a goal, increasing the happiness and engagement of workers may be too broad and convoluted (not to mention paternalistic). However, identifying and promoting resources to support productivity, flexibility, retention and other key outcomes is a much more attainable goal.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/8lettersuk/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dr. Matt Grawitch published on May 26, 2016 5:16 PM.

Engagement and Satisfaction – Both Important for Employee Performance was the previous entry in this blog.

Hours that are Happy AND Healthy is the next entry in this blog.

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