Being Happy at Work Is Simply Not Enough

Let’s be generous, though, and say it might make for a fun game at happy hour. But even then, a closer reading shows that many of the examples this book contains are actually quite insidious. It’s only the superficial among us, we are told, who focus on things like money. If you really care about yourself, you will listen to psychologists. “The research on human motivation, called ‘self-determination theory,’ says that we are intrinsically motivated animals,” we are told. What drives us? That would be ARC, or autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

Once you figure out your own ARC, the thinking goes, then you will soon be picking up speed on the one-way road to happiness. While it’s hard to argue with either of the above on their face—money isn’t everything, and we all have different things that matter to us—this isn’t a book about life. It’s a book about jobs. And the only person involved in the “design” of your job who would advise you that you should focus less on money and more on personal fulfillment is the one who signs your paycheck. This book is a CFO’s dream.

If you want to read a book that explains what’s problematic about the whole happiness thing, pick up Manufacturing Happy Citizens, by Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz, instead. Do we all want to be happy? Of course we do. But our generation’s sudden obsession with personal fulfillment isn’t an accident, argue Cabanas and Illouz. It’s more like a trap that so many well-meaning people, including Burnett and Evans, in all their earnestness, have fallen into.

First, employers bailed on helping you save for retirement. Then they started ducking helping you pay for health care. Finally, with the unwitting help of authors preaching personal empowerment, they’re bailing on the obligation to care about your happiness at all. In the end, money might be the only thing left that corporations feel obligated to offer the rank-and-file, and yet book after book stumbles into the broken logic of “stop asking your boss for money, because your happiness is up to you!” In another context, they’d call that an illusionist’s trick.

Consider this single sentence in the introduction of Designing Your Work Life: “Increasingly, it’s up to workers to define their own happiness and success in this ever-moving landscape.” On its face, that doesn’t seem to be a very controversial statement. It rings true to anyone well-versed in the realm of positive psychology—you don’t need to change the situation, you just need to change your mind! It’s such a seductive idea that it’s become the rallying cry of what Cabanas and Illouz refer to as the “personal society”—therapeutic, individualist, and atomized—over a more collectivist one—the sort in which we’re supposed to care about the people we spend our time with, too. With everyone looking within, fixated on their own happiness, is it any wonder that our capacity for empathy seems in free fall?

Here’s where the insidiousness comes in: Saying it’s all on you is actually the flip side of saying it’s not on them. Who is them? The social structures, institutions (including companies), living conditions and debt (student and otherwise) that just might have something to do with our collective anxieties. But the happiness experts aren’t just trying to persuade us through rhetoric that your boss is not to blame; they’ve also got science on their side.

Is there even such a thing as a “science of happiness”? We can certainly count something like the number of times you might smile, but can we quantify the content of a smile itself? Or establish whether my happy is more than your happy? Well, I guess that depends if you believe that you can erect a science on top of “discoveries” like the one this entire field was built on—the 2005 “finding” that the secret to happiness was to maintain a positivity ratio (positive thoughts divided by negative thoughts) of precisely 2.9013 or above. (Do a little research and you will be told that this “finding” has since been “discredited.” The mere fact that it was “credited” in the first place seems more like the premise for an Albert Brooks movie than something resembling science. Emotion is not a number, and neither is happiness, no matter how badly the “social scientists” want it to be.)



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