The dark downside of our pursuit of happiness at work

There’s a lot of talk about the importance of happiness at work.

But what if happiness is the wrong goal? Could it be distracting us from more essential demands?

Ladders spoke with Ruth Whippman, the author of America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, about the downside of our happiness agenda and what we should be focused on instead.

Ladders: Are we focused too much on happiness at work?  

Whippman: There’s recently been this huge push for employers to promote a happiness agenda in the workplace. You see it across all kinds of different companies.

In Silicon Valley, you see the extremes of it, where they have meditation gurus and Ping-Pong tables and video-game arcades, and all of these things in the workplace to keep people happy.

Companies are setting up ‘chief happiness officers’ and ‘chief mindfulness officers’ and sending their staff to happiness training and personal development courses.

There’s been a real blurring of the lines between work and self.

A decade ago, we expected our jobs to be our jobs. We did them for money, and we got paid, and then we went home again. Leisure and sense of self were outside the workplace. Now, we’re putting all those things inside the workplace.

The trend of “work-life integration” has replaced “work-life balance.”

It sounds great in theory, the idea that our life and our work should all be one meaningful thing.

But it can become problematic, and it’s not particularly healthy.

It actually means that we have very little leisure time and very little space in our minds when we’re not answering emails or on our phones. It’s a crossing of a line between what really should be the business of our employers and what is our own business.

Why is happiness the wrong goal?

One of the problems with the whole happiness agenda in the workforce is that it can lead to a kind of exploitation, where the lines have been so blurred between work and home life that it ends up meaning that we’re at work all the time.

There’s this real culture of overwork in the U.S. In this culture, commitment means you work extremely long hours and you want to be with your colleagues 24/7.

But healthy boundaries are absolutely critical.

There’s lots of research that shows that longer hours don’t make for more productive employees. But I’m hesitant to justify it in terms of productivity.

It seems like every time anyone wants to have leisure in this country, they have to justify it as a productivity hack — as if it’s not a valid thing in and of itself to want to not be at work sometimes. That speaks volumes about the values in this country.

How are employers taking advantage of our pursuit of happiness?

There’s this whole language of self-actualization that employers use with their staff.

Millennials have grown up with a very strong message: follow your passion, do what you love, be yourself, be authentic, find a job that’s meaningful to you.

That message has taken the dignity out of the idea that you have a job that you do for money. That used to respectable, but it almost sounds tawdry if you mention it today.

It’s also made employees vulnerable. Some employers are paying employees in self-actualization rather than in money. For example, some people do endless internships that go on for years.

In low-income jobs, they’re bringing in that same rhetoric, and it can be a real cover for exploitation.

Nobody has a normal job title anymore. You work at Starbucks, and you’re a partner. You work for Disney as a janitor, but actually you’re a cast member.

All these things make it sound like the workplace is offering you a meaningful experience. But at the same time, wages has ben suppressed since the 70s.

You’re being paid with “fulfillment,” rather than actual cash and benefits.

Some employers are offering beer and Ping Pong and mindfulness classes and the title of “champion,” but aren’t giving employees paid vacation or health care benefits or raises.

Those are the things you should be looking for in a job. Everything else is a smoke screen.

What should we do instead?

It’s unfair to say that employees should be the ones leading the charge against overwork. It’s employers who need to be setting the tone and saying go home, take a vacation, and offering their staff vacation and benefits and enough pay that they can afford to do that.

Corporate social responsibility should involve a company’s own staff as much as it does donating to nonprofits.

For employees, it’s about setting boundaries on your time. Obviously, the more senior you are and the more clout you have in your workplace, the easier it is to do.

It’s also about taking some of the company’s offerings with a grain of salt. Ask for important things like vacation benefits, health care, and a reasonable wage, and see all these add-ons as what they are.

Those extra may be nice to have if everything else is in place, but they’re not a priority.