LORD Percy of Newcastle, Britain’s minister of education in 1924-29, was no fan of the fad for happy-clappy “progressive” education that spread among the country’s schools on his watch. He declared that it was all nonsense: “a child ought to be brought up to expect unhappiness.” This columnist feels the same suspicion of the fashion for happy-clappy progressive management theory that is rushing through the world’s companies and even some governments.
The leading miscreant is Zappos, an online shoe shop. The firm expects its staff to be in a state of barely controlled delirium when they sell shoes. Pret A Manger, a British food chain, specialises in bubbly good humour as well as sandwiches. Air stewards are trained to sound mellifluous but those at Virgin Atlantic seem on the verge of breaking out into a song-and-dance routine. Google until recently had an in-house “jolly good fellow” to spread mindfulness and empathy.
A weird assortment of gurus and consultancies is pushing the cult of happiness. Shawn Achor, who has taught at Harvard University, now makes a living teaching big companies around the world how to turn contentment into a source of competitive advantage. One of his rules is to create “happiness hygiene”. Just as we brush our teeth every day, goes his theory, we should think positive thoughts and write positive e-mails.
Zappos is so happy with its work on joy that it has spun off a consultancy called Delivering Happiness. It has a chief happiness officer (CHO), a global happiness navigator, a happiness hustler, a happiness alchemist and, for philosophically minded customers, a happiness owl. Plasticity Labs, a technology firm which grew out of an earlier startup called the Smile Epidemic, says it is committed to supporting a billion people on their path to happiness in both their personal and professional lives.
The trend is not confined to the private sector. Several governments, including those of America, Britain, France and Australia, now publish for the benefit of their citizens regular reports on levels of national well-being. Bhutan has long measured its gross national happiness, and the United Arab Emirates boasts a brand-new Ministry of Happiness.
Businesspeople have long known there is money to be made in the field. Dale Carnegie, a leadership guru, said the best way to win friends and influence people was to seem upbeat. Disneyland is still “the happiest place on Earth”. American firms regularly bid their customers to “have a nice day”. One of the sharpest books published on the phenomenon is “The Managed Heart” from 1983, in which Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, noted that many employers demanded “emotional labour” from workers in the form of smiles and other expressions of “positive emotion”. Firms are keen to extract still more happiness from their employees as the service sector plays an ever greater role in the economy. Run-of-the-mill service firms are fighting for their lives against discounters. As customers, most people prefer their service with a smile rather than a snarl.
Some firms are trying to create some wellbeing, too, showering their employees with mindfulness courses, yoga lessons and anything else that proves that managers are interested in “the whole person”. Only happy fools would take that at face value. Management theorists note that a big threat to corporate performance is widespread disengagement among workers. Happy people are more engaged and productive, say psychologists. Gallup claimed in 2013 that the “unhappiness” of employees costs the American economy $500 billion a year in lost productivity.
One problem with tracking happiness is that it is such a vague metric: it is difficult to prove or disprove Gallup’s numbers since it is not entirely clear what is being measured. Companies would be much better off forgetting wishy-washy goals like encouraging contentment. They should concentrate on eliminating specific annoyances, such as time-wasting meetings and pointless memos. Instead, they are likely to develop ever more sophisticated ways of measuring the emotional state of their employees. Academics are already busy creating smartphone apps that help people keep track of their moods, such as Track Your Happiness and Moodscope. It may not be long before human-resource departments start measuring workplace euphoria via apps, cameras and voice recorders.
Be miserable. It’ll make you feel better
The idea of companies employing jolly good fellows and “happiness alchemists” may be cringe-making, but is there anything else really wrong with it? Various academic studies suggest that “emotional labour” can bring significant costs. The more employees are obliged to fix their faces with a rictus smile or express joy at a customer’s choice of shoes, the more likely they are to suffer problems of burnout. And the contradiction between companies demanding more displays of contentment from workers, even as they put them on miserably short-term contracts and turn them into self-employed “partners”, is becoming more stark.
But the biggest problem with the cult of happiness is that it is an unacceptable invasion of individual liberty. Many companies are already overstepping the mark. A large American health-care provider, Ochsner Health System, introduced a rule that workers must make eye contact and smile whenever they walk within ten feet of another person in the hospital. Pret A Manger sends in mystery shoppers to visit every outlet regularly to see if they are greeted with the requisite degree of joy. Pass the test and the entire staff gets a bonus—a powerful incentive for workers to turn themselves into happiness police. Companies have a right to ask their employees to be polite when they deal with members of the public. They do not have a right to try to regulate their workers’ psychological states and turn happiness into an instrument of corporate control.