Happiness is a Hoax! How We Waste Time on a Hollow Objective

When I was a kid, my parents would say they “just want me to be happy.” While they were sincere, the reality is this sentiment wasn’t entirely true. They wanted me to be hard working, respectful, courteous, and a myriad of other qualities that make someone a valuable member of society. Even with this insight, I now catch myself saying, “I just want you to be happy” to my children. The pattern continues.

It’s not just my household. All of us are besieged with the pressure to be happy. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh hyped it in his book Delivering Happiness; Time Magazine featured it on the cover of a 2013 issue; and there’s a countless stream of blogs, studies and pundits dictating the need to strive towards happiness. I’m not anti-happiness, but does it have to be the primary focus?

Have you ever asked your co-workers what they want out of their work, what would make them happy. If so, you’ve learned they had no idea. Most say more money would make them happier. That’s true to a point, but within a short period of time we get used to (and feel entitled to) pay increases. Plus, studies show:

Employees earning salaries in the top half of our data range reported similar levels of job satisfaction to those employees earning salaries in the bottom-half of our data range.

Will some type of gift make them happier? Not according to the studies showing experiences—not things—make us happy. More vacation time? Not according to the study showing that planning the vacation makes us happier than actually going on the vacation. What about taking some “me time”? Not according to studies showing helping others is more likely to boost sustainable happiness.

Does not knowing what makes us happy mean we should stop pursing happiness? Not at all, but let’s stop making it the end-all goal. Happiness is not something we can grasp, it’s a fleeting emotion. You cannot will yourself into happiness, nor can you package it, meditate into it, or plan it. And what makes you happy today will not make you happy tomorrow.

Want real happiness? Start with the understanding that happiness is the outcome of achieving a goal; it is not the goal. On a personal level, the pursuit of happiness can be replaced with the intent of spending time on things you find to be meaningful. This can be a hobby, a fitness goal, a spiritual quest, or a philanthropic endeavor. What matters is you’re aspiring towards a target more consequential than a temporary feeling of joy.

Professionally, we cannot force meaningfulness on our staff. However, the more we get to know our team members on a personal level, the more we can introduce programs that meet their particular needs. Maybe consider putting fewer resources into “happy-centric initiatives” and more into the ways you can develop and enhance the culture of the workplace. It’s the difference between building satisfaction versus building engagement – one involves employees who smile as they clock in and out but put in the bare minimum of effort, while the other entails employee who are emotionally invested in the organization.

If you strive to be the Director of Happiness, you are doing yourself, your team, and your organization a disservice. Happiness is a by-product of achieving something great. Do that and happiness will follow.