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Leading with Character: The Happiness Conundrum

Here we are in the midst of the holidays, and reminders are everywhere that “’tis the season to be jolly.” What comes to mind when you read those words? The holiday season means different things to different people. But there’s a common thread: we’re all supposed to be happy. We’re wished a Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays at every turn.

When we’re out shopping, we can feel energy in the stores as people bustle through the isles selecting gifts to the sound of joyous holiday music. In the workplace, colleagues gather for holiday celebrations; I was part of that scene for many years and my favorite activities included potlucks and white elephant gift swaps. Even at the post office, where people line up with armloads of packages to mail, there’s excitement in the air. Yes, the message is we’re all supposed to be happy.

Happiness is Fleeting
But is it really possible, or even necessary, to be happy all the time—at home, at work? I don’t think so. In my last blog, “Alone but not Lonely,” I talk about how people can cope with being alone during the holidays. It can be a trying time during which some people are lonely and others depressed. Happiness is neither universal nor enduring. A while back, I read a piece in The Spectator that provides some useful insights into the state of happiness. These might be applicable for leaders trying to navigate and manage expectations in today’s workplaces. In her article, “Why Modern Life Doesn’t Make Us Happy,” Tanith Carey talks about how our early ancestors’ brains processed the chemical dopamine to temporarily feel good about having found the next meal or escaped the most recent threat. That feeling was only a temporary condition.

Comparison is the Thief of Happiness
Today, modern mankind has been conditioned to believe they should experience a steady stream of happiness. Advertising and social media are central to fueling that unachievable expectation. Everywhere we look, we compare ourselves with others, and it often seems they have more, are doing more, and are happier. It becomes easy to envy, and therefore resent, others. That envy and resentment can create division among people and groups who believe others have more, or have it easier and hence are happier. There’s the old saying, “comparison is the thief of happiness.” I would modify that to, “envyand comparison are the thieves of happiness.”

Too Much is Never Enough
Watching that dynamic unfold, both in life and in the workplace, I describe it as the “too much is never enough” syndrome. The more people get or are given, the more they want as they grow accustomed to the current level of well-being and then envy their neighbors or co-workers. It seems the Covid times led many people to withdraw and focus on themselves, sometimes with the expectation that someone or something else—the government or their employer—should be responsible for their well-being. Sadly, some people turn to destructive behaviors like drug or alcohol abuse or compulsive gambling to try to achieve the ever-more-elusive next level of happiness. Or they jump from relationship to relationship and/or job to job. So how can leaders help break this cycle before it breaks us as individuals and as a civil society?

The answer may lie in confronting the fact that happiness is fleeting. One should instead seek contentment, which can be enduring. I offer these simple thoughts on how to pave the way toward achieving a state of enduring contentment, starting in the workplace:

  • Employers and leaders should use this year-end opportunity to evaluate their organization’s mission, vision, and core values, and be sure they’re living those principles to model the way. They should lean on those shared principles to unite their people and motivate their teams toward executing the mission. Be sure people can see the connection between the task they’re doing and the mission, and how they’re personally adding value. Reward those who take the initiative to seek innovative techniques and those who demonstrate the drive to exceed the standards.
  • Employees should apply themselves to serving a purpose greater than themselves in doing their part to execute their organization’s mission, vision, and to live its core values. There’s deep satisfaction and gratification in serving and working hard to achieve results that make a meaningful impact.

With a season of giving at hand and a new year approaching, now is the perfect time for people to look at the bigger picture and seek to serve—their organization, their community, their family. Service above self is a recipe for enduring contentment.

Look in the mirror: What can you do to motivate others to focus outward and put service above self?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.

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