Global Resilience Solutions > 2015 > March

How Corporations and Governments are Trying to Manage Our Happiness

There was a time when we all thought that happiness by definition defied measurement. After all, it’s a qualitative, personal, emotional and spiritual state. To be happy in respect of certain circumstances was never the same as happiness overall.

Then came the social sciences in their madcap (or simply mad) attempt to quantify the human experience scientifically. Today we have the World Happiness Report (claiming to quantify the relative happiness of the world’s nations), countries like Bhutan adopting measures of “gross national happiness,” and of course, an endless stream of surveys and other attempts by managers and human resources departments to quantify the happiness of their employees.

Happiness Works, purveyors of the Happiness At Work Survey, put their business case as follows:

“Happiness is worth it. Big savings can be made for happy companies through lower staff absence, talent retention and productivity. Calculate the savings for a happy organization.”

Below on the same page is a calculator to allow the customer business to calculate their potential savings from a happy workforce. Happiness has become a commodity, and it’s big business. People who study happiness are highly paid to come up with ways for corporations to improve the happiness of their employees,

It’s not just companies that are looking for the magic espresso machine that will create a nirvana of satisfied and productive employees. Countries are using national happiness not only as an instrument of domestic policy, but as a means of political propaganda, either for a particular party or for an entire political system. China, where the Communist Party legitimises its rule through the provision of public goods and economic growth, is a great example. After all, if you can demonstrate “scientifically” that your people are happy you can:

1. Show what a great place your country is, especially for the wealthy people you hope to attract.
2. Prove that there can’t be anything really wrong with your system.
3. Show that the ruling party has things under control.
4. Legitimise a whole raft of state programs or policies which claim to increase happiness.

Discussion on this topic was one of the bright points of the recent International Conference on Happiness and Hope. Chen Hee Tam from Singapore reminded us of both that neoliberal state’s use of happiness for these purposes and why what you measure matters. After all, if you measure factors like income, housing and education, you can demonstrate that someone is materially well off. But unless you look into subjective factors, you can’t say that they’re happy.

The lack of subjective data was also an issue for Ilona Suojanen of the University of Edinburgh, who studies the use of happiness as a tool by corporate management. The Human Resources mindset, which treats the employee as an interchangeable resource to be managed through a system, looks for measurable factors that can make the mass of employees happy, and therefore easy to manage. The magic employee benefits package, the perfect number of coffee breaks, the optimal work environment, from rooms filled with gargantuan pillows to, in one case Ilona mentioned, the use of slides as an alternative to stairs- sure, having a nice work environment helps, but frankly some of this stuff reminds me of Dilbert’s Motivational Stone of Quality- pointless expenses that I’d rather have received in a paycheck or a dental plan:


What the quantification of happiness misses, as these presenters argued, is personal engagement, challenge, fulfillment, belonging, the things that make work worth getting up for- not to mention collegial work environment and effective leadership. But that’s the problem with the idea of management writ large, as we have written so many times- management reduces subordinates to utilitarian objects (typical of the Newtonian thinking of the industrial age), while leadership treats them as individual people and seeks to grow them as such, knowing that their growth is the organisation’s growth – an idea more compatible with the complex realities of the post-industrial workplace.


The Root of the Issue

This gets to the root of the happiness problem. If you’re a country or corporation trying to make reasonable provision for the needs of your citizens or employees, sure, you’re contributing to their happiness. Great. But at what point does creating the conditions in which happiness can flourish stop, and the management of human emotion start?

That’s exactly what this is about. Governments and corporations would very much like to make human emotion homogenous and manageable according to a universal rubric. Happiness becomes a commodity provided from above in the form of objective goods, rather than as an individual measure of the quality of experience. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one heck of an intrusion into personal autonomy.

If there’s one thing that cutting edge leadership and corporate culture has discovered, it’s precisely that you do NOT want to anaesthetize people with pseudo-happiness, to make them more pliable and more easily manageable. That’s surprisingly similar to the traditional military paradigm – break them emotionally so they’ll be pliable enough to follow orders.

The true win-win, though, is about providing people with a way to contribute to the maximum, to overcome challenges together, to grow and evolve. No, these folks, like Special Ops personnel, will never be pliable. They’ll be in your face, insubordinate and damned inconvenient. BUT… they’ll be the most productive, happy and reliable people you’ve ever met.


~ Dr. Symeon Rodger
~ Anthony S. Rodger

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