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Happiness is another form of feedback

“Your happiness is the most important feedback you can get from your behaviour” Paul Dolan.

Happiness is probably the overarching goal most people pursue throughout their lives. Yet a large part of these people’s lives is spent working in and for organizations, so if someone is unhappy with their work, they are probably unhappy with a significant portion of their life. Even so, happiness is still far removed from the organizations, as if it were something out of place within the professional environment. Indeed does being “professional” have to be synonymous with being “unhappy”? What can we do to fix this absurdity?

Barring a few exceptions, such as the iOpener Institute, most attempts to tackle the topic of happiness in organizations have been wrong in their approach. Based on flimsy theories and marked by excessive superficiality and “greatness” in equal measure, such attempts have contributed little—or not at all—to facilitating excellence in performance.

However, we find ourselves in a critical situation with historical lows in engagement levels. Thus, it becomes urgent to mobilize all the hidden potential hibernating in organizations. To understand and to help understand the relationship between happiness, effectiveness and competitiveness may be the jolt we need.

Unlike his friend and mentor, Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist with expertise in economics, Paul Dolan is an economist with expertise in psychology, particularly in the psychology of happiness. Just as Kahneman dismantled the belief upheld over centuries about the purportedly rational nature of economic actors, similarly Dolan shows how what we think makes us happy and what really makes us happy are often quite different things.

In his bestseller, “Happiness by Design”, Dolan presents a simple and innovative model for measuring happiness—within reach of anyone—that allows us to discover what it is that really makes us happy. The model is based on two variables, pleasure and purpose, and everything we do impacts these two aspects in one way or another, both positively and negatively.

There are activities, such as enjoying a movie, a dinner, or a walk in the mountains, which contribute positively to our happiness directly, since doing them is pleasurable in itself. Other activities, such as cleaning our house or preparing for a competition, are not intrinsically pleasurable, but they also contribute positively to our happiness because they contribute to a purpose that makes us happy (living in a clean house or winning competitions).

The forte of the model proposed by Dolan is that it allows for learning and change. You can gauge the amount of pleasure or purpose that comes with everything you do, and you can compare that gauged reality with what you believe or assume makes you happy. You’re bound to be in for a big surprise. If you want to know more, Dolan’s book explains all of this in detail.

The model focuses on what Covey defined as the “zone of influence” or the zone in which we can act in the first person in order to achieve results. Understanding that much of your happiness is in your hands can encourage you to try new things, introduce changes, or do things differently from what you have done so far. From there you can see how all this influences your happiness by measuring its impact in terms of pleasure and purpose.

Enough of side-tracking, there are many things beyond our control: bosses, customers, suppliers, environmental circumstances, and more. Yet we can do much more than what we believe we can for our happiness.

Dolan’s quotation at the beginning of this article has a simple moral. Are you happy? Yes. Then keep it up. You aren’t? Experiment, try to change something and pay attention to the outcome. Your happiness is the most important feedback mechanism you can get from your behaviour.

Some HR initiatives are based on the mistaken assumption that happier employees will be more productive employees. For better or for worse, things work precisely the other way around. The happiest employees are the most effective ones; they are the ones who routinely achieve results aligned to a purpose. Just as the Chinese proverb says, “A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.”

I do not know if it is up to organizations to make work become an enjoyable activity. What is certainly in their hands is for people go to work with a broader purpose other than to collect a pay check at the end of the month.

It’s possible to create spaces in which people can work autonomously, apply and cultivate their mastery, and find meaning in the work they do. It’s also possible to help people learn new ways of working with focus, concentrating on the most meaningful things and better choosing what to do and not do at any time. Combining both initiatives will translate into more competitive organizations with happier people. We should do everything in our power to achieve this.

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José Miguel Bolívar

About José Miguel Bolívar

José Miguel Bolívar (@jmbolivar) is a craft consultant, ICF coach, lecturer, researcher and speaker and author of the blog Óptima Infinito, which he has been writing since 2008 on innovation in productivity and GTD methodology. Graduated in Social Psychology and Political Analysis from the Complutense University in Madrid, and holds a master’s degree in HR from the Centro de Estudios Garrigues in Spain. Jose Miguel has broad management experience in highly competitive environments like HP or Life Technologies. Currently as a craft consultant and coach, he continues to work to increase competiveness in organizations by improving individual and collective productivity among the workforce.

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