What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Years ago, I was sitting in a very posh restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District with a friend of mine. He was a very wealthy programmer, working for an incredibly prestigious financial company. We were talking, eating, laughing and having a wonderful evening overall.
He looked up at me and told me he was going to go back on drugs. About 7 years previous, he had kicked heroin. He’d gone from shooting up in dirty houses to having a comfortable townhome in Noe Valley. He’d built a lot in a very short period of time.
While giving me his reasoned rationale for wanting to go back onto heavy drugs he said, “I’m just not happy now. With everything I’ve achieved I’m just never happy. When I was using, I was happy for very short periods of time. I want to be happy again.” By the time I left him that night and went back to my hotel, he’d already scored and started his slide back to his previous life. Within a few months, he lost everything he’d worked for.
Happiness is elusive. We chase it, we want it. Life seemingly conspires against it. We mask our need for it by watching sitcoms that make us smile for very short periods of time – the over-the-counter version of heroin.
Over the last few years, I’ve met a long string of people who have gone through the 80s and 90s and now almost all of the aughts and have come up empty. Whether they have money or not, whether the recession is felt by them or not, there is a measurable exodus from lifestyles that fundamentally work at cross-purposes to happiness.
Thankfully, very few of them see drugs as an acceptable solution.
This isn’t drop-out happiness people are seeking. No communes, no great-american-novels, no buy-a-wineries (well, okay, two people bought wineries)…. This movement to happiness is pragmatic. People understand that they are better family members, they are healthier, they can help others more, they are more productive team members, etc. when they are happy.
So .. why not be happy?
The Infrastructure of Happiness
Happiness is a construct and a really ethereal one at that. It is often confused with states it is very similar to like gratification, placation, contentment, etc. Happiness can be self-serving or it can be effacing and humble.
As managers or business owners or team members, we ignore happiness at our peril.
Why? Because there appears to be a tacit assumption that work and happiness don’t go together. Happiness comes later. When I retire, when I can take vacation, when I’m … not .. at …work.
In his book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses the tension between our individual drives and social pressures:
Submission to genetic programming can become quite dangerous because it leaves us helpless. A person who cannot override genetic instructions when necessary is always vulnerable. ….
A thoroughly socialized person is one who desires only the rewards that others around him have agreed he should long for – rewards often grafted onto genetically programmed desires. He may encounter thousands of potentially fulfilling experiences, but he fails to notice them because they are not the things he desires.
Professional fulfillment is part of happiness. It has to be. We all know it.
So, if we’re setting up a team for a project, why not have happiness be a primary goal of the team’s infrastructure? Maybe even THE goal. Product second, remuneration third. Happiness first.
After reading about our endless quest for happiness by neuroscientists, orchestra conductors, Buddhist monks, psychologists, philosophers, humorists, management theorists, and everyone in-between, I’ve come to one conclusion.
People are happy when they know what they’re doing and aren’t offended by it.
There are very few reasons why we would ever do something we were offended by or without cause. At work, people feel obligated to do what their employer requests – even if they find it offensive, demeaning or perplexing. Depending on their situations, they may feel that they have no choice but to do as requested – with even quitting being out of the question.
Unenlightened employers may feel this is a position of power and rejoice in the entrapment of such people. However, if your goal is to have a business that grows and innovates – this mindset is not going to help you.
Business cultures that strike a balance between business and personal health should engender a happier workforce. People worry a great deal about what happens at the office. They take that stress home with them. That stress can negatively impact home life. This creates more stress, which is in turn brought back to the office.
In 2001, the Seattle Mariners won 116 games, tying the all time record for wins in a single season. They were mostly the same team they were the year before and the next year when their records were nowhere close to 116. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays went to the World Series after being dead last in 2007. Again, with roughly the same line up.
There is an attitude of winning that can float or sink a team. If your team is committed to being happy first, its chances of winning will be bolstered. True commitment to a healthy culture creates momentum.
In The Art of Power, Thich Nhat Hanh describes this momentum in his monkly style:
In your professional life, there may be other people you have to be in touch with and work with. You may be working as a team to make a film, design a produce, or complete another kind of project. Each person on your team has his own difficulties , his own suffering. but because you are open, happy, fresh, and concentrated, you can help all of them touch their freshness. you don’t care only about their work performance, because the quality of their work depends on the peace and well-being inside each of them. You come to the business as a friend, helping everyone transform, bringing peace, harmony and well-being into their lives at home and at work.
Yes, Master Hahn is a bit beyond what HR might be comfortable with. The point, however, is that teams made up of happy and psychologically healthy individuals understand that they are working with other human beings. We are working with people who have lives outside of work and that they are living inside work too.
We are still alive while we’re at work. We aren’t purchased work-robots who have deferred our dreams to times of not-work.
We have goals and, more often than not, those goals are good for the company. We want to complete projects. We want to understand the flow of work. We want to do what we can.
In Flow, Csikszentmihalyi’s description of what makes people feel happiness is very much in-line with understanding your company’s value-stream. While there’s deeper issues at play, from a work perspective the value stream is vital. Understanding the flow of work through your organization satisfies some basic needs to making your workforce happy.
Creating a lucid value stream and expressing people’s places in it gives workers a lot of power. They can optimize their place in the value stream based on their current skills or skills they wish to acquire. They can optimize the value stream itself by pointing out areas of improvement. In short, the clarity provided by understanding what the heck is going on is instantly gratifying.
What is also interesting is, happiness as described by most of these authors is not a static state. Happiness is, rather, an aesthetic or an amalgam.
In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert starts a long chapter about what happiness may or may not be with this point:
The word happiness is used to indicate at least three related things, which we might roughly call emotional happiness, moral happiness and judgmental happiness.
When all these authors get down to it, they end up describing self-rewarding systems that seem to result in rolling series of Maslovian peak experiences.
Business then, which is loathe to really get into matters of personal mental health, can actually do a few things here.
1. Make business explicit to those doing the work.
The value stream, the fiscal health of the company, people’s roles in the organization, corporate ethics and goals – should all be made explicit so workers can choose to improve, innovate, and participate.
2. Decisions are free
Free your managers and you from top down decision making. Give people the freedom to do their jobs.
3. Information Hoarding Will Not Be Tolerated
The fastest way to threaten anyone is to withhold information from them. Want to kill productivity? Keep secrets.
4. Make Work a Healthy Game
The goal of work is to create things. Rewarding people for creating things is a healthy game. Avoid zero-sum games like promotions or winner-take-all prizes. Incentivize your value stream and not end-goals.
Happiness is not fluff and it’s not a “nice to have”. It’s a central component to a functional team. Put a little thought into it and see what you come up with.
Blogged at my house in Seattle, WA