The Dark Cloud behind the Silver Lining: Why your pursuit of happiness can be flawed?

I know you will agree with me on this. We are constantly bombarded with images of happiness-the smiling faces, the satisfied employee, the engaged worker, the parental boss. What doesn’t speak of merits of being happy and how important is its pursuit? So strong is this human urge to be happy that entire businesses have mushroomed promising attainment of some or the other aspect of happiness. Consider the recent book you read advising you on how to achieve happiness or the talk/show you attended on the miracles happiness can produce or the very ambitious workshop and training programs that you attended (or had to) which promised a raise in your overall satisfaction and consequent happiness at workplace. We spend a fortune on looking for happiness. Firms do the same in the hope that happy employees will make productive employees. We are so seriously committed to happiness that our humble pursuit of happiness has moved beyond a personal matter to an economic one.

What is wrong with our claim to happiness?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against your claim to happiness. Nor am I against the idea that your employees can benefit from such a program. My aim is not to challenge your quest but to merely suggest that there is a need to be practical and less demanding in your search. I will tell you why. Because:

(1) People can be burdened and less happy with the OBLIGATION to be happy.

Trying to be happy is one thing and feeling that it is your ethical duty to relieve yourself/others (family members, friends, colleagues, employees) of any pain and suffering is totally another. Problems begin when we start confusing the two. When happiness becomes an obligation it almost coerces us to be happy. For instance, can you think of times when SHOULD DOs, MUST HAVEs have defined your claim to happiness? Remember the time when you told yourself that you HAVE to get this promotion to be happy or when you told yourself that you SHOULD behave in a particular way with a significant other? How do such thoughts make you feel? Like you HAVE TO work towards it? And that it would be disastrous or catastrophic if you fail in it?

(2) Discrepancy between expectations of happiness and experiences can be frustrating.

All of us have notions on how to be happy. But conversion of these happiness criterion into family and work expectations can produce frustrations and disappointments especially when they do not match. For instance, expecting that happiness at work can be realised from a steady stream of recognition at office, workplace success, higher income, favourable evaluations by superiors and compatible fellow workers can lead to disillusionment and emotional vulnerability if the conditions are not met. Similarly, discrepancies between experiences and expecting constant emotional assurance from a loved one or unwavering support from friends and social group can also result in making one more miserable. By this age, I think we all have realised that when too much is expected (in our work and personal lives), less satisfaction may actually result. What is worse is that expecting too much from the sources of happiness can actually damage your relationship with others.

(3) An understanding that absence of negative emotions is happiness is inaccurate and over simplistic.

Happiness is a tricky concept. While it might be hampered by presence of negative emotions chances are that it can be realised by a sense of achievement, competition, legacy, mastery and personal significance. The idea that happiness should always be desired over negative emotions is also a misconception. Negative emotions like anger, jealousy, stress, sadness can have their own merits. Haven’t we heard of artists, musicians, academicians who in their bouts of depression and anxiety have crafted masterpieces? Or do we not know that our stress has the potential to almost compel us to do things more effectively? Remember how stress made you perform well in your exam/interview or meet deadlines? I recently came across a study on large supermarket chains of UK which proclaimed that inverse correlation exists between employee satisfaction and productivity, efficiency and profitability. Infact, the most profitable stores are those where employees were least satisfied. I am not implying that you should be clinically depressed or anxious or even deliberately make your employees less satisfied at workplace. My point is that negative emotions can also lead to positive outcomes. Rather, at many places they can be much more motivating, energising and lead to self discovery than happiness ever can.

Concluding thoughts….

It is perfectly legitimate to seek happiness. Heavy empirical evidence suggest that happy people are definitely more satisfied, creative, call for fewer sick days and remain longer in their relationships with people as well as their company. While all this seems clear what remains highly debatable is how we understand happiness, how do we gauge it and finally what we think will generate our happiness. Answers to these questions are far more than complicated than we think because no set of circumstances that can guarantee happiness for everyone. Happiness is an entirely subjective state so think again when you walk your path to happiness…

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