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The Cult of Happiness: 10 Simple Ideas to Stop the Circus and Redirect the Love

“The floggings will continue until morale improves.”

Can companies turn happiness into a management tool to be measured or a skill to be improved?

As the joke illustrates, I don’t think so.

In “Against Happiness”, the economist Schumpeter shines a light on the “happy-clappy progressive management theory” that is taking root in many companies across the globe (not just trendy California).

The online retailer Zappos even has its own CHO – “Chief Happiness Officer”.  Spreading the concept of corporate “fungineering” must be a big kpi for that person.

But has happiness always been seen as a “path to profit, passion and purpose” as Zappos founder Tony Hsieh believes?


What Business Knows…

For a long time business has known that there is money to be made in the fun trade.  How else can you explain the success and longevity of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936). “Seem upbeat to win friends and influence people” – one tip from the self-help bible. And then there’s Walt Disney’s “happiest place on earth” – going strong for 60+ years.

However, I doubt either (fun)gineer could have predicted the current boom.

With increasing competition, shrinking profit margins and other fear-inducing market forces, companies are scrambling to set themselves and their workforces apart.

Mindfulness sessions, yoga classes, campus playgrounds – a few of the incentives on offer.

Most companies believe a happy workforce is necessary to win and retain customers but also to attract talent.

After all, happy employees are more engaged and more productive right?

Here are a few problems with this logic:

  • As you learned in Economics 101, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. That is, if somebody gives you something for free they expect something in return.
  • It’s impossible to track and measure happiness. First, it’s not clear exactly what to measure; second, it looks and feels completely different for every individual.
  • Companies have no right to “regulate their workers’ psychological states and turn happiness into an instrument of corporate control” – an invasion of individual liberty according The Economist (front line of mgmt wisdom since 1843).

While I agree that it’s unfair and even dangerous (“tech world rocked by suicide”) to ask or expect people to act happy when they don’t feel like it, I do believe that it’s important for companies to value the physical and emotional well-being of their workforce.

Furthermore, I believe it’s more important for them to act on what they see and hear from their employees.  That is, if they really want to improve it.

Therefore, I welcome the mindfulness and yoga incentives…ones without unrealistic expectations attached.

Provide me with free coffee in the office and I’ll be more alert.  But don’t expect a testimonial of gratitude for it.  Offer yoga class on Wednesday nights, but don’t monitor my attendance.

And, if I accept something, I’ll do it with eyes open.  At the end of the day it’s up to me to draw my own boundaries and be clear on my values, i.e. what I am willing to do/not do.

If I’m asked to be polite to a customer, that’s reasonable. If I’m asked to kiss up to someone who treats others poorly, we have a problem. If there are consequences to my (in)action, I can live with them. But it’s my choice.


A Call to Action

In addition to “happiness”, Aristotle preferred to talk about “flourishing” – that which he saw as the highest human good.

In his words, here’s why:

“When we flourish, we do often feel happy, but that’s simply an effect of the real goal, which is to live in accordance with our natures, doing the things we do best the best we can do them. Rather than seeing this as the indirect route to happiness, we should see it as the direct route to what it actually is.”

2300 years later, this still holds true.

I would not like to discourage companies from pursuing happiness for their people – even if their motives are higher engagement and better results.

However, I would like to offer this letter with 10 simple, actionable ideas to redirect their efforts:


Dear management,

I hear that you are concerned about my physical and emotional well-being.  I see that you’ve even taken steps to improve it.

I’m sure you even got great external consultants to advise you what would make me happier at work.  No doubt you also benchmarked other companies and tried to follow what they are doing.

That’s great news – please don’t stop your efforts!

But if you value my opinion, there are a lot of things that would improve my situation that you haven’t thought of yet.

That’s OK.  But if you really want me to be more content in my job, here are a few ideas that would help me feel and perform better:


  1. Please do give me working guidelines to follow and tell me the reasons behind them. I

    BTW, please don’t order me to do things, ask me.

2. Please do give me more control over “mandatory” meetings and other urgent job activities (FYI – nothing sucks my energy more than time-wasting meetings). II

BTW, please don’t force me to attend something where my presence isn’t absolutely needed.


3. Please do provide me with fair working conditions. III

BTW, please don’t expect my full motivation and commitment if you don’t show me yours.


4. Please do ask me directly what would improve my situation. And please listen to my answer. IV

BTW, please don’t assume your idea will improve my situation without asking me first.


5. Please do provide me opportunities to participate in stress-reducing activities, but let me decide to join or not.

BTW, please don’t formally or informally track my attendance or make this part of my performance review.


6. Please do ask me to be polite and professional as my job requires.

BTW, please don’t expect me to do something that makes me violate a personal value.


7. Please do ask me why I did/not do something that displeases you.

BTW, please don’t assume you know why I did/not do it (e.g. perhaps I’m dealing with a divorce or worse).


8. Please do recognize that my well-being is entirely individual and cannot be turned on and off like other kpi’s.

BTW, please don’t expect me to enjoy the same things as you (e.g. a team building event that is fun for you might be a nightmare for me).


9. Please do be aware of the potential consequences of asking me to behave in a certain way (low motivation, burnout).

BTW, please don’t be surprised if I lack the energy to embrace and drive each new initiative.


1o. Please do take something off my plate (it’s overflowing). V

BTW, please don’t give me another “to do”.


If you really want to work with me to improve my work situation and perhaps increase my happiness as a result, I very much look forward to having an open and honest conversation with you.

Optimistically yours,

Employee 42

P.S. If this letter makes you want to increase the floggings, please disregard it ASAP!


I. If you give me the logic behind the guideline, there’s a good chance I’ll comply.
II. If I really want to miss a meeting, I’ll find a way.
III. If I do my job well and meet the job requirements, I expect the promised “basics”.
IV. If you act on it, I’ll know that you heard me and for sure be more engaged.

V. If you let me choose it myself, I’ll be even happier.



In The Antidote, Oliver Burkeman highlights the idea that “the more we strive for happiness, and other psychological goods like security and confidence, the less we achieve them.”  He continues in this vein: “a happiness worthy of the name must include a mix of the rough and smooth, the aches and pains as well as the joys of life.”

Take it from a modern philosopher who loved bowling, life is full of “strikes and gutters, ups and downs”:

I’m pretty sure the gutters never stopped The Dude from enjoying his life to the fullest.

Coming back to the Greek philosopher, keep in mind that: “happiness is neither the journey nor the destination, it’s simply something we get more than enough of when we travel the right way”.

I don’t know about you but I want to work for a company who helps me to do this.


What’s your take on The Cult of Happiness?  What would you like to tell management re this topic?  Please share a comment me and my readers below.




  • Fortunately, I have had from good to excellent managers until now who focused on the important: employees development , interesting tasks, open to dialogue , fair salaries – without making too much like we are friends… but when I see positons like “Chief happiness officer, “BS” pops up in my head , especially with start ups , knowing the level of salaries and extended hours their employees are doing !
    Have you seen the movie “the Circle” with Emma Watson? That’s a good example of apparently good intentions gone wrong..! 🙂

    • Thanks for the tip, Charlotte. No, I haven’t seen that movie – is that the one based on the book by Dave Eggers? Beware of the “fun” police:).

  • Oh thanks Tim for this article!
    What a nice summary of what I have thought for a few years now regarding this well communicated and marketed “pursuit of happiness” in big companies.. which often completely discards what actually contributes to make people very unhappy (increasing workloads, emails flowing all the time, lack of flexibility and understanding for personal situations etc).

    You are totally right: as soon as something is expected in return, something is wrong.
    While companies should keep their efforts to increase employees’ well-being, I think the answer may be thinking in terms of “employee experience journey” (and the legitimate expectations of an employee), rather than “happiness”, which is highly subjective and includes lots of personal elements…

    BR ,

  • Love the article bro! The witty and philosophical perspectives are a great nuance. Interesting how you deconstructed this “fad function”. Happiness ultimately is a by product of getting people to live and express themselves in their sweetspot. Arbitrating happiness is as your allude to – a lost cause. And after all just because someone may be happy it does not mean they are productive. I’m perfectly happy spending a weekend in my boardshorts, and eating fast food watching season 5 of Game of Thrones but I’m zero productive – and that is all ok.

    • Hi Siegfried, thanks for your comment! Absolutely, sometimes exactly what we need is to do nothing and be unproductive…enjoy season 5! Cheers, Tim

  • thanxs a lot for sharing,Tim!

    I `d say, its the deep inner core driver/ motivation (not mere values) and subsequent coherence inside/ outside that helps to discriminate.

    This cannot be measured, it can clearly felt. in space.

    Thanxs, Tim!!

  • Thanks for a very thought provoking article Tim and as you now I’m a fan of Oliver Burkeman’s writing. I get that appreciative inquiry and encouraging laughter etc are good but as with anything else they need to be in balance with other approaches and balanced with reality. My biggest rant is putting a value/KPI on how I feel at work without talking to me, it is just so wrong on every level. We are human beings, let me be!

    Happiness is knowing I’ll have somewhere to sit and work when I get in and being judged on the outcomes I achieve rather than the hours you can see me sitting in the office. And of course the facilities to make a cup of tea 🙂

  • Really good piece Tim. As a former employee I always found forced fun to be truly awful. Employee engagement and happiness is more often found in the mundane but important ways that staff can be appreciated, validated and supported in just doing their jobs … rather than sending the fun police after them. Or as the Dude would say “yeah well that’s like, you’re opinion man!”

    • Thanks, John. Yeah, the Dude was very respectful of others’ opinions. I wonder how he would have reacted to the fun police…if he’d ever found gainful employment, that is?

  • Nice article mate. Had a good chuckle over that one. Is that a Monty Python quote about the flogging continuing until morale improves? Love that one. As usual though, the Dude can sum it up man. Although, bear in mind, he was a very lazy man.