Summary and Keywords
Organizational happiness is an intuitively attractive idea, notwithstanding the difficulty of defining happiness. A preference for unhappiness rather than happiness in an organization would be out of tune with community expectations in most societies, as would an organization that promoted unhappiness. Some argue that organizational happiness is a misconception, that happiness is a personality trait and organizations cannot have personality. Others suggest that organizational happiness is derived from, or at least dependent on, the happiness of the individuals in the organization. A third approach involves virtue ethics, linking organizational happiness to virtuous organizations. Some discussion of the nature of happiness is needed before consideration of these three approaches to the concept of organizational happiness. If one leaves aside the notion of happiness as a psychological state, there remain three main views as to the nature of happiness: one based on a hedonistic view, which grounds happiness in pleasure, one based on the extent to which desire is satisfied, and one where happiness is linked to a life of virtuous activity and the fulfillment of human potential. Some would see no distinction between all three senses of happiness and what is called well-being.
Whether or not organizations can experience happiness is to some extent determined by whether happiness is considered subjective well-being, fulfilled desire, or virtue and to some extent by one’s view of the moral nature of corporations. There are dangers in the unfettered pursuit of happiness. Empirical research is impacted by questions of definition, by changes over time for both individuals and society, and by the difficulty that arises from reliance on self-reported data. Recent decades have seen the publication of quantitative assessments of organizational happiness, despite the difficulty of constructing scales and manipulating data, and the problems of effectively taking into account cultural, organizational, and individual differences in concepts of happiness. Potential research questions fall into two groups, those that seek a better understanding of what happiness is and those that seek to collect data about happiness in pursuit of answers to questions about the benefits of happiness.
People have been concerned about happiness since before the written record. Various aspects of happiness are considered in the epic poems the Iliad and Odyssey (Andersen, 2011); it is mentioned in the opening entries of both the Analects of Confucius (c. 600 bce) and the collected sayings of the Buddha (c. 500 bce) known as the Dhammapada; and it is a persistent theme in the ancient Jewish psalms. Many of the philosophical schools that flourished at the height of Greek and Roman civilization had happiness as a goal, as the end to be pursued and achieved, often expressed as living well. For the Epicureans the goal of living well was equated with pleasure, for the followers of Socrates, Plato, and the Academy it was a life of inquiry where the unexamined life was not worth living, for Aristotle it was human flourishing, and for the Stoics the goal of living well was to live in tune with nature. Despite these differences, happiness, the desired end, was associated with well-being, human flourishing, the development of character, and virtue. This linking of happiness with living a good life persisted until early modern times when an approach gained currency that considered happiness to be a personality trait, a psychological state, or an emotional condition—something that is rather than an end to be pursued.
In part, this paralleled other changes in Western thinking that saw the rise of reason, the scientific method, and a decrease in the impact of religion in society (see MacIntyre, 2007, chapter 2, for an account of the transition). Yet the well-being aspect of happiness has not been lost and in recent decades there has been a surge in interest in personal well-being with a proliferation of courses and self-help books dedicated to the topic. At the same time, experimental work in cognitive neuroscience and extensive empirical studies have provided support for the view that happiness is best described as the presence of measurable positive emotions and life satisfaction. This work, often considered an aspect of the “science of happiness,” is discussed further in the section “Quantitative Approaches to Happiness.”
Recent interest in happiness has not been confined to happiness as a personal goal or a personal feature. Even though the happiness of individuals may bring benefits for the local community or wider society, there is less evidence of happiness being seen as an organization dimension. Some early societies had recognized that culture and belief affected group happiness but it was not until the advent of welfare economics that there was interest in the measurement (and enhancement) of happiness at either the organizational or national level. Welfare economics initially linked happiness and income growth, perhaps beginning with Bentham’s “the greatest good for the greatest number” and the summing of utility across individuals, and later with the use of per capita Gross National Product as an objective measure of happiness. With this came the pursuit by governments of happiness-based policy.
Happiness in Contemporary Society
It is never easy to find a precise definition for a word or expression such as “happiness,” which is in widespread common use and also has specific meanings in one or more professional or academic disciplines. There are multiple uses and although, as Haybron (2011) indicates, “it is questionable whether any major school of philosophical thought denies outright the importance of happiness” the “ordinary notion is something of a mess” (section 2.2). Leaving aside the usages where to be happy is to be slightly drunk or tipsy, where to be trigger-happy is to be irresponsible, or where to be happy to do something is little more than a polite euphemism for acceptance, two distinct meanings remain in both common and professional use, that are relevant to consideration of organizational happiness. One links happiness with human flourishing, the other links happiness with an emotional state. Put another way, one is concerned with a life that goes well, the other with a state of mind. This distinction has particular relevance when it comes to research questions and research design.
The first of these “has its roots in Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, and defines happiness as comprising meaning, self-actualization, and personal growth” (López-Pérez, Sánchez, & Gummerum, 2016, p. 2432), and many authors talk of happiness and well-being as if they are synonymous, with some extending the field so that happiness, well-being, and human flourishing are considered without distinction (see for instance, Somerville, 2011, p. 180). In the second approach happiness is considered the presence of positive emotions and life satisfaction. Within this approach can be found distinctions as to whether happiness is a personality trait or a psychological state, and the rather more philosophical question as to whether happiness is about the present or the future.
Many fields of endeavor have contributed to the development of ideas in happiness since the middle of the 20th century. These include the trend in psychology to seek further understanding of how psychology can aid in the achievement of a satisfactory life alongside its work in the treatment of mental illness. Often designated “Positive Psychology” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), it has led to increased academic and professional activity in both individual and organizational aspects of happiness. (For an introduction to organizational happiness as an aspect of Positive Organizational Scholarship, see Caza & Cameron, 2013). Also contributing to the development in the second half of the 20th century has been the rekindling of interest in virtue ethics where MacIntyre’s After Virtue (2007) is often seen as the seminal work, and the reappraisal, often associated with the work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, of the meaning of human development away from economic measures and toward concern for the development of human capabilities (see, for instance, Nussbaum, 2000, 2011; Sen, 2011). The third element in the recent development is the experimental work of the neuroscientists who have made progress in investigating the nervous system of humans, including the brain states associated with happiness, and how this relates to pleasure and to our sense of well-being. Thus the disciplines of psychology, philosophy, organization studies, human behavior, and neuroscience have all contributed to the development of questions and the upsurge in output concerning happiness.
Whereas much of the 20th-century development has focused on personal aspects of happiness, some have taken measures of organizational climate, organizational philosophy, or ethos to be measures of organizational happiness (Doherty, 2011). Even so, it is not obvious that organizations can experience happiness.
Organizational happiness can be the collection of the happiness of individuals in it, possibly as an aspect of the culture or ethos of the organization; a misconception; or an example of organizational virtue. Seeing the happiness of an organization as the composite of the happiness of the individuals within the organization is the most common approach to organizational happiness. In effect a measure of organizational happiness is derived from individual scores by some mathematical device with the organization acting as a “container” for the happiness of those within it. This composite approach has also been applied at the society or country level. Some argue that there will be synergies, with a potential for the happiness of the organization or group to be greater than the happiness of the individuals; that may be because happiness is contagious and creates a virtuous spiral or because the organization is more than a passive vessel, able to influence the happiness of those within it. Empirical research about synergies is not extensive. It is difficult to isolate the reason for changes in happiness scores and to distinguish the contribution that organizational membership makes to the happiness of members of the organization. Direct measurement of organizational culture or ethos, especially measurement of those characteristics of culture or ethos known or expected to have an influence on the happiness of members, would seem, at first pass, to take us closer to organizational happiness. Zappos and Atlassian, two organizations frequently quoted as examples of organizational happiness (Barker, 2013; Hsieh, 2010), both utilize individual measures as part of their highly commended management practice. At Atlassian the “happiness meter” collects individual comments and scores on a daily basis (Hewett, 2012), at Zappos it is the comments of individual customers and employees that make up the happiness that ties the organization together (Hsieh, 2010, p. 230). Both Zappos and Atlassian have been ranked highly by Great Place to Work, an organization that provides data for many best-place-to-work lists. Great Place to Work bases its assessment in great part on a measure of “trust” including a measure of the extent to which employees “have pride in what they do and enjoy the people they work with.” The study sees a link between great places to work, social cohesiveness, and employee happiness and the similarity with the employee-based approach to happiness is particularly apparent when the organizational culture, happiness, and trust assessments are all based on employee surveys.
Both the happiness as living well and the happiness as state of mind approaches can provide a base from which to argue that the concept of organizational happiness is ill-founded or misconceived. Put simply, can an organization have a flourishing life when flourishing is perceived in ways that are irretrievably linked with attributes of human life, or can an organization have a mind that can be assessed as being in some state or other? One response is to attribute to organizations certain aspects or characteristics usually associated with people, so that organizations have an attribute known as corporate moral agency. While the law and much popular opinion takes the view that “corporations have a conscience” particularly in the sense of holding companies accountable for moral failure (Goodpaster, 2006), not all agree. French (1995) and others argue in favor of limiting moral agency to individuals (see Velasquez, 2003). The question of corporate moral agency has been widely discussed in the philosophical and business ethics literature (see Moore, 1999 for a review). The argument in favor of corporate moral responsibility does not require us to accept that corporations are human beings, and acceptance of a capacity for corporate moral agency or accountability does not imply a capacity for corporate happiness.
The third approach to organizational happiness is based in the concept of organizational virtue and the view that excellence in an organization comes from the achievement of internal as well as external goods and is maintained through practices (MacIntyre, 2007; Moore, 2012). Here the organization has an intrinsic virtuous character and happiness is intrinsic to the organization rather than being derived from the characteristics of its members. Virtue here is principally moral virtue, distinct from physical or intellectual virtues such as location or computational expertise. Moral virtues are attributes or dispositions that are indicative of moral excellence; corporate character as it were. When there is an interrelated system of institution (organization), virtues, and practices, it is possible to maintain the practices that are at the heart of the virtuous institution and makes personal action coherent at its societal, cultural, and individual levels. Thus an organization can exhibit courage (Comer & Vega, 2011; Harris, 2013), wisdom, compassion, and vices such as hardness of heart and deceitfulness. Happiness is a desirable disposition, its pursuit held as an unalienable right in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and Thomas Aquinas calls it the supreme good of human life, the attainment or enjoyment of the supreme good (ST 2-1:3). In both Confucius and the classical Indian tradition happiness and virtue coincide in the perfect state (Analects 2:4; Boruah, 2006, p. 175). Such happiness can be a disposition or virtue found in an organization, and happiness can flourish in the environment of a virtuous organization. The virtue approach, studying and commending a study of the capacity, attributes, and resilience in organizations that facilitate the expression of positive deviance, allows for a multilevel analysis that links individual, organizational, and societal aspects of happiness. Gotsis and Grimani (2015) provide both a review of the field and a typology. And there are contrary views, as some consider happiness to be not a virtue but a “discrete non-moral positive emotion” (Vianello, Galliani, & Haidt, 2010).
Regardless of the definition, the value of happiness is being promoted to organizations. For instance The Harvard Business Review ran a cover story “The Value of Happiness” in 2012, and in the United Kingdom Cranfield Business School was specifically extolling the value of measuring happiness through its blog Think (Doherty, 2011).
Universal Elements of Organizational Happiness
Organization culture and work context have been found to affect organizational happiness, and if this is so then the organization is more than a passive container for the happiness of its individual members. Information about individual happiness also suggests that organizational factors such as values and goals have an impact on personal happiness. Responsibility, nurturance, altruism, civility, moderation, tolerance, and work ethic are mentioned by Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) as civic virtues relevant to institutions that nurture individuals. A virtuous organization will seek to enhance the flourishing of its members, including their happiness. Integrity, trust, courage, some form of caring empathy or compassion, along with zeal and optimism have been identified as aspects of organizational virtue (Cameron & Spreitzer, 2012; Hartman, 2013), and employee perceptions of empathy, warmth, and conscientiousness have been found to be positively correlated with factors such as emotional attachment and employee satisfaction, well-known attributes of happiness (Gotsis & Grimani, 2015, p. 1291). The variation in the definition of the virtues and factors mentioned as relevant to organizational happiness makes it a daunting task to produce a consolidated list or a taxonomy, which will not be attempted here.
The importance of culture and work context as factors affecting organizational happiness suggests that there may be organizations in which organizational happiness cannot be achieved. Most if not all empirical studies of organizational happiness are based on employee surveys. Those surveys may include a broad and representative cross section of the organization’s employees, managers, and governing board, but they are surveys of employees nonetheless. That may be quite sufficient to assess the impact of culture and values, but in some circumstances an employee-only sample will be insufficient. If the assessment is based on individual reports, then to pronounce a school as a happy organization without considering what the students think would seem wrong. While the prison guards might find happiness in a jail or penitentiary, should the views of prisoners be taken into account? When organizational happiness is seen as a function of the happiness of its members, and the members are confined to employees, then the concern disappears, it has been defined away. Yet some contingency remains. Work context is relevant. A remote medical clinic that does great work and provides better outcomes for many may fail to find happiness while there are long queues of those in need of help. An ethically driven international boycott of a company could affect the work context and thus affect organizational happiness. Such a boycott might disrupt a virtuous organization where the practices or institution were fragile. If organizational happiness is (only) to be found in virtuous organizations then the possibility exists that happiness will never be found in some organizations. Both MacIntyre’s insistence on institutions and practices and the importance attributed to moral leadership and the experience of a shared calling in virtuous organizations would suggest that, regardless of industry sector, organizations without clear vision and without effective structures will fail to achieve happiness.
Dangers of Excess
The pursuit of happiness can lead to two harmful situations. The first deals with the effort spent on achieving happiness and the second with the impact of an excess of happiness. Even some who see happiness as a desirable goal or attribute would want to put a limit on the effort spent on attaining it. It is not so much that one can have too much happiness but rather that it would be harmful if the effort put into achieving happiness became excessive. Such an excessive effort has been described as “the cult of cheerfulness,” manifest in an obsessive drive for good cheer, the relentless promotion of positive thinking, even an obsession throughout the community with positive thought (Haybron, 2011). One aspect of this danger is the loss of balance in organizational or personal goals that it promotes and validates—organizations are complex and very few will concentrate on the achievement of a single objective to the exclusion of everything else (and those that do would be considered pathological). Even where the focus on happiness is in the context of wider objectives, a danger remains. If the focus on happiness is driven by an ulterior motive—achieving a high happiness score on a rating chart for the benefit (financial or otherwise) that it might bring the organization, for instance—then the concept of happiness as socially and individually valuable is called into question because what is being promoted or sought after in the corporate drive for happiness is neither a virtue nor greater individual well-being. This will be so particularly when pursuit of the happiness goal has been accompanied or supported by claims that the achievement of the goal will bring benefits for people yet when the goal is achieved there is little or no happiness in the organization. One writer in the business press called this danger “fun by fiat” (Kellaway, 2013).
Excellence is often found in the mean rather than at the extremes. For example, the virtue of courage is found neither in abject cowardice nor in gung-ho recklessness. It is present in a mean. Neither Pollyanna nor Narcissus is the archetype of happiness. Both the virtue and well-being approaches to happiness are concerned with the whole person, and in terms of organizational happiness with a range of virtues and attributes. Happiness is not remote and idealistic, it is practical. In The Happiness Hypothesis Jonathan Haidt (2006) reviews ancient wisdom in the light of modern science, and concludes that a balanced approach is needed. To worship happiness, to place happiness at an extreme might be to make it unattainable, to make the journey toward it unappealing or difficult and hence to make organizational happiness itself unappealing, a contradiction of what was seen as desirable.
The theory and practice of management has seen the rise and disappearance of many fads and fashions, especially since the end of World War II (Byrne, 1986; Ghemawat, 2002). The foundation of organizational happiness in philosophical investigations going back over 2,000 years and in psychology from at least the time of Freud and William James (one might say Aristotle) make it difficult to see it as a new idea or concept that quickly garnered enthusiastic support among practitioners or the academy. There has, however, been a “growing surge” in interest in the early part of the twenty-first century (Doherty, 2011). Although a 2011 review of five books on the topic of happiness is titled The Happiness Craze (Somerville, 2011), the reviewer is more inclined to view contemporary interest as a revival rather than a passing fad, citing two well-known 19th-century thinkers, William James and Alexis de Tocqueville, on the opening page. The revival has perhaps been most apparent in the number of books published in the self-help genre, most of which are concerned with personal happiness rather than happiness at an organizational level.
Quantitative Approaches to Happiness
Organizations are being urged to measure happiness because it is considered beneficial. Because assessments of organizational happiness are drawn from data on individual happiness, or from individual responses to items such as “is this a happy organization,” research regarding organizational happiness rests almost completely on research regarding individual happiness. This may be data collected by survey and interview or data collected using neurological techniques. Useful discussions of the neuroscientific approach can be found in Appiah’s Experiments in Ethics (2008) and in the chapters on neuroscience and happiness in the World Happiness Reports issued from time to time under the auspices of the United Nations (Helliwell, Layard, & Sachs, 2015).
Some general aspects of the measurement of happiness come before consideration of the types of instruments used. The absolute or relative nature of the measurement, the potential bias of self-reporting, differing definitions of happiness as pleasure, fulfillment, or virtue, and the appropriate level of accuracy guide the way in which happiness is analyzed.
First, the cardinal-ordinal question, whether the search is for an absolute measure of organizational happiness or for a relative measure; whether the intention or value of the assessment is to be found in comparing the result to a standard of complete happiness, as would be the case of using a scale of degrees and minutes to comparing the closeness with which the corner of a sheet of paper matched a standard 90º template, or to examine movement in the assessment, to see whether there is more or less happiness than there was at some other time or in some other organization. Examples of perfect happiness, unlike a perfect right angle, do not exist on earth, or if they do it is not possible to define them in terms of measurable criteria. Fortunately, as Amartya Sen (2011) shows in relation to justice, there is no need to identify the demands of perfect happiness before a comparative exercise can be carried out (p. ix). Separate concerns remain about the manner in which individual ordinal scores (such as those from Likert scales) can be added up, but that is a matter inherent to such scales and not specific to happiness measurement.
Second, most measures of organizational happiness will require a degree of self-reporting. Self-reporting itself may not be a problem given the comparative use of the results, but the impact should be discussed when describing the suitability of any chosen research method. One specific bias relevant in the case of happiness assessment is that when people assess how they will feel in the future (an element of happiness in most schema) they persistently overestimate the impact of anticipated events on their happiness (Noval, 2016, p. 1). Notwithstanding the difficulties, self-reported happiness has been found to correlate with objective measures of happiness such as physical and mental health, and with the assessments of peers and health professionals.
Third, the interpretation of data may be influenced by the researchers’ theoretical approach to happiness, as the choice of a definition of happiness on which any survey is based is not value-free. If organizational happiness is taken to be the mean of individual happiness scores, and happiness is equated with pleasure in a hedonistic approach, the results may not be comparable to those from another study in which happiness was taken to be subjective well-being or personal flourishing and the questions chosen consistent with that choice. Even where the studies use the same methodology and theory the results may not be comparable if the participants have different views of what constitutes happiness. This is additionally concerning for longitudinal studies; a person’s views on happiness may change over time, even if they do not change jobs or cities.
The fourth aspect regarding measurement concerns accuracy, where it would be wise to remember Aristotle’s admonition not to demand more precision than is appropriate to the subject matter (NE 1:3 1094b; Hartman, 2013, p. 163). While accuracy and precision are desirable in measurement, this should not be to the extent of sacrificing the very nature of the thing being measured. Numerical results do allow simple comparison, and in most measures of organizational happiness they will be founded on the scores provided by individuals. The two survey instruments discussed in the next section seek numerical responses from participants, perhaps inviting respondents to a level of accuracy they deem inappropriate or even silly—do I feel 7 or 8 today?. The concerns about commensurability are accentuated once the data from individual respondents is combined to yield an organizational measure.
The Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (Stiglitz, Sen, & Fitoussi, 2009) concluded that “it is possible to collect meaningful and reliable data on subjective well-being.” There are a number of studies that provide regular reports on subjective well-being, often described as measures of happiness, as an element of an assessment of the quality of life. The reports are based on surveys of individuals within each entity and the methods and scales used have been widely adopted by other researchers. Two main survey forms are used in these studies, one using guidelines from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2013) and the other using a scale known as Cantril’s Ladder. The UK Office of National Statistics and some other national authorities have developed schemes that are mainly used in the country of development. Most if not all of these measure subjective well-being. Although the definition of subjective well-being in the OECD guidelines encompasses the three elements of life—evaluation, affect, and a flourishing life—it is only the measures of life satisfaction that are used in the World Happiness Report (Helliwell, Layard, & Sachs, 2013, p. 114) and it is only this measure that the OECD guidelines consider to be core and mandatory. The primary measure in the OECD guidelines—“Overall, how satisfied are you with life as a whole these days?”—focuses on the evaluative aspect of subjective well-being. This form of question is also used in the World Values Study (Inglehart, 2000) and in the British Household Panel Survey (UK Data Service, 2018), and there is an extensive body of literature attesting the validity and reliability of these types of subjective well-being questions. There is a similar body of literature in support of the Self-Anchoring Striving Scale (Cantril, 1965). This scale, often called Cantril’s Ladder, is used in the Gallup World Poll (Gallup, 2009). Cantril’s scale is more complex in use. Initially respondents are asked to describe two extremes of happiness, one the maximum or absolute happiness and the other the complete lack of happiness. These are represented by the top and bottom steps on a ladder, denoted by 10 and 0 respectively. Respondents are then asked to provide a number, between 10 and 0, which best represents their current state of happiness. Studies have shown that the results from the two measures—the subjective well-being question and Cantril—are essentially equivalent.
However well these scales overcome the difficulties of using numerical scores as a measure of subjective well-being, the matter of how the data collected from individuals is converted into an organizational happiness measure remains. The outputs come from subjective well-being measures, where there is little evidence that the difference between steps on the ladder are equal—is 8 pretty close to the top step 10, not much more than three-quarters of the way up (8÷10 = 80%), or way short of a 10 that is unattainably far away? Respondents may also have different views regarding what the top and bottom scores represent. Sison (2015) suggests that a narrative form is needed to express something close to a true assessment of happiness, but the variation in star rankings for books and films shows that even the narrative form can be differently interpreted. The use of a single mean to indicate organizational happiness may cloud significant divergence within the organization, be that a wide spread of answers around a single mean or the existence of subgroups with distinct views of happiness in the organization.
Attempts to compare measurements of organizational culture between organizations or between parts of a large organization may be influenced by national culture. Large multinational studies of happiness, such as those published in the World Happiness Report and in the Gallup World Poll, show national differences and analyses often link the differences to factors such as economic development. The World Values Study, which has collected much data over many decades in over 50 countries, provides additional resources and analysis relating values to social and economic factors. National scores and rankings for happiness, well-being, and human development exhibit considerable spread, and work continues to find correlations between happiness and culture and to provide convincing narratives that might explain those correlations or apparent anomalies.
Potential research questions regarding organizational happiness fall into two groups, those that seek a better understanding of what happiness is and those that seek answers to questions about the benefits of happiness through the collection of data about individual happiness. Six questions, relating to the nature of happiness, the contribution of neuroscience, narrative assessments, cross-cultural studies, unintended consequences, and time, show the range of issues available for further inquiry and the multidisciplinary nature of both the topic and current research.
The multidisciplinary nature of research and scholarship about happiness is nowhere clearer than in consideration of the nature of happiness itself. There are debates within psychology as to whether happiness is a persistent trait or a transient state; within philosophy regarding whether or not characteristics such as happiness can be attributed to organizations and groups; and within economics regarding the nature of human satisfaction. The OECD guidelines, the source of one widely used measure of happiness, acknowledges that there are three main views about the meaning of happiness, one based on a hedonistic view, which grounds happiness in pleasure, one based on the extent to which desire is satisfied, and one in which happiness is linked to a life of virtuous activity of the fulfillment of human potential. Further understanding of the nature of happiness will not only assist in measurement and the development of questions but also may help to explain why there has been such a big shift in the popular conception of happiness in the West and to understand the implications of a postmodern, postsecular world on happiness and on its assessment.
Neuroscience, especially evidence from brain imaging using magnetic resonance imaging to view the anatomical structure of the brain or functional magnetic resonance imaging to view metabolic function within the brain, has helped researchers to understand the neural bases of human emotion and reasoning. Neuroscience may for instance help us to understand what restores happiness more quickly and most effectively and what disrupts it. Neuroscientific work is inherently individual, but the advent of wearable headsets makes it possible to gather data in group (and organizational) situations. The extent to which neuroscience can provide objective measures of happiness will depend in part on the work that considers what happiness is; insights from neuroscience might influence the discussion regarding the nature of happiness as new understanding about brain behavior helps people to better understand reason and emotion.
A narrative approach may overcome some of the dangers arising from a false sense of precision. The difficulty of capturing happiness with a single number is apparent when it is remembered that there are different basic ideas as to what happiness is, and individuals can have different views of what full satisfaction, or a perfectly achieved life, would look or feel like. However, narratives take a long time to capture and to tell, and short of commissioning a playwright or historian (perhaps with the example of de Tocqueville in America before them), there is no apparent method to combine many stories into one. The search for nonnumerical assessments might prompt research into different ways of presenting the results of happiness research, using written narrative, art, video and theatre. (See, e.g., the work of Nancy Adler regarding art, leadership, and management [Adler, 2015].)
Turning to the research about the benefits of happiness, the three questions to be considered relate to cross-cultural matters, unintended consequences, and time. The challenges to be overcome in the collection of cross-cultural data extend well beyond congruency in translation from one language to another. First, subjective well-being, the core question of the OECD and Gallup surveys, may not be the principal form of happiness in some cultures. The change in Western perceptions of happiness from the onset of the Enlightenment show how changes in perceptions of good can lead to changes in what is considered well-being or virtue. The challenge is to develop an instrument that acknowledges this difference. When a minority in a group has strongly held views on what constitutes happiness and that view is at odds with the one in the survey, additional problems arise, such as how to collect useful data from the minority, how to combine that input with other data that may be viewed as incommensurable, and how to respect the minority view in reporting. One aspect of the problem is solved by relying solely on objective measures, as the United Nations Human Development Index does, but this comes at the expense of richness. Further research on the impact of happiness surveys on the happiness of those who have minority views about the meaning of happiness, and of the impact of such minorities on organization-level assessments would be welcome.
What is the impact of actively seeking happiness? Some evidence is available from Bhutan, where a program to increase gross national happiness began in the 1970s. Almost two centuries ago Alexis de Tocqueville (1840/2000) argued that the unintended consequence of the pursuit of happiness is rampant discontent and frustration. Is it possible to support de Tocqueville’s observation with contemporary evidence? Notwithstanding the apparent progress in Bhutan, has the well-being movement and the plethora of self-help books raised the bar, the height of step 10 on Cantril’s Ladder, or lowered the subjective well-being of individuals and the organizational happiness scores obtained in surveys?
The final research question relates to time. The Cantril assessment is called “self-anchoring” because each respondent anchors his or her response on the descriptions of best and worst that each has individually produced for each end of the scale. Some longitudinal studies have shown that aspects of happiness such as stress and sadness change with age, through youth to middle age and retirement (see for instance the World Happiness Report 2015). What lies behind this? Is it a change in values, in desires, in our perception of the enjoyment that will come from certain achievements, or in what we perceive as a life lived to the full? Some answers may come from careful analysis of existing data, especially where longitudinal sequences can be identified. Perhaps narrative studies will be productive.
Happiness is beneficial in an organization. That value may be derived from the happiness of the members of the organization or it may be an aspect of a virtuous organization (although some say that the very idea of a happy organization is a step too far, that only humans can experience happiness—or unhappiness). Whether happiness is seen as subjective well-being, emotion, or a flourishing life, it is intuitively better to be happy than to be unhappy. In ancient times, the concept of happiness was discussed as an aspect of philosophy. More recently, psychology, philosophy, organization studies human behavior studies, and neuroscience all contribute to the upsurge in interest and output concerning happiness. There can be too much of a good thing. The excessive pursuit of organizational happiness can lead to a narrow focus and loss of strategic balance, while happiness sought for commercial benefit may result in an unhappy organization.
The measurement of organizational happiness faces four significant difficulties: the distinction between absolute and relative measures, the potential for bias through self-reporting, the differing definitions of happiness as pleasure, fulfillment, or virtue, and achieving an appropriate level of accuracy for the assessment. The most widely used measures of organizational happiness are based on subjective well-being scores from relevant individuals. Research in two areas should help organizations as they seek greater happiness and endeavor to measure their progress toward it. A better understanding of what happiness is may come from debates within philosophy and psychology about the nature of happiness, advances in neuroscience, and consideration of the role of narrative in organizations. Our understanding of the benefits of organizational happiness will be enhanced by studies that address cross-cultural issues, unintended consequences, and the impact of time.
The World Happiness Report, published from time to time by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, contains review essays in addition to data and analysis. The 2013 report contains chapters on virtue ethics and on measurement. The 2015 report includes a chapter on neuroscience.
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