February 2012: The Deceit of “Happiness”January 31, 2012
“Show me somebody who is always smiling, always cheerful, always optimistic and I will show you somebody who hasn’t the faintest idea
what the heck is really going on.”
Late syndicated columnist
Should families function as “happiness factories” with parents as production managers?
It seems many parents believe this.
The dominant theme at our Annual Leaders Retreat three weeks ago revolved around the myth of the happy childhood.
Our guest presenter, the eminent historian, Dr. Peter Stearns, recalled the 1912 origins of the song “Happy Birthday to You,” Disney’s boldfaced “marketing of happiness,” and the unprecedented, 20th-century assumption that “children should be happy all the time.”
Parents in attendance acknowledged the emotional costs to themselves of constantly trying to figure out how to “make their children happy,” or “get them out of” short-term uncomfortable states.
Parents pointed out an important irony: efforts to “make their kids happy” don’t seem to produce more happiness.
When parents assume their children should be constantly happy, it’s not long before their children begin experiencing unhappiness as a catastrophe.
The deceit of “the happy childhood” fictionalizes setbacks, adversity, and the normal emotions of sadness, anger, frustration and fear. It also compromises higher maturity behaviors: sacrifice, delayed gratification and dedication to long-term goals.
The result? Parents who push too hard on the happiness button foster hyper-sensitivity instead. In the face of routine setbacks – a missed homework assignment, a short-term depression or a physical limitation – happiness-addicted kids and their parents imagine that life will fall apart.
We are re-writing Mark Twain’s wry admission: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, and most of it never happened.”
Over-reactivity to unhappiness has even spread to pets.
A few days after hearing Dr. Stearns discuss the history of parental anxiety, I attended famed “dog whisperer,” Cesar Millan’s “Pack Leader Tour” stop in Rochester. Millan spoke about how the societal drift towards misplaced niceness causes problems with domestic animals.
“When dogs get everything they want, they become insecure,” said Millan. “Dogs in America have birthday parties, they are chunky and they have psychological problems.”
Millan saw a dramatic difference in pet culture when he moved to the USA from Mexico at age 23, hoping to become the best dog trainer in the world. “I wanted to train dogs but when I saw what was going on inside the dog owner’s homes, I started thinking, ‘I need to train people, and rehabilitate dogs.’”
Millan is proposing that by focusing on happiness we might be barking up the wrong tree.
“The real question is ‘What helps a dog feel secure?’ Millan says. There’s a misbelief that an excited dog is a happy dog. It’s easy to get a dog excited, but how do you calm a dog? A dog cannot listen to a human who is anxious. First, there has to be calmness.”
“Happiness anxiety” in the workplace
Organizational leaders – firm partners, CEOs, school principals, government heads and the leaders of social movements – have also bought the happiness myth. Some leaders I know lose sleep over how to “happy up” their top talent in new ways.
Other signs that leaders spend too much energy worrying about happy employees:
- The leader focuses more on rewards than on responsibilities.
- An increase in “care-taking” talk – “I’ve got to make sure I’m taking care of my employees,” “My boss takes care of me.” “I can’t complain – I am well taken care of.”
- A ratcheting up of expectations for praise and recognition, and a higher level of reactivity to not being praised. (How does a manager who has been told “You’re special” all her life get comfortable on a team of equals? When a child hears “I love you” fifteen times a day for 25 years, how does he – as a young adult employee – not expect the same from a boss?)
- A spike in leadership nervousness whenever an employee is upset, offended or “not happy,” as if the workplace “caused” the employee’s disgruntled state.
- A widely-accepted (though baseless) leadership belief in “motivating employees,” as if the employer is more responsible for an employee’s enthusiasm and dedication that the employee.
- An atmosphere of litigiousness that stifles individual responsibility by allowing troublemakers to escape accountability. I recently spoke to a division head who fired an employee for sexual misconduct and grossly poor judgment involving other employees. The leader feels considerable moral consternation about the fact that when approached for a reference on the irresponsible employee, she cannot tell the recruiter or prospective employer the truth, for fear of “defamation of character” legal action by the departed employee. This is akin to transferring a pedophile priest to another parish.
Most leaders want to teach their employees exactly the same lessons that parents want to teach their children:
- Life is not always fair, and work responsibilities are not always pleasant;
- Mistakes happen and offer great opportunities for innovation;
- Deriving satisfaction from a job well done will mean more in the long run than “happiness,” which, like a rose, blooms today and fades tomorrow;
- Compassion, sacrifice and character are at least as important as talent;
- Adversity, when reflected upon, can lead to wisdom and strength.
Our nervousness about “employee happiness” stifles those potent lessons.
If, as leaders, we want our kids and employees to accelerate their maturity, we should stop taking responsibility for their happiness and focus instead on fueling our own calmness, gumption and self-improvement.
As Cesar Millan cleverly notes, “I cannot ask a dog to be calm when my heart rate is higher than his.”