REALITY BITES: The point is that because work is so central to our wellbeing, we should be happy at it regardless of whether or not it improves the bottom line

REALITY BITES: The point is that because work is so central to our wellbeing, we should be happy at it regardless of whether or not it improves the bottom line - The wife of French president Charles de Gaulle was asked, at a London diplomatic dinner marki

by RICHARD REEVES, author of Happy Mondays: Putting the PleasureBack into Work (Pearson). rr@hauverreeves.com
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The wife of French president Charles de Gaulle was asked, at a London diplomatic dinner marking her husband's retirement, what she now most wanted from life. She considered for a moment then replied: 'A penis.' Overhearing the exchange and seeing the consternation on the questioner's face, another guest lent across and translated her strong French accent. 'Mme De Gaulle is saying she wants happiness, sir, happiness.'

Which was, of course, a much more conventional answer. Who, after all, doesn't want happiness? From Aristotle onwards, philosophers have argued that the search for happiness is the central quest of humanity. The trouble is that views vary wildly about the components of a happy life - money or generosity, free love or strict monogamy, hedonistic atheism or daily mass?

Happiness is one of those qualities that defies definition. Indeed, as soon as you start thinking about it, you probably can't be feeling it. As John Stuart Mill said: 'Ask yourself if you are happy and you cease to be so.'

This is why self-help books are no help at all. Sitting at home reading about how to be happy is possibly the surest path to depression available in the modern world. In Will Ferguson's satirical novel Happiness(TM), a self-help book is published that does the unthinkable: it works. Everyone becomes happy. As a result, the global economy collapses. People stop buying stuff that they previously thought would make them feel better.

The central character sees it coming: 'Our entire economy is built on human weaknesses,' he warns. 'Hair salons. Male mid-life crises. Shopping binges. Our entire way of life is built on self-doubt and dissatisfaction. If people were ever really, truly happy, truly satisfied with their lives, it would be cataclysmic.'

The US constitution guards the rights not to happiness but to its pursuit. And that pursuit fuels consumerism. The problem is that it isn't working any more. Americans are becoming more miserable even as their economy swells. In the UK, too, self-reported 'life satisfaction' is flat-lining.

One of the chief culprits for the gloom, it seems, is the workplace. Between 1992 and 2000 there was a sharp drop in job satisfaction - especially with issues such as pay, prospects and hours - according to new research from the Work Foundation (formerly the Industrial Society).

These findings are startling. Not because they paint a negative picture (we're all used to those by now), but because during the same period that workers apparently dropped their heads in despair, average wages rose, in real terms, by more than a third; average hours didn't change at all; and the economy grew by more than a quarter. Not bad, Eeyore!

All of which, at first glance, casts some doubt on the thesis put forward by the Work Foundation and others that happy workers are more productive. Perhaps miserable workers put their heads down and get on with the job, while all the happy people sit around and bask in their emotional wealth. Maybe happy people, as Ferguson's book shows, have little incentive towards material gain and so are unlikely to go the extra mile in the office.

Frankly, the jury is out on whether happy or satisfied workers are more productive. On balance, as jobs become more creative, knowledge-based and service-oriented, it's likely that the link between work happiness and profit will strengthen. But this is a secondary concern, in any case. The point is that because work is so central to our wellbeing, we should be happy at it regardless of whether or not it improves the bottom line.

Which brings us back to the decline in workplace morale during the 1990s, despite all the quantitative improvements. What's going on? The drop in satisfaction is real: the data are based on a quality sample of more than 2,000 employees.

If jobs are getting better - which on most empirical measures they categorically are - but staff are getting less satisfied, there is only one explanation: expectations are rising. People are getting more from their work, but they want more still. They want, especially, more freedom, more companionship, more challenge, more mobility.

Far from being a bad news story, this is a terrific development. It is about time we started banging our drums louder. It is about time people stopped tolerating jobs that do little more than pay the rent. In the same way that people are becoming less accepting of poor-quality relationships - and pushing the divorce rate up to much healthier levels - they are demanding more of their employers too.

Freud said that the two keys to happiness are love and work. Racks of magazines and shelves of poetry testify to the importance of the former. But it seems people are starting to wake up to the significance of the latter. The clamour for better work has only just begun.

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