December 15, 2016
Happiness. That seems to be the goal, at least according to a wide array of self-help books and cute phrases on coffee mugs and aspirational cubicle signs and bosses telling us to smile more.
To be happy— thrilled, even— with our work is supposedly the true tell of whether we've found our niche. It's the emotion to which we should all aspire.
I'm certainly pro-happiness. But a recurring theme in this column, aside from "doughnuts are good," is that being yourself at work— being authentic— allows you to put your best self forward. That can be hard, yes, and it might require some minor tweaks—letting your true freak flag fly in the office may not be doable, so maybe your run it up halfway, which is better than stuffing it in a drawer and leaving it home.
But what if your authentic state of being is not one of effervescent happiness? In a working world that has made happiness a status symbol, how can you seem happy and be authentic if walking around with a smile on your face doesn't feel natural?
This is the point where we, as human beings, need to look past fads and ill-conceived corporate-culture pabulum and think about how our minds actually work.
Maurice Schweitzer, professor of operations, information and decisions at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, recently studied how we perceive happiness in others and found that excessive displays of cheer might be detrimental in the workplace.
It boils down to this: People who express high levels of happiness are likely to be perceived as naive. We tend to assume that someone who's outwardly happy most of the time is either ignorant of, or intentionally blocking out, the negative things in life that might curb happiness.
That makes the rest of us sound like awful, cynical people, right? Schweitzer says that's not really the case. It just means we're human.
"We're constantly scanning our environment, we're trying to figure things out," he said. "Our social world is very complicated and we're interacting with a lot of people and, often outside of our conscious awareness, we're trying to navigate the social world to figure out who's a friend, who's a foe, how do I get ahead and get along. The emotions that people express are giving us a lot of information."
In a study he co-authored in a recent issue of the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Schweitzer found that not only are highly happy colleagues viewed as naive, they're also frequent targets of manipulation.
"If you're trying to exploit somebody, you're likely to go after the really happy person," he said. "That's who we think is going to be the most gullible person, that's who we're going to try to get on the hook for something else."
The study concluded, in part: "Employees who display happiness at very high levels may seem unprepared to field customer complaints or unknowledgeable about the products or services they provide. Leaders who express extreme happiness may be seen as easily persuaded, unknowledgeable, exploitable, or broadly ineffective."
There are people who are outwardly happy most of the time, and that is their authentic personality. But I'd guess there are many others who project happiness because they think it's a desirable state of being.
"It's embedded in the founding of the United States, the pursuit of happiness," Schweitzer said. "I feel like it's gotten a little carried away. Not only do we want service with a smile, we want a smile all the time.
"I hate to tell people to dial it down, don't be so happy. But I would push against the positive psychology movement, the power of positive thinking, let's just be happy all the time. There's a cost to that. There's some downside."
Coming back to the freak-flag-flying issue and being willing to only run it halfway up the mast, it's a similar situation with happiness.
If you are truly an outwardly happy person, Schweitzer suggests "down-regulating" that emotion. It's counterintuitive. Socially, we tend to up-regulate happiness (appear happier than we are) and down-regulate anger.
His point is that if we naturally run at a high level of happiness— or if we are up-regulating happiness too much because happiness seems en vogue— it's costing us.
The study found that moderately happy people aren't perceived as naive. So it's a detrimental emotion only when it's amped up.
We can be happy at work. We should be happy at work. But we don't need to display that particular emotion at all times or think we're impressing others with incessant positivity. It could be quite the opposite.
"Everything in moderation" is a foundational piece of wisdom.
And even in a world that seems to encourage limitless happiness, moderating our joy, whether it's real or wishful thinking, is likely the wisest choice.
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