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Why You Shouldn’t Encourage Happiness at Work

A new study suggests that encouraging staff to be happy at work can actually backfire and produce negative results. In fact, research suggests that being able to express a range of positive and negative emotions is far more beneficial for the whole organization.

According to a recent study by the London School of Economics, the place where we feel most miserable is work, with only being sick in bed ranked lower. However, employers – and HR reps in particular – have long been told that happiness at work is tantamount to increased productivity (even though the results of studies to evaluate this have actually been largely inconclusive).

And, perhaps most interesting, it is the HR execs – the ones how are expected to uphold a smile and force them on other people – who are perhaps the most unhappy! According to the London study, they are taking more genuine sick days due to unhappiness than any other profession.

Writing in Quartz, Deputy Ideas Editor Meredith Bennett-Smith notes that there is “something sinister about the corporate cult of positivity.” Specifically, she points to reports from Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David that there are dangers associated with putting on a happy face every morning. “People who focus on being happy actually, over time, become less happy,” explains David. “To be clear, I’m not anti-happiness. It’s more that our happiness comes not as a goal, but as a by-product of engaging in honesty with ourselves.”

Echoing these claims, sociologist and economist William Davies’ writes in his book, The Happiness Industry, that “the argument for promoting happiness at work has always been primarily about productivity. Employers seek various ways to boost employee morale and mood, or, if that fails, instruct them on how to behave in a happy way.” However, he warns that corporate happiness strategies can have an adverse effect.

“I think a good balance can be struck where employers develop genuine sympathy and understanding for the non-work issues that employees face, recognizing that they have a life outside of work,” Davies notes.

Further, while we are by no means suggesting that you should promote negative emotions in the workplace, the experts note that discouraging low-spirits means organizations could miss out on creativity bursts. According to Joseph Forgas, professor of psychology at the University of New South Wales in Australia, communication and critical thinking skills can actually increase when people are in a mild negative mood. “Negative mood operates as a mild alarm signal, informing us that we face a new, unfamiliar and potentially problematic situation, and so subconsciously produce a more attentive and focused thinking style,” he adds.

Do you think your company could benefit from not promoting happiness or do you think it would be disastrous in your workplace?

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