“The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality of happiness, and by no means a necessity of life.”-George Bernard Shaw
There’s been a lot of talk about happiness in the last decade, and it doesn’t look like that talk is going to stop any time soon. Everyone is looking for a silver bullet, a panacea, a way to ensure happiness, and not least among those searchers is employers.
I began to become skeptical of this search during the mindfulness craze of oh, was it the 2000s? I mean, there’s tons of research (almost entirely positive) on mindfulness and its benefits, including in the workplace. My own therapist insisted that I begin a regimen of mindfulness meditation (that lasted about six months and I’m honestly proud of myself, that’s way longer than I stuck with “gratitude journaling”) to help combat stress, anxiety, and depression. And when I say that I’m skeptical, I’m not skeptical of mindfulness itself, I’ve read a lot about it and it’s clear that it has benefits. I’m skeptical of employers pushing mindfulness as a cure-all.
What brought all this up today? I was going through Twitter and found this. You don’t really need to bother reading it too much, it’s probably the addiest ad I’ve ever seen on Entrepreneur.com. It’s basically a marketing piece for a kind of technology to reduce stress, increase happiness, and improve brain function. Maybe it works. I don’t know. But that’s not really the point.
Stress Has a Purpose
According to the American Institute of Stress, the term stress was coined in 1936 and refers to the “non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” If there’s a tiger in the bushes over there? Stress. If you have a big exam next week? Stress. The causes of stress can in fact be very individual, depending on a single person’s background and context. But tigers and exams result in very similar reactions in the brain and body. This includes the release of adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol; also known as stress hormones.
The purpose of these hormones is to give us the ability to enact the change that this stress response is demanding, whether that’s running from a tiger or staying up late to prepare for an exam.
Adrenaline gives you a surge of energy, and is responsible for that heart-pounding, amped up feeling you get from an immediate stressor, like avoiding an accident on the highway. Norepinephrine makes you feel more awake, more aware, more focused. Cortisol is perhaps the most famous of the stress hormones in all of this discussion of happiness in the workplace, because cortisol takes longer to be released in the face of a stressor, and it remains in your system longer. In fact, under chronic stress, you can end up with your body continuously releasing cortisol, with effects that can be disastrous.
Cortisol in periods of acute stress can regulate non-crucial body functions, such as reproductive drive, the immune system, digestion, etc, and redirect those energies to enact whatever change is needed. If we suppress those functions chronically, the result is increased illness due to reduced immunity, increased blood pressure (and sugar; this ties into my thoughts about the “obesity epidemic,” but that’s a different post), and can contribute to obesity.
Basically, too much cortisol can make us very sick, reduce our happiness and our productivity.
But stress has a purpose. Stress tells us that something has to change. Stress tells us to run away from the tiger, or that we need more money, or that we need better health insurance, or that we are in an untenable social situation at work. Some of those things we can change. Some we can’t. And that’s where my skepticism creeps in.
Your Employer Wants You to be Happy
Your boss wants you to be happy. The company wants you to be happy. Which is great and makes a lot of sense. Happier people are more productive. They take fewer sick days. They’re more creative. But what are your employers willing to do for the sake of your happiness?
This is the real question for me. Is your employer willing to pay you a living wage? Are they willing to give you the time off you need to remain emotionally balanced and functional? Are they willing to give you the medical benefits you need to not have to worry about medical bills? In the bigger picture, are they lobbying against government policy that would mandate those things?
Instead, are they pushing mindfulness, gratitude, or offering free massages as a band-aid on the problem they themselves are at least partially responsible for causing?
Pigs and Chickens
I have a metaphor that I use to think about modern happiness and stress in the workplace.
Factory farming, every sort that involves animals, depends on packing those animals in as close together as possible. That packing allows them to produce more milk eggs and meat for less money, improving the bottom line. But there’s a problem; packing those animals in causes stress.
In chickens, this causes the birds to peck at one another, maiming and sometimes killing one another in the process. There’s an easy but expensive solution to this; simply give the birds enough room. Instead of doing that, we have a cheaper way. We cut their beaks off. It’s called “debeaking.“
Similarly, pigs react to being overcrowded by biting off each other’s tails and ears, again sometimes resulting in the death of the animal. Additionally some of our modern production stock carries a gene that makes it more susceptible to stress. Not only that, but stress in pigs results in inferior meat.
The solution, of course, is not to provide these animals with sufficient space and stimulation to avoid stress, but to genetically engineer the stress out of them.
The Cult of Positive Thinking
So we have ended up in a place in which happiness is believed to be a choice. Gratitude journaling, positive thinking, mindfulness, and fancy technological wearables all promise us the possibility of being happy if we simply choose happiness. This mindset is used to lecture and shame everyone from the office griper to people with genuine mental illness.
But nobody is happy all the time, and sometimes unhappiness is warranted. Sometimes unhappiness is the pressure that gets us out of a bad situation. Sometimes unhappiness is what helps us realize that the situation is bad in the first place.
Your employer wants you to be happy. They want you to be productive. They bring in a mindfulness instructor to teach you to be aware of the here and the now and to ignore distractions, like the fact that you’re overworked and underpaid, like the fact that your family is hanging by a thread that could be cut by the next medical emergency. Like (for some of us) whether you will be able to feed your family for the next week. Like the fact that your manager is racist, sexist, or homophobic.
Being mindful will make you more happy.
But it won’t fix the real problems that could be triggering your stress response.