From the Magazine: Heavy Loads in the Happy Workplace

Another look back at the Work and Play Issue. This one covering the history of […]

Mockingbird / 6.17.15

Another look back at the Work and Play Issue. This one covering the history of happiness came from Ethan Richardson.  

“It wasn’t just about building a business. It was about building a lifestyle that was about delivering happiness to everyone, including ourselves.”

8e7ef53034823cf24c561b64c7d0086cSo says Tony Hsieh, internet entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and CEO of Hsieh is the author of the bestseller Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose and has just spent the last three years on his most ambitious venture yet. It is called the Downtown Project, a redevelopment ‘Techtopia’ in the middle of downtown Las Vegas—a $350 million investment Hsieh himself made to create an innovative city in his own image. He built a school, a medical clinic, and a handful of his own bars and restaurants and startup funds, all to create the kind of happy environment that spawns ingenuity. The Downtown Project boasts owners or investors in over 300 businesses, with over 900 employees working in the area. With a West Coast culture of laid-back fun and hard-driving experimentation, it is envisioned to be the future of the American tech renaissance.

The Project faced its share of setbacks, though. Hsieh told NPR that community development has been a challenge: “Even though I knew obviously the physical world can move slower than the tech world, there are just some things that just take a lot of time and therefore a lot of patience.” On top of that, outside investors still proved hard to come by. And then the suicides happened. Within an eighteen-month period, three of the Project’s biggest entrepreneurs committed suicide, bringing the new community of transplants into a state of all-out confusion. But as Nellie Bowles reported for Re/Code, the feeling of confusion had been there to begin with, in the community’s bi-polar focus on performance and happiness. A crisis counselor she spoke with said as much:

The pressures are the lack of being able to confide with people, having to put on a vest or mask, and having to say everything’s great…the struggle of how do you keep your team going, and knowing that you’ve only got one month left on your runway [of cash flow].

With his 2010 manifesto on workplace happiness as a template, Hseih is the top-down manifestation of this pressure. And while he’s enigmatic—as Bowles describes, “a difficult leader who rarely went to the office but seemed to be everywhere”—this philosophy of “deliverable happiness” is not just his idea. It’s everywhere these days, especially in corporate culture. Netflix is a famous example of the happy employee. Tech companies nationwide have sought to replicate, albeit hesitantly, their most famous non-policy—unlimited, paid vacation, so long as you get your work done.

Along with CEOs and CFOs, several Silicon Valley companies have now begun hiring Chief Happiness Officers, or CHOs, to measure employee well-being and to diagnose the conditions for happiness in their workplaces. CHOs more than likely owe their rise in popularity from Google, the keystone of workplace happiness, which has an executive-level development position known officially as the “Jolly Good Fellow,” held by former engineer Chade-Meng Tan. Tan’s job description is simply to “enlighten minds, open hearts, and create world peace.” His book has a foreword from the Dalai Lama.

Of course this isn’t the only happy ingredient placed in Google’s massive scope. It is the air Google breathes. We have all seen photos of the multi-colored, in-office bicycles and bowling alleys; the free five-star lunches, massage parlors, and hair salons; the Lego rooms and the pets at work. Google has fashioned itself, in the name of ingenuity, as a profitable playroom. Each week, the employees at Google are offered their “20% time,” 1/5 of their workweek spent freely, on whatever pet project they’re interested in. (This is apparently how Gmail was invented.)

The ‘why’ behind this trend is simple. As with most companies interested in profit, a workforce is its greatest asset. A happy workforce, thus, is not just a loyal workforce. It is a productive, creative workforce. Studies have shown that happiness promotes imagination and efficiency. As one article from the New Republic puts it, “Companies bring CHOs on not so much out of some bizarro competition to become the happiest company on Earth, but to become as productive as possible.” The corporate pursuit of happiness, therefore, is really a pursuit of profit.


It is no surprise, then, that happy workplaces have triggered their legions of critics. Some CHOs, in the interest of staff ‘culture,’ are given access to all employee email accounts, and so employees can’t square corporate happiness with what feels a lot like violation of privacy. More recently, Google’s 20% time fell under scrutiny. As Marissa Mayer, current CEO of Yahoo! and former Exec at Google, said, “It’s really 120% time…the stuff you have to do beyond your regular job.” While Google portrays the 20% time as a free day, it is really just a heightened expectation for continued industrious ingenuity. Companies like Apple and Facebook have even added egg-freezing fertility benefits for female employees, who want time to further their careers before having kids. So, where some see perks—from workplace kegerators to boss-free positions—others see a ploy to blur work into life, and life into work. As one of Amazon’s running office jokes go, “work-life balance is for people who do not like their work.”

But beyond the manipulative vibes and Big Brother paranoia, a deeper question remains. Can you make people happy? Is it actually possible to foster an environment for workers to have ‘actionable happiness?’ Or is it a fool’s errand to play officer to human feeling? Will it backfire?

Western civilization, for most of its history, has tended to believe that happiness is completely out of our hands. The Ancient Greeks associated happiness with godliness, a rare human being ‘touched’ by the winds of the divine. These were people of virtue and valor, the ‘happy few’ who had gained favor in the eyes of Elysium. As Darrin McMahon writes in Happiness: A History, the Classical conception of tragic theater (tragoidia) was not a story with a sad ending as we understand tragedy today. Tragedy, in the Greek sense, was just a story of lives like ones they knew, of human characters bound by fate:

The protagonists of Greek tragic stage are caught up in circumstances and trapped by themselves. Inhabiting a world in which conflict is inevitable and struggle preordained, they cannot make themselves happy, for among mortals in this tragic universe, “no man is happy,” as the Messenger in Euripides’s Medea darkly proclaims.

Those who were happy, then, were touched by perfection. McMahon marks out this transcendent happiness through the ages of Western philosophy, from the Stoic ascetic to the Catholic saint, from the Epicurean wise man to Calvin’s predestined elect. Happiness, for most ages before us, was akin to chosenness.


This all changed, of course, in the Age of Enlightenment, when happiness became not just the good fortune of a few, but the natural state and chief end of all. With the rise of empirical reason and the ascent of individual freedoms, the old invisible strings of fate fell lax for the first time, and human beings began to assume responsibility for their fates themselves. Indeed, as McMahon describes, this pursuit became ‘self-evident’ in the American psyche: “Where human beings were unhappy, Enlightenment thinkers argued, something must be wrong: with their beliefs, with their form of government, with their living conditions, with their customs. Change these things—change ourselves—and we could become in practice what all were intended by nature to be.” Happiness, for the first time ever, became the barometer by which social and individual change was made.

The political and moral philosophies would change with time, but the human expectation for happiness would not. From the Declaration of Independence to the Communist Manifesto, Jane Austen to Walt Whitman, Cheech to Chong, destiny was forever sealed with its pursuit.

And it is still where we are today. We have a very alive, if very complicated, relationship with our favorite feeling. In a 2007 Gallup poll, 92% of Americans said they were happy, and over half of them said they were “very happy.” Ironically, the statistic hasn’t dented the self-help market, where bestsellers call happiness not just a right, but an obligation, to ourselves and to others.

Culturally, happy is a big seller. Pharrell Williams has become the most recent literal incarnation of this philosophy, with his song “Happy”: “Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth”—and people have certainly clapped along; on her show, Ellen clapped along, whole ballparks clapped along, an entire fleet of YouTube home videos clapped along. Socially, our Facebook Newsfeeds are littered with beatific landscapes containing Oprah quotes like, “Happiness is for the taking—and making.” And so it seems that, more than ever, we believe that happiness, like an ever-flowing ice cream machine, is a thing to be found, and we’re working harder than ever to remind each other that we’ve already found it.

But, as we know, there is a sticky back to every smiley face, and one of the troubling consistencies throughout the ages has been this: that the pursuit of happiness sows the seeds of discontent. If happiness has prevailed as a self-evident truth, it is equally self-evident that sadness is quick on its heels. As McMahon writes, Odes to Joy were written by somber depressives, and Odes to Melancholy were written by hopeless Romantics. “As individuals struggled, and failed, to achieve their ‘natural’ goal, happiness and spleen, felicity and ennui were caught up in a common continuum to develop in tandem.”

il_fullxfull.664911045_996pIn no person was this contradiction so stark as in the social theorist John Stuart Mill, one of the most influential philosophers of the 19th century. He was born and bred under the wings of his father and his father’s close friend, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of what is now called modern utilitarianism. Bentham and Mill believed, and trained young John to believe, that the chief end of mankind was happiness, and that happiness was like the sea toward which all other standards of conduct should flow. John Stuart Mill, then, became a student and explorer of his own happiness, believing that true life came from pursuing it as one’s own faith. As he writes in his Autobiography, “[I placed] my happiness in something durable and distant, in which some progress might be always making, while it could never be exhausted by complete attainment. This did very well for several years…but the time came when I woke as from a dream.”

Awake he did. Mill had a complete nervous breakdown. He became throttled by a deep depression that made all of his efforts seem no less effective but all the more meaningless. He began to wonder if he would be happy, were any of his ambitious dreams to be realized, and he was forced to admit he would not: “The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing to live for.” The pursuit of happiness, in John Stuart Mill’s life, had become its obstacle. Though John always remained loyal to his teacher, Bentham’s ideal of the happy life became a sticking point to Mill’s own belief on the matter: “I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness.”

The backfire of this kind of direct approach to happiness is well recorded. A 2011 psychological study found that, while numerous books tell people how to find happiness, our own expectations tend to get the better of us:

One study…found that people who read a newspaper article extolling the value of happiness felt worse after watching a happy film than people who read a newspaper article that didn’t mention happiness—presumably because they were disappointed they didn’t feel happier. When people don’t end up as happy as they’d expected, their feeling of failure can make them feel worse.

On top of our increasing expectation for happiness, we also tend to be overly optimistic about our prospects for it. In The Social Animal, David Brooks discusses this to a startling degree about the millennial generation: “Around 96 percent of eighteen to twenty-nine-year-old Americans agree with the statement ‘I am certain that someday I will get to where I want to be in life.’ They were very, even insanely, impressed with their own specialness.” Brooks then says that, in 1950, a similar question was polled, to which only 12 percent agreed. Our age is not only filled with those who believe in a life centered on happiness, but it is also filled with those who feel sure it can and will be achieved.

Brooks talks about the gauges humans have for happiness, and he uses the analogy of a submarine’s sonar readings. Like an underwater war boat, we subconsciously read the experiences of our lives with value judgments:

All day long the status sonar hums along—a stream of pluses, minuses, and neutrals building in the mind, producing either happiness, anxiety or doubt. The status sonar isn’t even a conscious process most of the time; it is just the hedonic tone of existence…much of life is a series of adjustments to plus up the flow.

Unlike real sonar readings, though, Brooks says our intuitions of status are never fully accurate. Our body in the mirror, our achievement of prizes, our email inbox can easily render the most damning (or fulfilling) readings that no other—objective—observer would ever see.

It is no surprise, then, that our subconscious sonars are also projecting into the future a source of happiness that has little to no proven reliability. We are inheritors of what psychologists call the “impact bias”—we wrongly believe in the impact of a positive or negative circumstance in our lives. We do it when we buy new shoes, when we fantasize about a new job, or when we scratch a lottery ticket; we earnestly believe that “If only (you name it) happened, then I’d be happy.”

But it isn’t true. Despite our high hopes, our emotions tend to fall, time and again, back to their norm, regardless of the circumstances. Thankfully, this is just as true after severe trauma as it is if we strike the jackpot.

Studies of people who have won the lottery, for example, or who have a particularly fine day at the races, present the mirror image of the finding on accident victims: after a short period of elation, they inevitably return, like the wave in a sine curve, to where they were before…Surprisingly often, it turns out, we are prone to exaggerate the degree of fulfillment we will derive from anticipated pleasures, or we misjudge altogether.

And so we land where most humans have landed before. Like J. S. Mill and so many maudlin Romantics, we’ve reached a Road Closed sign on our way to Shangri-La. Where do we go from here? If happiness isn’t up to us, if what we tend to think will make us happy won’t make us happy (at least not for long), if we can’t even rightly judge whether we are happy at all anyways, then why talk about happiness?

Well, because we long to be happy, and beyond the mere pings of our day-in, day-out existence, we’d like to have more than just the circumstantial waft of it. We want what the Bible calls joy, that intangible fruit—a lasting sense of play and benevolence in the face of what may come. We want what all the generations before us wanted, the gift of divine mirth—a fortunate trust that, despite what we see, ‘all will be well.’

But the ways in which we have come to talk about getting there in our daily lives—our constitutional entitlement to it, our permanent possession of it—betray a denial about the real selves we know within. Although much of Enlightenment thought has passed on as obsolete today, our immense sense of self-propulsion has not. We still believe that the world within is ours to make. As Tony Hsieh puts it in his book, “Envision, create, and believe in your own universe, and the universe will form around you.”

But a look around us might do some good. How many visionaries and believers have actually created the universe they envisioned? Noble as our intentions have been, how many Chade-Meng Tans and Chief Happiness Officers have come before us, planning for world peace in their lifetime? Noble as our belief may be, what happy slice of the 92% are sitting in traffic around you on the bypass, or in the office next door, or in your kitchen when you get home? Who is Living the Dream? And even if we are, who’s responsible for it?


The Ancient Greeks believed that if happy fortune ever came, it came from heaven. In their tragedies they created the deus ex machina (“god from the machine”), a divine character that was literally lowered to the stage by a crane to solve a problem that, in the tragic sense of conflict, was irremediable by human means. As McMahon writes, this god-figure is there to demonstrate that “happiness is almost always a miracle, requiring the direct intervention of the divine.” He retells the story of one Croesus, lavish king of Lydia, who in his hubris deems himself the happiest man on earth. In visiting the Athenian sage Solon, he is warned that men and women are “what befall them,” that “no person is self-sufficient.” As you might expect, Croesus soon finds himself in a scenario second only to Job. After his son dies in a freak accident, and after a misinterpreted sign lures his kingdom into a costly war, he is to be burned alive on the funeral pyre. Only there, at the moment of death, is he given his deliverance:

“No one who lives is happy,” he exclaims…Only when Croesus has fully repented is the god moved: “Suddenly, out of a clear sky, with no wind in it, there gathered clouds, and a storm burst and a violent rain with it; and the fire was quenched.” Croesus is saved at the final hour, but only after he has renounced the belief that he was, or ever can be, happy while still alive.

Such deliverance sounds morbid to modern ears, and yet it is not unfamiliar to Christianity. The deus ex machina is our faith’s Immanuel, ‘God with us,’ God’s own ‘tidings of comfort and joy’ come down to miserable sinners. The moment of faith, as the Christian message tells us, is precisely this moment of despair in oneself, in our own ability to control our fate. At this precipice of weakness, atop the funeral pyre we never saw coming, we find salvation at the final hour. In judgment, God kills; but in the mercy of Christ, God resurrects.

Ironically, Martin Luther believed that this impossible deliverance was also where true joy came from. Luther, who had an equally elusive relationship with happiness, once said in an Easter sermon that “he who has not seen adversity does not understand happiness.” Happiness, for Luther, is the joy that springs from the Gospel—of God’s eternal and immovable ‘Yes’ to humankind. Faith in this ‘Yes’ to sinners is the beginning of new life, of a freedom to indulge oneself in the enjoyment of God’s bounty. And yet, while God’s ‘Yes’ is firm and sure, our own fears and anxieties before the ‘oughts’ of life remain a hindrance to its enjoyment. This was certainly felt by Luther:

There is little to suggest that Luther ever managed to put his anxiety completely to rest, or that he came to know the happiness in all things…On the contrary, he was plagued to the end of his days by intermittent spells of depression. “Be strong and cheerful and cast out those monstrous thoughts…sometimes we must drink more, engage in sports and recreation, aye, even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences…”

In Luther we find a kindred predicament, the embodiment of both the happiness we feel entitled to, and the selves we find getting in its way. It is not that the message of absolution has changed course, but that, for human beings psychologically bound under the Law, our sinful natures tend to confuse the fruit of freedom with a new mandate for how to live our lives.

Which brings us up to today, to the demands of a happy workplace (and a happy career!), and their clear failure to bring on the change in us they promise. As Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster write in a New York Times op-ed called “The Gospel According to ‘Me,’” our workplaces have become not just arenas where we must be happy, but where we must become the culmination of our own authentic selves.

If we do feel discontent (at work), it must mean that something is wrong with us rather than the corporation…With the workplace dominated by the maxim of personal authenticity…there is no room for worker malaise. And contrary to popular belief, none of this has assuaged the workplace dynamics of guilt, bad conscience and anxiety, which are more rampant than ever. In fact, the blurring of the boundary between work and non-work in the name of flexibility has led to an enormous increase in anxiety…

A workplace where you could be your happy and authentic self—would that it were so! And yet, to be oneself in any place is to be the complex, neurotic, and mainly inauthentic human being one tends to be most of the time. To create a nonwork work environment (ridiculous as that phrase is), while hoping to produce the virtue of happiness, instead fuels workers with a greater demand on their sense of marketable value. Like any virtue, though, happiness is the rare fruit of freedom, and at work we are constitutionally un-free.

No matter the free spa treatments and the celebrity chefs, the office’s firm foundation is conditionality, where we must earn our keep to save our face. And as blurry as the line may get between work and non-work, there will always lie the stark distinction between who we are and who we are paid to be. It bears remembering the adage which hung from the gates of hell during World War II—the entrances to Auschwitz and Dachau—the words of the devil if there ever were ones: Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work Makes [You] Free”).

If there is no workplace for the freedom we seek, then where can we go? Who, then, can deliver us a happy outcome? Maybe we must be off the clock for this freedom, away from the world of inputs and outcomes. We must receive payment, in other words, for that which we cannot produce, save, or earn. Maybe we must accept a world in which freedom comes at a price, but an irrevocable and unmeritable one. As ludicrous as this happy outcome sounds, this payment is offered here and now as surely as it was from Calvary—as the old hymn goes, “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe, / sin had left a crimson stain, he washed it white as snow.” In a job market that tries more than ever to conceal the terms of its conditions, the assurance of this payment has never sounded so good.