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Finding happiness at the workplace

Lessons I learnt from my experience of bringing up my daughters

Cover of "The radically changing nature of Work, Workers & Workplaces"

I am the father of two young daughters who have grown up in a consumerist society. I learnt a few lessons on happiness as my elder daughter was growing up, which helped me with daughter number two. As new parents, my wife and I used to give one relatively expensive gift on our elder daughter’s birthday. This is one day that she began to eagerly look forward to, because of the gift from us. Of course there would be additional gifts from friends and fun filled activities throughout the day. However we soon realized that the joy of acquiring something new disappeared rather fast. The excitement of owning a new shiny pink bicycle disappeared within less than a month of cycling on it.

Soon we realized that whether it was a bicycle or a chocolate bar, she would return to her happiness equilibrium sooner or later. Happiness seems to have a base level. So it made more sense to giver her smaller, less expensive things at frequent intervals, rather than one big thing annually. This would help sustain her level of happiness at a certain high for most of the time. This was also lighter on the pocket. But then, hey, they are our daughters and not lab rats, so we did not really conduct this as a lab experiment. A look at psychology does confirm this hypothesis: humans return to their happiness equilibrium within a certain period of time.

This is also true about sadness. So, if one is shocked by an unexpected event, over a period of time, he or she will return to equilibrium. Twenty-four hour news channels play on this, and tend to rely on breaking news all the time. However shocking a new piece of news is in the beginning, viewers find it less and less shocking over time. In the absence of new shocking news, television channels rely on sensationalization to titillate viewers.

Today’s urban dwellers are well informed about what is going on around them and around the world. The average office goer, driven by FOMO (fear of missing out) thrives on the novelty of things and experiences. They want to experience something new all the time, and often end up buying things that they do not need, for that insatiable desire to consume something new.

Such a desire to experience something new all the time spells out in the workplace as well. The initial high of getting a new job involves meeting new people, getting a higher pay, experiencing a new workplace. But as novelty wears out, one yearns for something new. So it is not surprising to find workers starting to look for new jobs within months of joining a new job, for no apparent problem at the workplace. The same yearning for novelty leads people to keep on changing cars and other material possessions like cellphones every now and then.

At the blended workplace of the physical and the digital, it has become pertinent for HR to facilitate workers to experience something new every now and then. Humans, by nature, have a deeply curious nature. This embedded curiosity leads humans to do unproductive things like reading about people one will never meet, learning topics one will never have use for. People just love to know the answers to things, even if there’s no obvious benefit.

Conventionally HR has looked at staff reviews as an annual review to figure out ‘what they want’. In a world of twenty-four hours news channels, it is about time to relook at such reviews as an annual feature. The millennial generation does not have the patience to wait for the annual review and the possible salary hike; they want constant feedback about their performance. If something is not working out, they would want to try something ‘new’. So, while an annual bonus is welcome and seen mostly as a reward for hard work, what works much better are monthly or quarterly reviews, along with feedback and encouragement about one’s work.

A monthly outing with colleagues works much better than an annual jaunt and a bonus. It helps keep interpersonal relationships healthy and team spirit alive. Secondly, such experiences go way further than monetary benefits in strengthening the engagement of workers to an organization. That is because, team based activities like a game or a picnic is enjoyed in the company of other humans. This raises the happiness level and sustains it. A monetary dole-out is enjoyed in one’s privacy, leading to a quicker fall back to the happiness equilibrium. A fun weekend spent with colleagues is remembered for years to come, and strengthens employee engagement; however an annual bonus does relatively little to build sustained engagement.

Closer home, at the workplace, building spaces, which allow a variety of experiences to be played out regularly, is good practice. A games room can be the venue for monthly inter-departmental competitions. A cafeteria, which allows re-configuration, can be themed for various themed get-togethers. Irrespective of the size of the workplace, if there is an attitudinal change to increase the happiness quotient from the top, it will flow down to affect all.

Similar to my experience with my daughters, from an organization standpoint, it is likely to cost much less to give frequent smaller doses of happiness than a big fat dose at the end of the year. Towards this, co-working spaces are leading the trend of building workplaces that allow occupants to ride the novelty wave and sustain it.

The above is an excerpt from my new book “The radically changing nature of Work, Workers & Workplaces. Using space as a starting point of innovation.Now available at Amazon 

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