Is There A Case For Faking Happiness At Work?


Wellbeing is big business, and a growing number of employers seem as preoccupied with the promotion of happiness as they are with performance or productivity. That is good news, as a significant proportion of the workforce still battles with high levels of anxiety, burnout, and stress, even when they are privileged enough to have desirable jobs and careers. As Daniel Markovits notes in his excellent recent book, The Meritocracy Trap, top jobs seem to increase not just income but also misery.

So what should you do when work is making you miserable? One logical answer is to quit and find another one. Yet this is easier said than done, and not always compatible with your long-term ambitions. There is usually a cost to switching jobs or careers, even when the potential gain may be happiness. And there is no guarantee you will find a job that makes you happy anyway. Conversely, there are at least three good reason for faking happiness:

It helps you get promoted: Psychological research links happiness to higher levels of job performance and career success. One of the reasons is that managers tend to prefer employees who are positive, likable, and rewarding to deal with, even when they are less competent and hard-working. By the same token, unhappy employees are often perceived as difficult and high maintenance, which irritates bosses. This is of course unfair. In an ideal world, employees would be rewarded and promoted for what they actually contribute, rather than whether they have a feel-good attitude. Alas, in the real world, some of the most valuable and creative employees are often punished or mistreated just because they are difficult to manage. Happy people are also more engaged, even when their higher engagement and enthusiasm is merely a reflection of their personality and doesn’t translate into higher levels of productivity. The implications of this are clear: make an effort to manage your reputation and come across as positive, optimistic, and stress-free, and it will impact favorably in your performance evaluations. In fact, this is probably the best explanation for the consistent positive correlation between people’s emotional stability and their job performance ratings: managers are favorably biased towards happy employees, and they generally prefer to be surrounded by cheerful people.

It helps you be a better boss: You probably heard that managers with higher levels of emotional intelligence are significantly more competent and effective than their less calm, friendly, and considerate counterparts, in large because they are better able to engage their employees. Unsurprisingly, employees do appear to prefer working for managers who are positive, stable, and resilient, rather than negative, volatile, and stress prone. What you may not know is that these preferred leadership qualities are virtually identical to the personality characteristics that underpin happiness, or that they account for almost half of the variability between individuals’ happiness levels. This is why your internal state of happiness is hard to change, even with the pursuit or avoidance of external circumstances, including objective life accomplishments (e.g., getting a better job, finding a better spouse, or buying a better car). But there’s some good news: if you can emulate the behavior of people who seem happy at work, you will probably improve the image you have as a boss, as scientific reviews have highlighted a positive link between managers’ happiness and their performance. For example, learn to remain composed in the presence of negative events, and to appear enthusiastic and optimistic even when you are not. It will instill a positive outlook on others and keep team morale high, especially in stressful times. Another aspect to emulate is to spend more time interacting with your employees, and to ditch small talk in favor of more substantive conversations. Finally, happy bosses are more likely to see their job as meaningful and aligned with their personal values, so if you can persuade your team that you care about what you do, they will be more likely to care about it, too.
Most alternatives are probably worse: If you are unconvinced about the benefits of faking happiness, just consider the alternatives. One, namely genuine happiness, is arguably preferable, except it hard to achieve. Some people seem biologically prewired for happiness, but many are clearly not. Forcing someone with a negative or pessimistic mindset to see the world through rose-colored glasses is unreasonable and backfires, leading to feelings of guilt and anxiety. It is also clear that not many people are lucky enough to enjoy a job or career that elicits true happiness. As I argue in my latest book, the main reason for this is that too many people are traumatized by their boss. So, when true happiness is not an option at work, faking it may be your best bet. To be sure, it is a far better approach for being liked by your colleagues, bosses, and employees than showcasing your genuine grumpiness or negativity. Or than faking unhappiness.
There is, it seems, a genuine case for faking happiness. But there is a caveat: you will need to fool other people into thinking that you are being authentic. In that sense, happiness is no different from anything else people attempt to fake (e.g., art, compliments, or a strong poker hand). We live in a world that embraces spontaneity and authenticity. It is one of the hallmarks of our consumer society, and a symptom of the narcissistic culture we live in: “be yourself, no matter what”, “don’t worry about what other people think of you”, “if you think you are great, you are”, etc. Clearly, there are huge psychological and career benefits to being truthful to your values, and it is probably impossible to have a reputation for being an ethical person when you don’t practice what you preach. Consistency between one’s words and actions is the core foundation of integrity. That said, the real value of authenticity comes from seeming authentic to others, and that requires a considerable amount of impression management and faking good. Ironically, it’s when people stop pretending that they no longer come across as authentic. Authenticity, like any other meaningful trait, is in the eye of the beholder. In sum, you are better off failing to display your genuine unhappiness, than being authentically miserable.

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