Recently, I attempted to take down the one piece of corporate jargon that I most dislike: "workplace happiness". I laid out detailed reasons as to why employers should ditch the useless and even harmful pursuit of happiness and focus on a fundamentally different goal: humanity. And I offered seven concrete steps for employers to make this shift. (Here’s the essay if you haven’t already read it. Also, if you are into long Twitter threads, here’s one where I narrated the personal backstory that explains why I hate the idea so much.)
As I’d expected, the essay evoked passionate responses. Most readers connected with the toxicity of modern workplaces, which employers try to dilute with free smoothies and nap rooms in the office. Some readers echoed my view that employers don’t really care about your happiness – they only pretend to because management consultants whisper in their ears a sweet, sweet formula:
"Happier employees = more productive employees!"
Other readers agreed that the idea that work could be a source of happiness perpetuates a vile, tone-deaf caste system, because for over two billion people in the world toiling away in the informal sector – grappling daily with unhealthy and often deadly working conditions – work is not even remotely the source of happiness or anything like it.
Yet others said what I was proposing was too unrealistic.
But there was one response from a member that I found particularly interesting. In it, they asked me what my real motivation was to seek an alternative to happiness. Pay attention to this next bit, because it can get confusing:
While in my piece I argued that (workplace) happiness was just a myth, this member felt that ultimately, the reason I wrote the piece was because deep down, I was unhappy with the current system and thought a different system would make us happy. "So this piece boils down to wanting to be happy."
In other words, the member thought my quarrel wasn’t with the idea of happiness per se, but with how modern workplaces went after it.
The second part of her feedback said that as long as we depend on others to make us happy, we can never really be happy.
This latter point I found easier to address. The idea that happiness resides inside your own self is ancient wisdom. But it is wrong and immoral in a context within which profound power imbalances exist – such as an employer-employee relationship. You can’t just ask an employee being exploited by a terrible boss: "Hey don’t be sad! Look for happiness within."
But the first point I am still puzzling over. Did I just make a semantic split between "happiness" and "humanity" at the workplace, while essentially, I am just a man, looking at my employers longingly, wanting to make me happy?
After much thought, I think I’ve found an answer. No, I don’t believe I am looking for happiness and just calling it by a different name, though I can see why it might seem like that. The feeling I am really talking about, and the feeling I think all workers in all jobs crave, is much more real, much more profound, and much more achievable than happiness.
It is dignity.
Happiness is fickle and is subject to far too many variables – a good boss, an assignment that best uses your skills, your paycheck, the temperature in the office AC. But dignity needs only three ingredients: empathy, compassion, and unwavering humanity. When anyone in a position of power, such as your employer, guarantees you these three things, you invariably end up with dignity.
What do you think of the happiness v dignity debate? Which of the two makes you, errm, happier? Write to me.
PS: This week I am mourning the death of an extraordinary artiste: Irrfan Khan, a master actor with a towering legacy not just in Indian cinema but globally. He died last week in his early 50s, leaving behind a body of work that stuns and comforts with its range, complexity, and sensitivity. I don’t know whether work can ever make people happy, but art of the calibre Mr Khan helped bring to life always does. I invite you to join me in celebrating his oeuvre, wherever you are.