Can you be too happy at work?

by Bee Heller
May 30, 2017

The internet is full of advice for living a happier life. Governments have started to measure Gross National Happiness. The self help industry is worth $10bn annually in the US alone.

We search for answers, our Governments are increasingly concerned about it, and it’s big business, but is there such a thing as too much happiness at work?

Here are three reasons why the answer might be ‘yes’…

1. Happy people are lazy thinkers

In one study researchers gave participants a list of 15 words on a similar theme and asked them to recall whether a specific word was included afterwards. For example the list might have included the words “bed”, “rest”, “tired” etc. After seeing the list participants were asked to recall if the list had included the word “sleep” (it hadn’t). Happy people were 50 percent more likely to recall words that were related to the theme but not on the list. Being happy makes us more susceptible to using cognitive shortcuts to assess and respond to situations. If you’ve been asked to proof read a document or spot flaws in a seemingly coherent argument, this tendency to rely on cognitive shortcuts could reduce the quality of your work.

2. Happy people can be too trusting

In another study people were given the opportunity to either take or leave behind a movie ticket from an envelope. Afterwards they were filmed denying they had taken the ticket (even if they had). These videos were then shown to study participants who had to judge whether the subject was lying or telling the truth. People who were put into a sad mood before watching the videos were 13 percent more likely to accurately detect whether the subject was lying or telling the truth. Happier people are less likely to pay attention to specific details of people’s facial expressions, eye contact and language, interpreting instead the general gist of what someone’s saying. If you’re dealing with a conflict at work, an increased ability to detect whether someone is being dishonest could help with ensuring people feel the situation has been handled fairly.

3. Happy people are less persuasive

A key facet of being a good influencer is the use of concrete, detailed arguments. Happy people tend to gloss over details in favour of painting the big picture. Research evidence supports this. When asked to construct persuasive arguments about subjects common to everyday life (e.g. using tax money to fund parks and playgrounds), unhappy people were judged to construct 25% more impressive arguments. Furthermore when asked to persuade strangers to change their views, unhappy people were twice as effective as happy people. Our ability to influence people is a key attribute for being successful, especially in the workplace. Being happy seems to undermine one of the ways in which we persuade and influence other people.

These studies are all described in Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener’s book, ‘The Power of Negative Emotion‘.

I’m not about to argue that we should spend our time being miserable so we never make a mistake, trust no one, and make pedantic arguments detailing every relevant fact. However I do think there’s a case to be made for a little caution when it comes to encouraging ever great levels of happiness in the workplace.

Human beings are intrinsically motivated to be happy – it feels nice! So creating an environment in which people can experience positive emotions at work is a good way of appealing to this intrinsic motivation and ensuring people actually want to be there. However, in my view striving for ever increasing levels of employee happiness should not be the only thing organisations care about. An organisation that is permanently bouncing with enthusiasm and joy, may struggle to get people to think deeply about problems, make good judgements, and persuade others of their points of view – all valuable behaviours in a thriving, engaged and dynamic organisation.

If things get ‘too happy’ in your organisation, it’s worth remembering people have other sources of motivation. We want to learn and progress. We want to feel a sense of belonging. We want to be able to self-direct. We want to feel special. We want to have a sense of purpose. We want to experience fair treatment. Organisations that draw on all these sources of motivation are more likely to create environments in which both they and their people can flourish.


As with my previous blogs in this series on intrinsic motivation HR Director and blogger, Gary Cookson has written a response to this blog based on his personal experiences.

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