The Pursuit of Happiness

Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy” left its mark nearly everywhere in 2014. With its bubbly lyrics, soulful vocals and peppy backbeat, it’s easy to understand why.

Not only did “Happy” grab attention as a Billboard No. 1 hit; it was arguably the most feel-good tune of the year, prompting “the world’s first 24-hour music video” and almost 500 million plays on YouTube.

Companies have also busted out the happiness grooves recently, in the form of the C-suite title “chief happiness officer.”

The official number of chief happiness officers in corporate America is unclear. But many firms, namely technology companies and startups, appear keen on the position. Specific role responsibilities for happiness executives vary, but most are rooted in either human resources or customer service.

Chief happiness officers work to improve the work environment for employees by creating programs that improve employees’ job satisfaction and overall well-being — or happiness. And as The Wall Street Journal reported last November, the number of companies with designated positions serving employee happiness is on the rise. Tech firms are especially in on the idea, as they aim to woo top talent with lavish perks extending from on-site martial arts classes to $10,000 “computer and desk-décor” allowances for each employee, the Journal reported.   

Proponents of the position say it injects a healthy dose of levity in work environments that ultimately improves employee engagement, productivity and retention. Critics, meanwhile, question if appointing an executive to make sure employees are “happy” is productive or work appropriate.    

“Happiness is very subjective,” said Jenn Lim, CEO and chief happiness officer of organizational development firm Delivering Happiness. “Everyone has their own opinions of what it means, but people get that they don’t have to be unhappy in the workplace.”

Defining Happiness

Part of the debate stems from the fact the title of chief happiness officer is hard to define. Unlike chief operations officer or chief human resources officer, experts say the term happiness doesn’t naturally denote a traditional business discipline or function but an emotion or state of being. A simple Internet search of the title elicits a common question: “What does a chief happiness officer actually do?”

Inventive job titles might seem like a silly waste of time, but they can have a major impact on organizational culture and recruitment.

Some firms use it as a title for customer service leader. At team performance management consultant iDoneThis, co-founder and CEO Walter Chen said the title was adopted by Ginni Chen, an employee in charge of getting clients the right support with a side job of organizing events for company employees. When Ginni Chen left the company, the company changed the job title to “customer success engineer,” which Walter Chen said was more representative of the role’s actual responsibilities.

“We want to make sure customers are successful by doing stuff that helps them rather than just trying to be happy or upbeat,” he said.“As for the internal, feel-good initiatives, they’ve been spread out among employees rather than put under control of one leader.”

At other organizations, however, chief happiness officers are in charge of employee satisfaction. This can include internal event planning, measuring engagement, creating programs that promote health and wellness, establishing culture and acting as a conduit for employee comments and complaints.

“If an organization is in a place where they’re stuck in a rut and trying to change their culture, I could see a chief happiness officer almost being a chief change agent,” said Shimul Melwani, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

In a situation like that, it comes down to understanding what makes people happy. This, experts say, could be a number of things (Figure 1).

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Figure 1: The Elements of Happiness
Source: Jenn Lim, CEO and chief happiness officer of organizational development, Delivering Happiness

Melwani said setting up social support for people and introducing mindfulness could be a way to introduce more satisfaction to a company. Research has shown meditation is an effective way to decrease stress and increase productivity and even emotional intelligence, resulting in a more efficient, collaborative workplace.

This is an approach taken by Chade-Meng Tan at Google Inc. The software engineer is also known as the technology firm’s “jolly good fellow,” and he created the “Search Inside Yourself” program to help employees become more mindful and cooperative. Tan, who has written a book titled after the program, is part of a group of Google employees charged with CHO-style tasks. He is also credited as one of the first people at a major company to make happiness part of his job title.

Still, to some using the term “happiness” in a job title conjures an inappropriate representation of the role.

“I personally don’t like the word ‘happy’ because I see it having negative consequences,” Melwani said. She said happiness decreases individuals’ attention to detail, among other important business behaviors.

Melwani said a more representative and appropriate title for someone with a chief happiness officer’s job profile should be “culture officer,” which is more in tune to what the company’s values are and how they should be put into action. The title “chief emotional officer,” with a focus on teaching employees how to recognize and incorporate their emotions into being more efficient, would also be more fitting, Melwani said.

Josh Kovensky, a former writer for the New Republic, disagrees. In an article he wrote for the politics and culture magazine in July 2014, Kovensky called the chief happiness officer position the “latest, creepiest job title in America.”

To him, the potential of bosses quantifying happiness is scary. “What was creepy was this idea that your company can profit from your emotions,” he said in an interview with Talent Management. “I don’t think it should have that responsibility for your well-being. It’s your business, and privacy is paramount.”

Melwani also said that a move toward incorporating emotions into the workplace could be construed as management’s attempt to control employees’ feelings. What she would like to see is an organic approach that harnesses the power of positive and negative emotions rather than focused on only the positive.

Happiness, on the other hand, is just the right word to Lim, who co-founded Delivering Happiness with Zappos CEO and Chief Happiness Officer Tony Hsieh, known for creating an out-of-the-box work culture at the e-commerce firm. Lim’s organization focuses on the science and return-on-investment of having a happier workforce, so having someone in charge of building one — with the word happiness in the job title — makes sense.

Lim said the idea of having a happiness executive isn’t new but rather the next step in an evolving workforce culture. Before happiness came “engagement”; before that, “retention.” All three, she said, connect to the goal of having the most productive employees who can make a company successful.

Achieving that goal is made easier if leadership guides them through a shift in how they view work — from seeing it as a 40-hour obligation to being something they can enjoy doing. “That means it [happiness] sticks more than the word of the day or word of the year,” Lim said.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Definition aside, there’s very little consensus on whether there should be an executive in charge of workforce happiness.

As Kovensky said, having a company try to manipulate happiness to serve its bottom-line sounds Machiavellian. There’s also dissension against having an organization’s leadership devote time to making sure employees are not just satisfied but happy with their jobs. 

Yet research shows the difference between satisfied and happy has business benefit. According to research by iOpener, a workplace consultancy, happier employees are 50 percent more motivated in their jobs, making it less likely that they’ll want to leave. And with the economy transitioning from recovery into growth mode, more workers are likely to job hop if they’re unhappy.

For the workers who do stick around, happiness can contribute to more productivity, cooperation with co-workers and commitment to clients. “There are some workplaces that are stressful, toxic and simply don’t care about the well-being of their employees,” said Alexander Kjerulf, the founder and chief happiness officer of Danish employee engagement organization Woohoo Inc. “I have no idea how the executives of these corporations can live with that. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, ethically wrong to run that kind of organization.”

So is the idea of adding a chief happiness officer or something with an equivalent job title worthy of talent managers’ attention?

Melwani said it depends on the company’s culture. If the culture already values an out-of-the-box approach to organizational development and employees currently embrace programs steeped in things like mindfulness training, having a chief happiness officer might fit, Melwani said. But trying to force feed the role into a culture with somewhat traditional standards might be more difficult.  

Employees in this case might need to get used to having their feelings incorporated into work, and some employees may even resist the idea.

“For a long time, being a professional worker almost meant being a zombie,” Melwani said, “which meant you came into work, were cognitive, but you weren’t very emotional. We’re moving in a positive direction with this idea that emotion is important and happiness is a way they [organizations] are trying to engage with the outside community and with their own employees.”

To learn more about how chief happiness officers can boost recruitment, read the sidebar that accompanies this feature here.