Wholeness, Not Happiness

Stop optimizing your workplace for happiness. It’s doing harm.

Don’t get me wrong. I want to be happy. I want you to be happy at work and at home and in your relationships. But the current workplace happiness movement is misguided. The optimization for workplace happiness is a huge mistake.

No CEO, HR Manager or Culture Champion has evil intentions when they set employee happiness as a core value. The problem is that the drive for workplace happiness has costly and harmful unintended consequences.

Pushing and optimizing for happiness is to ignore all the other parts of being human, and thus feels fake and insincere. The expectation that to be successful employees must be happy at work is unfair and unrealistic.

What I’m suggesting may be what you and I already know: the goal should be wholeness, not just happiness. Happiness is just one part of our existence, wholeness is to embrace all that is within us. It’s to embrace our shadow qualities, to embrace our self-doubt, fear, anxiety, as well as the brightness, joy, and curiosity. It is all welcome. To welcome and embrace our wholeness, is to welcome and embrace all that makes us human. It is to allow our employees, and ourselves the full human experience. It is to allow ourselves to be human at work.

Who doesn’t want to feel human at work? Why isn’t this discussed more? We’ve been trained forever just how wrong being fully human at work can be… “Check that stuff at the door,” or “keep things professional,” all subtle (or not so subtle) reminders: only bring your “productive” parts to work. But the challenge of optimizing for wholeness is that it can be downright terrifying.

Wholeness requires acknowledging some of the more difficult parts of being human, particularly things that make people uncomfortable. From an employer or culture creator standpoint it’s much easier to address all the fun, good stuff and hope that will somehow fix the rest. It takes work, it takes awareness of self and of the organization. It requires vulnerability. It’s not easy. But it is worth it.

I’m not against happiness. Happiness is one of the richest, most wonderful parts of the human experience. I’m certainly not against organizations hoping for more happiness in the workplace. I am, however, against happiness as the ultimate goal, because in making it the goal you create this barrier to so many other aspects of being human, and even worse you create an environment where feeling differently (sad, depressed, lost, frustrated) carries another heavy emotion: shame.

Start with vulnerability, acceptance and optimize for wholeness.

This post was first published on Medium on August 4, 2015.