Finding Happiness When There Is No Fun

In those days we had fun.

Most companies have a stated objective to be a fun place to work. No company describe’s their work culture as soulless sterile task driven environment. Most managers wants their team to be described as a ‘work hard play hard’ team. Many of us intrinsically believe in a direct correlation between cheerfulness & creativity, between creativity & employee engagement and, the big one, employee engagement & productivity. While there is evidence to support the big one, I have not seen empirical studies that establish the earlier two. But we still like to believe that fun is good for the team. Because, we are happy when have fun.

Restaurants, bars, event managers, offsite camps, consultants, thrive on this fun principle by management. Employee engagement surveys carry serious points on responses to ‘do you have a friend at work’ question. And HR does its best to nurture more ‘friends” by encouraging more ‘fun’. Once again the belief is friendships sprout on the fertile playground of fun. Managers who receive low scores on their team engagement are encouraged to bond more with their teams, maybe ‘take the team out for a picnic’. Because ‘fun’ is needed to bond, improve engagement and therefore productivity.

But these are not fun times.

How can I have fun knowing that millions are infected, thousands dead and, for now, this disease is not stopping. How can I picnic when economies, the world over, are recording historical declines. Each pint I raise as a toast is a mockery of those whose salaries have been cut. There is no fun when millions are jobless, hungry, refugees in their our nation.

While there is no mood to have fun, there are also problems with Fun. It vanishes super quick. Thus, while it is great fun to have a delicious meal, you need another delicious meal to have fun again. Fun for one is not the same for everyone. Clubbing may be great for some but distasteful for others. Thus, apart from diminishing returns of fun there is also a challenge in deciding what fun activity do we do.

Prior to C19 both the diminishing returns and what fun did not matter too much since there was an option to do it again (tomorrow) and thereby balance by replenishing the returns or including those who were left out earlier. But post C19, such opportunities are compromised. Fine dining, pubs, movies, malls, bowling alleys, off-sites are all but closed. Fun has been shutdown.

So, if there is no fun, how do we create a engaged team at work? How do we ensure that the team we manage, have a shared feeling of happiness?

More than a decade back, Professor Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and his team investigated happiness. They interviewed over 600 workers (in US) and found that those that spent more on others as opposed to on them-self, were happier. They followed this up with another experiment. In this experiment, they gave volunteers $5 or $20 to spend. Some spent this on self (fun) and others spent on others (altruistic). Always, the altruistic group reported higher levels of happiness. There have been similar such studies across different universities, geography and over time. And the conclusion has been universal: those that give to others feel significantly happier than those who spend on themselves. Thus, charity is more fun than fun itself.

We as humans, are hardwired to give. Giving, just the thought of giving, activates the ventral striatum, which is the the reward center of the brain, that is also triggered by love, sex, eating chocolates. Acts of generosity give a buzz, a warm feeling of wellbeing, deep happiness. And this feeling lasts for many more days than the fun of devouring a plateful of chicken tikka kebabs. Which is tasty!

For many, charity has been a norm. Mostly done privately. But now is the time to come out of this charity closet. Now is a time to supplement your private charity commitments with public generosity of reaching out and helping your own colleagues. Now is the time to bond your team by giving, collectively.

C19 has thrown a spectrum of our life in disarray. For example, it has disrupted education. Now, having a laptop or a tab, and a internet connection, is as essential for schooling as an HB pencil was. It is possible that many of your colleagues may not have the necessary economic resilience to invest in this new essential. Maybe some of them have more than one school going child at home. How do they budget for these extra spends? Which child do they choose?

Individual are grappling with these mind-twisting dilemma in an environment where the norm is social distancing which significantly limits the opportunity to ‘get it off the chest’ by chatting with friends and family. Thus, emotions can spiral into anxiety whirlwind aggravated by isolation. This will result in a sense of being overwhelmed, of personal imbalance, of helplessness. And this could be your colleague who you have spent years with.

In such a situation, could the more fortunate rally together to assist those who need help? Could this be seen as a fun activity to do as a team? Could this result in happiness? Yes, research has shown that gratefulness, giving in charity, would result in more enduring happiness. Being grateful, sharing gratefully, is Fun.

C19 is going to test us. The decisions we make now, the actions we take, will either haunt us in the future or be our guiding angels into the brave new world.

Companies that encourage a culture of reaching out, assisting their colleagues to bridge difficulties, will be able to replace fun chemistry with a more powerful, authentic wellbeing quotient. Companies that however keep experimenting in trying to do the same old fun stuff but in a different way will find their employees lose meaning, weakening commitment to a brand that focuses on inauthentic meaningless merriness when the time requires genuine intent.

These are days to ask what do we do rather than how do we do the same stuff we did earlier. These are times to consciously change from being a fun place to work to being a work place that nurtures wellbeing. This is a time to transform your organisation into a cohort of empathetic employees who nurture and find happiness by and for colleagues. This is the time to rewrite that company objective and replace fun with well-being.


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