Happy People—What We Can Learn From Them

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BW: You have over five decades of experience as an executive coach and consultant and you worked with many different companies and organizations and had a chance to observe people in the context in which they usually spend the most time. Most people spend more waking time at work than they do in any other place. In your experience, you found many were unhappy. I’m guessing there were happy people in the workplace too.

JM: Of course. First off, I think it’s important to clarify that there’s happiness based on external circumstances. And happiness based on spirituality.

BW: For spiritual happiness, it would be more appropriate to use the term “joy” to distinguish it from happiness based on external circumstances.

JM: I would say, for example, my wife Thelma had true joy and that was directly connected to her spirituality. Joy is much deeper than happiness and transcends circumstances. Happiness, compared to spiritual joy, is very fleeting. The difference between spiritual joy and happiness is a big discussion in itself, so I’ll leave that to the people who are more qualified to discuss it. We’ll limit this discussion to the context of work, business, and organizations since that’s where most of my experience is.

BW: Happiness is definitely fleeting, but that isn’t to discount happiness.

JM: No, not at all. Many now recognize that people who constantly seek happiness tend to be superficial, erratic, and unstable, but that isn’t to say that happiness is irrelevant, the idea being that the external is fleeting so none of that matters. Those who say the external doesn’t matter don’t have much real world experience—those things do matter. Anyone who’s lived in poverty or a country dominated by corruption and tyranny knows that the state of poverty or oppression and outward circumstances can have a very negative effect, so to say none of that matters is misguided and insulting to a person in those kinds of circumstances. But again, the material isn’t everything either. I’ve known many affluent people with comfortable lives who are very unhappy and miserable. As an executive coach and leadership consultant, I was, of course, very concerned with and conscious of the overall health of a company and what contributes to overall health. If the employees are working under a good leader that tends to be a healthier work environment. Those people tend to be happier and more productive, creative, and all around more generous in their work and interactions. As opposed to people who work under leaders who are controlling, tyrannical, egotistical, greedy, unethical, or leaders who are weak, incompetent, or ineffective. Those employees tend to be miserable, unhappy, and less productive to say the least. Happiness can have a lot to do with the leadership you are under obviously. But I think it’s important also to realize that leaders are human and imperfect. There’s never going to be a situation of perfect blissful leadership. To expect leaders to always have all the answers and solve every problem is immature, like the person who constantly seeks happiness. There will always be constantly changing and varying levels in the quality of leadership. It’s never going to be perfect, but the conscientious leader does the best he or she can. Like it or not, life is going to hit you with difficulty regardless of what situation you are in or what leadership you are under.

BW: And we also discussed, in other topics, relationships and conflict. Those obviously factor into happiness.

JM: Absolutely. If you’re constantly embroiled in unhealthy conflict, you’re going to be pretty miserable. Some people are better at communication, conflict prevention, and conflict resolution. They know how to keep a potential conflict or rift from escalating into something more explosive. By that I don’t mean avoiding conflict, of course. Avoiding conflict is a problem in itself. Since conflict in life is inevitable, are you able to move through and work through conflict in a healthy, productive way?

BW: Your point being that if you can work through and resolve conflicts in a peaceful, productive way, you’re going to have a higher quality of life and be happier than someone who is constantly finding themselves ensnared or embroiled in unhealthy conflict.

JM: Right. And as far as relationships, the quality of relationships is very much dependent on an individual’s willingness and ability to examine self, a willingness to allow growth and change versus being stubborn and prideful. People who don’t allow growth, both in themselves and others, have endless issues in their relationships, so in general are unhappy. The ability and willingness to examine self and allow growth contributes greatly to good relationships and personal happiness.

BW: We also talked about how there tends to be constant conflict when your values are very different from the values of the people you are working for or with. If they’re too different then you have to go your separate ways.

JM: Or if the situation is salvageable, then maybe you can help to transform it. But it takes a wisdom and discerning to know if it is. That’s different for each situation. There’s no blanket rule for determining that.

BW: And of course there is the whole issue of work. In another topic, we talked about people who are unhappy in their choice of work. Obviously, there are people who are happy in their choice of work.

JM: That’s a big area. As you pointed out, most people probably spend more waking time at work than they do at home. Quality of life and happiness has a lot to do with work. Of course, happy people are generally doing what they love, what they’re passionate about, or if they’re not necessarily doing what they love, happy people have a good attitude about it. They’re grateful, focused on the good and positive, putting in an honest day’s work. And they are usually proactive in moving closer towards the work they are interested in doing, such as volunteering or taking classes in the field they are passionate about or coming up with a good approximation, rather than being passive, blaming, and apathetic. If changing careers is not a practical option, then they do their best to have a different view of their work. It may not be their first choice, but they realize that they play a vital and important role and everything they do in fact counts regardless of what station they are in. And it goes without saying, people who have a work ethic and embrace work rather than avoid work in the end are happier, more satisfied in life than people who try to avoid work. But it’s important to point out, for people to be engaged with their work and to ultimately have job satisfaction, the work does have to be meaningful. Many have had the experience of working under a bad manager—you’re assigned work that you know to be pointless, but you’re expected to work at it hard. I don’t think there is anything more frustrating at work. Also hard work isn’t always productive. There’s such a thing as working smart versus working hard and compulsively like a workaholic. As we discussed in another topic, workaholics can be very unproductive.

BW: The “pursuit of happiness” is listed among what are considered to be the unalienable rights of man, including “life” and “liberty”, in the United States Declaration of Independence. You’ve counseled and coached many people so you are very familiar with motivations of people. Are people really motivated by the pursuit of happiness?

JM: That’s a good question…

BW: I’m thinking of the book by Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. Viktor Frankl survived several concentration camps during the Holocaust, and he wrote about that experience and what he learned about human beings from that experience. I read it a long time ago, but what I remember about it—somehow the point was made that people, deep down, aren’t motivated by a desire for pleasure or happiness. People need and want meaning and purpose in life, more so than fleeting pleasure or fleeting happiness. And he found that whether people ultimately survived or not had a lot to do with whether they believed life had meaning.

JM: I remember reading him a long time ago also. Frankl was trying to get sort of the hub of the wheel. He put a strong emphasis on that—that people aren’t motivated by a desire for happiness and pleasure, but more so by meaning. And given what he survived and observed, he’s probably right on that point. I personally don’t remember ever being motivated by the pursuit of happiness, which to me is an abstraction. I remember wanting to be skilled in the work that I did, wanting to understand human nature, and wanting to help people solve problems. I like solving problems. I was motivated by that, not the pursuit of happiness. But I don’t recall struggling to say or figure out, “What’s my purpose in life?” I made the best of every opportunity that came along. And I was quite happy. Based on my experience, motives vary and the appearance of motivations varies a tremendous amount. If I were to stop and think, I could talk for hours about different people with different motivations. Right now, I am thinking about a person who was highly motivated and worked very effectively to help the North American Native Americans health-wise. Very dedicated. High achiever in helping Native Americans be healthy. You’ve got other people that are highly motivated to have a lot of prestige, fancy cars, fancy homes, fancy clothes. Many of them are motivated by advertising, the tv shows, to buy, buy, buy and have more things than their friends and neighbors. Many want to beat out their peers and friends, be better than them. To give an example, I worked with a company once that had quite a sales force. I think they had about twelve sales people. And they were always focusing on how to motivate their salesmen to produce more sales. Well, one of their top salesmen, really tops, consistently had come to them and he wanted a very special arrangement. Well, as we got into it, we found out that his greatest desire was to have an office of his own instead of being with all the other salesmen in the big sales room. And he wanted there to be a plaque above the door stating that he was the top salesman in the company. Some people want their own office to limit distractions—that wasn’t his reason. His desire for an office was for the prestige of it. And so when they gave him his office with a plaque up above with his name and it said something about how he was the most outstanding salesman in the company, he was quite happy—at least for awhile. But then I also worked with a number of people for whom status and prestige had nothing to do with their sense of accomplishment. Their sense of accomplishment was based on other things. And so what I’m saying is, on the surface, motivation comes in many different forms and flavors. I would say that it varies tremendously with every person. A lot depends on a person’s background, their upbringing, their parents, their schooling, all sorts of things. Motivation is unique to each individual but in the context of work, on a deeper level, maybe it’s safe to say that there’s two broad general categories. And this is a generalization of course for the purpose of discussion. Reality can be more complex. But for the purpose of discussion we could say people, in the context of work, are motivated by their values, ethics, their sense of meaning and purpose, or by more worldly concerns. In most people you’ll find both, but one tends to be more dominant than the other. But just so there’s no misunderstanding, I’m not saying it’s wrong to want and have material things. And also, you can have the right values with questionable motives.

BW: Pursuit of happiness is often equated with or at least considered to be hand-in-hand with upward mobility and material success in the United States which many people define as the American Dream. It seems to be an unwritten rule or assumption that happiness, security, and self-esteem are dependent on a person’s status and material wealth, when in fact, that isn’t actually true.

JM: No, that definitely isn’t true. Your happiness, security, and self-esteem aren’t dependent on your status or material wealth, but many people act, live, and work as if they are.

BW: Someone could argue that upwardly mobility, in some contexts, is just glorified social climbing.

JM: In some cases that’s true. And some people resort to whatever means to get ahead in life. In an extreme case of people using unethical means—let’s take the Enron example. The top people were motivated highly by greed for fortunes—the hell with everybody else. They were motivated by big egos. And as we know, Enron became one of the biggest business scandals and bankruptcies in recent U.S. history. Many of the employees had retirement plans tied up in the company, which they completely lost.

BW: That’s a lesson that it’s a good idea to pay attention to the values of the people you work for. Some people assume the bottom line is all that matters, whether a company is profitable or not. But whether the company survives for the long haul depends a lot on the values and ethics of the company. And your reputation is generally tied up with the company you work for. And as far as the two categories you talked about in the deeper motivations of people, in Christianity, Paul hit on the crux of it in Romans—one is either a servant of Christ—in other words a transformed person—or a slave to sin. The top managers at Enron were definitely enslaved by sin and brought down by it.

JM: And everyone who worked alongside them, and many who worked under their leadership, got brought down with them.

BW: And I would imagine, if your values are very different from the values of the company you work for, then that can make for a pretty awful, leaden, lifeless experience. If your values are compromised, it’s hard to find joy in your work.

JM: In a practical sense, maybe it’s safe to say that is the difference between joy and the more fleeting type of happiness in the context of work and earning a livelihood. Work that is in line with your values and serves something greater than yourself has a deeper joy associated with it, versus a preoccupation with self-gain and self-promotion. Going back to the example of the guy who got his office and plaque and was quite happy with it, but it would be just a matter of time before he starting feeling dissatisfied and wanting more, wanting to repeat that fleeting feeling of achievement and “making it.” Many people are disillusioned by this way of living—they think it will bring them the love, joy, and satisfaction they are looking for and it often doesn’t.

BW: But many argue and claim that it is just this type of striving and achieving that drives progress and creates prosperity.

JM: Well yes, achieving and accomplishing—those are all healthy things but at the same time, if those things are out of balance and done at the expense of relationships—or values or vision for that matter—then you’re undermining the achievement and also directly or indirectly jeopardizing your endeavor and organization. Hardly a recipe for joy or happiness. Relationships are central to everything, every enterprise. To keep a successful enterprise going requires teamwork, community. If the relationships in that community are poisoned over time, the enterprise as a whole won’t fare well. We talked about in the topic “Ego”, egoism is destructive to relationships and poisons and erodes at community over the long term. The effects of those poisoned relationships will show up in all sorts of symptoms—internal strife and inefficiency, problems in product development, the list goes on and on. Are you able to create a balance? Achieving and maintaining balance is probably one of the most difficult things in life. People who claim it is all about individual achievement and nothing else aren’t grounded in reality—they don’t have much real work experience, especially working as part of a team which is necessary for any enterprise or endeavor. Or people who claim selfishness is a virtue in business—they don’t have a realistic or practical understanding of what it takes to run an organization in a healthy way over the long haul.

BW: You have made clear, relationships are central to everything and the heart of organizations and community. Organizations and enterprises, which incidentally are the building blocks of an economy, are dependent on relationships. If those relationships are impaired, not functioning, then the organizations will not be viable, sustainable. Long-term viability and sustainability are often framed and thought of in strictly business or environmental terms, but it is also relevant on a people, relational, community level. That seems to be the overall theme of your work. And values—that seems to be a thread in your whole work, that having values do make a difference. Things that we take for granted as being part of business, such as ego and greed, can be destructive. After spending time with you and talking with you, I have come to the realization that transformed people are the best hope for creating businesses that are ethical, socially responsible, based on values, embody kingdom principles and are responsible stewards of resources. And I think these are the type of businesses that are more likely to do well over the long term, contrary to the claims of many people. But of course, many claim it’s just about making a profit, getting ahead, and nothing more. And if you have to exploit and waste to accomplish all that, then so be it.

JM: And if you claim or suggest otherwise to them, they can get very hostile since many of them usually get their identity and self-esteem from things like money, status, and achievement. But there’s clearly other ways of living. Is the work, business you’re part of contributing to the world in a beneficial way, providing a good service or product? Or is it, at the bottom of it, just a glorified get-rich-quick scheme. Unless you’re a completely selfish person, you’re going to find making the best use of resources to be more gratifying than wasting and exploiting resources. I like to think most people, when they are being wasteful, are doing so out of ignorance. I think most people would like to be responsible stewards of creation, which is more of a creative challenge than being wasteful. People find joy in creativity, especially creating something that is more than a sum of its parts. That is more rewarding than a fleeting feeling of pleasure or happiness. My experience has shown that many people want to serve something greater than their own self-interest. They want to be a part of something bigger and their work to be meaningful. I think we all want meaningful work, work that brings joy and happiness—I think it’s possible to have all that. I was fortunate to have that in my work.