Oliver Burkeman is the author of “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.” His essay in the New York Times dedicates 800 words to making the case against fun at work. “Please,” he writes, “no, really, please — can we stop trying to “make work fun”?
I agree completely. I had no idea that there was an actual name for a Chief Fun Officer’s activities, but Burkeman says there is: “the suitably appalling” term, ‘fungineering.’ Burkeman says that forced fun almost never leads to more real happiness at work; happiness is like many important values (love, peace, relaxation): the harder you work at achieving them, the more elusive they are. You can’t make yourself happy, and you can’t make yourself have fun.
Burkeman goes on to say that research shows that forced fun doesn’t work. “…researchers found that many experienced the party atmosphere as a burden, not a boon. Prêt a Manger, the British sandwich chain with branches in America, reportedly sends mystery shoppers to its cafes, withholding bonuses from insufficiently exuberant teams.”
By now, you may be thinking that I am a certified curmudgeon, but nothing could be further from the truth. I have a great job, and I think I use the word “fun” in relation to work more than anyone I know. If I didn’t have fun at my job, I wouldn’t do it. But my idea of fun is not necessarily compatible with wearing funny hats and blowing noisemakers. That just makes me uncomfortable. Fun, for me, is doing something well: getting a sentence just right, getting feedback from a reader, winning a deal, figuring out a tough problem. I have a victory dance I save for just those occasions.
Happiness as a state of mind is overrated. It’s the pursuit of happiness that makes the day after Christmas or a year after the wedding day feel so empty for some people. We often mistake exuberance for happiness, and perceive the lack of bubbly joy as unhappiness. Even Jefferson’s brilliant phrase in the Declaration of Independence, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” is misread to mean “the pursuit of whatever I think makes me feel good.” According to researchers at George Mason University, Jefferson probably took that phrase from John Locke’s 1690 essay Concerning Human Understanding: “…the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; …that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness.”
Locke was referring to Aristotle’s definition: “The happy man lives well and does well; for we have practically defined happiness as a sort of good life and good action.” Very different from funny hats and noise makers.
So let’s rally around purpose as a way to have fun and be happier at work. No need to force introverts into the conga line or pull people away from important projects to sing happy birthday. Good life and good action are the keys to real happiness – let’s give employees a shared vision and purpose and give them time and support to create a good life outside the office. I guarantee you that they will be happier.