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Friendship, Happiness, and Courage in the Workplace

September 30, 2011


As an employer, I’m aware that job satisfaction is critical for retaining great employees. Employers would love to be able to control all of the factors that lead to job satisfaction; but, as we all know, they can’t. Many things factor into what makes an employee happy and satisfied. In this post, I would like to discuss a few articles that with deal some of those factors. Let’s begin with the topic of friendship. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “A man’s growth is seen in the successive choirs of his friends.” My guess is that if you ask people on the street, “Does your happiness increase with the number of friends you have,” the majority of people would answer, “Yes.” After all, who doesn’t like to be popular and popularity is measured by volume rather than depth.


A recent study, however, claims that the size of the social network you have may be determined by your genetic make-up rather than your sparkling personality. An article about the study asserts, “The number of friends you have can be accurately predicted by the size of a small almond-shaped part of the brain called the amygdala.” [“How many friends you have can be predicted by the size of your …,” Gizmag, 27 December 2010]. Actually, the study’s authors use the terms “social life” and “social networks” rather than “friends.” The article reports:

“According to a university study, … the strong correlation between a larger amygdala and a full social life holds true regardless of age or gender. Scientists have discovered that the amygdala, deep within the temporal lobe, is important to a rich and varied social life among humans. ‘We know that primates who live in larger social groups have a larger amygdala, even when controlling for overall brain size and body size,’ says Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, of the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, who led the study. ‘We considered a single primate species, humans, and found that the amygdala volume positively correlated with the size and complexity of social networks in adult humans.’ The researchers also performed an exploratory analysis of all the subcortical structures within the brain and found no compelling evidence of a similar relationship between any other subcortical structure and the social life of humans. The volume of the amygdala was not related to other social variables in the life of humans, such as life support or social satisfaction. ‘This link between amygdala size and social network size and complexity was observed for both older and younger individuals and for both men and women,’ says Bradford C. Dickerson, MD, of the MGH Department of Neurology and the Martinos Center for Biomedical Research. ‘This link was specific to the amygdala, because social network size and complexity were not associated with the size of other brain structures.’ Dickerson is an associate professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, and co-led the study with Dr. Barrett.”

If, in the hypothetical question I posed above, you replaced the words “numbers of friends you have” with the “size of your social network,” my guess is that the majority of people would answer, “No.” Friends and social networks are not equivalent. As George Washington put it, “Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence.” As an employer, it would be interesting to have access to data indicating the size of a person’s amygdala before hiring them as sales or marketing people. The larger a person’s social network, the better they should be at those tasks. But, as far as happiness and job satisfaction go, it would tell employers nothing.


People can and, hopefully do, have friends at work; but, that is not always the case. So what else can affect a person’s happiness and sense of well-being either at or away from work. In a book entitled The Happiness Equation, author Nick Powdthavee, an economist at the University of York, attempts to share what economists and psychologists have learned about “the secrets of human happiness.” [“Lessons From Cloud Nine,” by Bryan Caplan, Wall Street Journal, 16 August 2011] In his book review, Caplan, a professor at George Mason University, writes:

“Powdthavee … deftly explains the main determinants of happiness: the small effect of money, the great effect of marriage and friends, the massive effect of personality. Even extremely good news (such as winning the lottery) and extremely bad news (such as losing a spouse) rarely changes an individual’s happiness for more than a couple of years. Mr. Powdthavee also explores the effect of happiness on success: Happiness today predicts higher job performance, better relationships and more years of health in the future.”

Based on that brief abstract of Powdthavee’s book, you can understand why employers should be concerned with the employee’s happiness — even if there doesn’t seem to be a lot they can do about it. Caplan continues:

“In his discussions of money, Mr. Powdthavee puts special emphasis on relative income. People don’t care only about the numbers on their paychecks, he writes; their happiness also depends on whether they make more or less money than their peers. Yet Mr. Powdthavee’s explanation of the income-happiness connection is both misleading and confusing. He suggests that large differences in relative income can have a large influence on happiness, basing this claim on Richard Easterlin’s atypical, somewhat dated finding that the richest Americans are twice as likely to be ‘very happy’ as the poorest. Yet he buries the standard, lower estimates after a long discussion of statistical methods that only an expert could understand, and he relegates to an endnote the powerful international evidence against the importance of relative income that has been gathered by Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson. While absolute poverty can have a powerful negative affect on happiness, in First World countries there is little connection between either absolute or relative income and happiness.”

Despite deep analysis that “only an expert could understand,” common sense tells you that within a company peers getting significantly different salaries could be a source of conflict and unhappiness. Certainly a person’s self-esteem could affected by knowing that he or she makes less than a peer for performing similar work. That’s the reason that so many companies have policies that prohibit employees from sharing salary data. Caplan, who is an economics professor, is a bit offended by Powdthavee’s book because it “unjustly caricatures the economics profession as dogmatically hostile to the very concept of ‘happiness’.” Caplan claims, “The topic has been mainstream for more than a decade, and only a tired minority continues to insist that if you can’t objectively measure it, it doesn’t exist.” It shouldn’t surprise you, then, that Caplan concludes:

“If you’ve never read another book on happiness, you may learn a lot from ‘The Happiness Equation.’ But better books on the same subject already exist—most notably, Daniel Gilbert’s ‘Stumbling on Happiness’ and Arthur Brooks’s ‘Gross National Happiness.’ Mr. Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, is a virtuoso writer, while Mr. Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, seamlessly interweaves the data with reflections on the human condition. ‘The Happiness Equation’ can only really be recommended to those with a deep interest in the subject who have read other books on the topic and plan to read more. Mr. Powdthavee deserves credit for concluding his book with some of the big questions: ‘Is happiness overrated?’ ‘Should government force people to be happy?’ But he neglects the many ways in which government could sharply increase happiness by intervening less.”

I would like to conclude with the discussion of two interrelated topics: fear and courage. There are people, I suppose, who never doubt their abilities or chosen course in life. But indications are, those people are rare. I think it’s both appropriate and useful to question yourself on occasion. But, according to Melinda Beck, doubts can be taken to the extreme with the result being unfounded fear. [“Conquering Fear,” Wall Street Journal, 2 January 2011] She writes:

“The boss loves your work. Your spouse thinks you’re sexy. The kids—and even the cat—shower you with affection. But then there’s the Voice, the nagging presence in your head that tells you you’re a homely, heartless slacker. Even people who appear supremely fit, highly successful and hyper-organized are sometimes riddled with debilitating doubts, fears and self-criticisms.”

Beck reports that the nagging doubts aren’t really the problem, it’s making sure that they don’t become debilitating that matters. According to her article, a new “wave of cognitive-behavioral therapy is catching on in psychology and self-help circles. It holds that simply observing your critical thoughts without judging them is a more effective way to tame them than pressuring yourself to change or denying their validity.” She continues:

“‘Tame’ is an interesting word,” says Dr. [Steven C.] Hayes, who pioneered one approach, called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ‘How would you go about taming a wild horse? You wouldn’t whip it back into a corner. You’d pat it on the nose and give it some carrots and eventually try to ride it.’ This new psychology movement centers on mindfulness—the increasing popular emphasis on paying attention to the present moment. One of its key tenets is that urging people to stop thinking negative thoughts only tightens their grip—’like struggling with quicksand,’ Dr. Hayes says. But simply observing them like passing clouds can diffuse their emotional power, proponents say, and open up more options.”

Although this “mindfulness” therapy remains controversial, employers should be aware of it because they may have employees who suffer from debilitating self-doubts. If you know someone who fits the description, point them to the article. The opposite of fear is courage. Natalie Angier writes, “Courage is something that we want for ourselves in gluttonous portions and adore in others without qualification. Yet for all the longstanding centrality of courage to any standard narrative of human greatness, only lately have researchers begun to study it systematically, to try to define what it is and is not, where it comes from, how it manifests itself in the body and brain, who we might share it with among nonhuman animals, and why we love it so much.” [“Searching for the Source of a Fountain of Courage,” New York Times, 3 January 2011] She continues:

“A new report in the journal Current Biology describes the case of a woman whose rare congenital syndrome has left her completely, outrageously fearless, raising the question of whether it’s better to conquer one’s fears, or to never feel them in the first place. In another recent study, neuroscientists scanned the brains of subjects as they struggled successfully to overcome their terror of snakes, identifying regions of the brain that may be key to our everyday heroics. Researchers in the Netherlands are exploring courage among children, to see when the urge for courage first arises, and what children mean when they call themselves brave. The theme of courage claims a long and gilded ancestry. Plato included courage among the four cardinal or principal virtues, along with wisdom, justice and moderation. ‘As a major virtue, courage helps to define the excellent person and is no mere optional trait,’ writes George Kateb, a political theorist and emeritus professor at Princeton University. ‘One of the worst reproaches in the world is to be called a coward.’ Yet defining what it means to be courageous has often proved as thistly as distinguishing the wise ones from the fools. For Plato and many other authorities, courage is above all a martial art, most readily displayed on the battlefield — the iconic brave solder running into the line of fire to retrieve an injured comrade. But Dr. Kateb points out that if courage finds its highest expression in war, then the trait paradoxically becomes an immoral virtue, ennobling war and carnage by insisting that only in battle can men — and it usually is men — discover the depths of their nobility. Marilynne Robinson, the novelist and social critic, has observed that courage is ‘dependent on cultural definition’ and ‘rarely expressed except where there is sufficient consensus to support it.’ Where religious martyrdom is lionized, there will be martyrs; where social or political protest is seen as glorious warfare in civvies, there will be a rash of red-faced declaimers, soapboxes on every street.”

That brief history of studies and thoughts about courage is interesting, but has only tangential interest to happiness and satisfaction in the workplace. The following study noted by Angier is more pertinent. She writes:

“In pioneering work from 1970s and beyond, Stanley J. Rachman of the University of British Columbia and others studied the physiology and behavior of paratroopers as they prepared for their first parachute jump. The work revealed three basic groups: the preternaturally fearless, who displayed scant signs of the racing heart, sweaty palms, spike in blood pressure and other fight-or-flight responses associated with ordinary fear, and who jumped without hesitation; the handwringers, whose powerful fear response at the critical moment kept them from jumping; and finally, the ones who reacted physiologically like the handwringers but who acted like the fearless leapers, and, down the hatch.”

Of those three groups, only the “jumping handwringers” were judged to be courageous. Expanding on that definition of courage, Angier writes, “Courage becomes democratized and demilitarized, the property of any wallflower who manages to give the convention speech, or the math phobe who decides to take calculus.” That doesn’t mean that the “fearless” group won’t be good paratroopers or good employees, quite the opposite. A business needs both the fearless and the courageous. But courageous employees are important because they can help point out uncertainties and challenges that a fearless person might not. They are courageous because they “are aware of a danger but proceed in the face of it.” What you don’t need in your business is someone who is stupidly courageous (i.e., someone who proceeds with an activity that can have devastating effects on your business with little upside potential). The rogue traders in European banks come to mind. Rewarding courageous employees with a bit a praise or a bonus goes a long way to increasing their self-esteem and satisfaction at work.


The bottom line of this discussion is that employers must be cognizant of a lot more than job performance to extract the best from employees. In situations where inattention can result in serious injury or death, being aware of an employee’s needs or predilections and recognizing changes in behavior or mood are even more important. Happiness, fear, and courage all play their role in the workplace and the more we understand about them the better.

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