Why you can’t make Eeyore happier

If you have read Yuval Noah Harari’s excellent book “Sapiens” you will be familiar with the Lottery Problem. This maintains that everyone has a natural level of serotonin and dopamine (the chemical compounds in our bodies that produce feelings of happiness) and that even if you raise this via an incredibly positive experience such as winning the lottery, it will return to the previous “normal” level over time even if the money does not run out quickly.

In a climate where many organisations are becoming obsessed with ways to make their workforce “happier” and even appointing Chief Happiness Officers to the C-suite it’s something well worth bearing in mind.

Like most other measurable physical characteristics (e.g. height, shoe-size, lifespan etc) the natural levels of serotonin and dopamine in people can be put on a chart against the number of people with the same measurements to produce the classic “normal distribution” bell-shaped curve. That is to say, most people are concentrated around the average value with small numbers having the really high values (most of whom work on the Disney Parade) and small numbers with really low values (like Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh).

The Eeyore meme that widely circulated a year or so ago pointed out that yes, Eeyore always seemed very down but his friends accepted him how he is, didn’t go out of their way to change that and never excluded him from their adventures. In any organisation you’ll have a distribution of these characteristics and likely have as many “Eeyores” as “Tiggers” – although more of the former if you are engineering biased and more of the latter if you are sales biased.

The key point here is that whilst the theory runs “a happy worker is a more productive one”, I’d like to modify that and state that the most productive workers are the ones that are operating at their natural levels of serotonin and dopamine. You can’t make Eeyores into Tiggers and you really, really shouldn’t try. On the one hand it’s impossible without using drugs and on the other you are just as likely to alienate those who you want to change. Plus, believe it or not, some of the ones that don’t seem terribly jolly are actually just fine and producing excellent work.

On the flip side of this, it’s very possible to make Tiggers into Eeyores by demotivating them so the key to success is understanding the people you have as well as you can and focus on avoiding things that make them unhappy rather than trying to find ways to make them un-naturally happy. Workspace can play a key role in this because there are all kinds of environmental issues which people build into chains of dissatisfaction that will lead to them becoming disengaged and/or wanting to leave.

Seeking out demotivating factors and eliminating them where possible is fundamental to this whether it’s temperature control, over-crowding, child care, noise, unwanted lunch odours, lousy coffee, too much/too little sunlight etc. etc. Look around a few job sites and you will see a lot of comments about companies where ex-employees say things like “people were great, money was good but boy, did that office suck”. Not everything is expensive to change and where investment IS required you might ask yourself “can we afford to do that?” – Although It might be as well to ask if you can afford not to.