Here’s how companies can truly improve employee happiness

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Charlotte Gaston-Breton, Professor of marketing, ESCP Business School, Jérémy Lemoine, Lecturer at the University of East London, visiting lecturer at ESCP Business School, Benjamin Voyer, Professor of entrepreneurship, ESCP Business School, Minas Kastanakis, Professor of marketing, ESCP Business School

  • Employee wellbeing is a new imperative for employers to retain staff in a tight labor market.
  • But while many corporate perks focus on pleasure-seeking, happiness also depends on the collective pursuit of meaning.
  • A new robust cross-cultural study shows that meaning is a stronger predictor of happiness than pleasure across all cultures.

According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report, employee wellbeing is the new imperative for employers. Several prominent companies have appointed “chief happiness officers“, and the professional network LinkedIn lists more than 4,000 of them: international companies are increasingly embracing well-being and happiness initiatives as a way to retain employees in a tight labour market. Most corporate perks take the form of yoga classes, unlimited free snacks, or company retreats to ski resorts, while marketing departments try to support healthy habits related to their brands.

All of which is very nice, but does it really foster happiness? And – importantly for international companies – are wellness programs designed in Silicon Valley suited to employees in Italy, South Africa or Japan? Many well-being initiatives take a view of happiness that is based on individual and pleasure-based benefits and ignores the cultural context. We examined happiness across 12 countries and found a universal need for managers to address more collective and meaningful aspects of happiness.

Traditional predictors of happiness and their limits

Social sciences research conceptualizes happiness as having two dimensions rooted in ancient Greek philosophy: hedonia and eudaimonia. A more recent study has defined these as follows: “the hedonic pathway to happiness is reached by maximizing one’s pleasurable moments, whereas the eudaimonic pathway to happiness relies on using and developing the best of oneself in the pursuit of the greater good, particularly the welfare of humankind.” This could also be described as pursuing a meaningful life.

Cross-cultural research on happiness may have exhibited a bias toward hedonism, derived from the dominant, Western, individualist-oriented tradition. Life satisfaction, the most commonly-used outcome variable in the well-being literature, is often related to pleasure-seeking. The pursuit of a meaningful life, on the other hand, is a more collective endeavour. There could be diversity in ideas about happiness both between and within countries.

A more holistic definition of happiness should include spirituality in addition to pleasure and meaning, although this overlaps with a search for meaning. Indeed, the collective dimension of eudaimonia may offer a better understanding of cultural variations, particularly between individualist and collectivist countries. Previous empirical studies have demonstrated that personal achievement and pleasure lead to greater happiness for North Americans. In contrast, social harmony and a feeling of interdependence with others contribute more to happiness in East Asia.

The challenge of measuring happiness across continents and cultures

To investigate how hedonic and eudaimonic dimensions of happiness varied across cultures, we worked with a panel provider to question 2,615 people from 12 countries about their life satisfaction, asking them to rate several items related to pleasure, meaning and spirituality. We chose countries that both offered cultural diversity (individualist and collectivist contexts) and represented under-studied countries.

Even if the weight of each dimension varies from country to country, this is only relative. Overall, people from all countries are equally oriented towards pleasure, meaning and spirituality in their desire for life satisfaction. This robust cross-cultural study shows that meaning is a stronger predictor of life satisfaction than pleasure for all studied countries.

Meaningful routes to well-being for managers

Do these findings suggest that a global culture with converging (if not homogenized) values is emerging? The idea has been around since the 2000s when the world wide web was growing rapidly.

Our results, which relied on an internet survey, may reflect patterns specific to an Internet-connected population. More generally, however, the findings are valuable for managers wishing to design smarter corporate incentives to promote staff well-being. They could benefit from widening their focus on pleasure-based benefits such as financial rewards, to include giving employees a sense of meaning, by volunteering their time, for example.

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