The Dangers of Trying To Make People Happy

A few years ago, the Washington Post ran an article that listed some of the best employee excuses their readers ever heard:

“I won't be coming to work today. The voices in my head told me to stay home and clean all my guns.”

“You thinking my work is not good enough is really hurting my self-esteem.”

“I am always late because I set half the clocks in my house ahead an hour and after realizing my mistake, set them back an hour.  Now I seem to be caught  in some kind of space-time continuum loop that I can’t escape.”

“I am having trouble focusing because I just learned that I was switched at birth.” 

“I really need to talk, and all you want to focus on is work.  Please stop telling me you have an office to run!” 

“My doctor told me I may have the plague, but I’m sure I can come in to finish the project.”

If you ever managed an employee you will agree that the most difficult aspect of your job is understanding their emotions and motivations.  You know you aren’t a trained psychologist, but feel you have to be just to get through the day.  And that doesn’t just apply to employees, but to clients, vendors, volunteers, and sponsors, as well. Trying to understand what they want and what makes them happy and content is a full-time job.

But maybe that is the problem.  Maybe we should stop trying to make them happy.

It is perfectly natural to assume that people always want to feel good.  After all, why would anyone willingly choose the alternative?  But some research out of Boston College suggests that we actually do prefer unpleasant emotions, such as anger, fear and confusion, when those emotions help use achieve some long-term goals.  

You have to understand that emotions serve a real purpose in human beings.  They have evolved and adapted over time as both a survival mechanism and as an expression of our own self-awareness.  We feel disgust to protect us from things that may harm us physically or make us sick, like a rotting animal carcass or spoiled food.  We feel guilt to help us avoid repeating behaviors that may harm us spiritually or morally.  We feel compassion, empathy, and forgiveness, hoping that those same emotions will be reciprocated to us one day when we may need them.  They may not be visible, but our emotions serve a biological function equal to that of our heart, our liver, or any other body part.

What the researchers at Boston College discovered is that, quite often - both consciously and subconsciously - we want  to feel unpleasant emotions instead of immediate, pleasurable ones when we believe that the unpleasant emotions can be more useful in helping us achieve our long-term goals.  For example, if we don’t believe that taking risks is a great benefit to our life, then fear is a useful emotion to have.  They found that envy is usually a more powerful motivator for achievement than feeling neutral or indifferent about what others have.  That anger is extremely useful when preparing for confrontation.  And that feeling and expressing confusion helps us to ask more questions and concentrate harder.

Now some of those things may seem self evident, but think of how we normally deal with unpleasant emotions expressed by the people around us.  The fearful we tell not to be afraid.  The envious we ask to focus on what they have rather than what they don’t.  The angry we ask to calm down.  The confused we ask to be patient and quietly listen because soon it will all make sense.  Our emotions are warning signals that help us manage the lives we want.  When they are short circuited by others because they are unpleasant to deal with, it could have a profound influence on us achieving our goals and making us happy in the long run.

So don’t be too concerned if the people you interact with aren’t always happy.  Let them be afraid, and envious, and angry, and confused.  It’s just their brain trying to figure out what will be best for them in the long run.


James Kane