Happiness Research and Agility- Two Sides of the Same Coin

We are all experts in the field of agility, at least to some point. We know that agility is first and foremost a mindset change. It changes our view on how we develop software or build products. It conflicts with the ways traditional organizations are used to work. Especially Scrum, which comes along without any hierarchy. There are only three roles, none is superior to the other. Introducing such a framework in a strong, long-established hierarchical organization inevitably leads to clashes. Managers need to rethink their role and duties. They must become something called a Servant Leader. Companies need to rethink their organizational structures. They need to find a balance between hierarchy and network structures. All this has led to a new understanding of management that’s nowadays known under the name Management 3.0.

But agility is also spreading over. It’s no longer related only to IT departments or organizations. Take eduScrum as an example where Scrum is used in schools and universities. Students learn their subjects using Scrum as methodology. Another example is Wikispeed, a group of people that produces cars using the Scrum framework. And even in military, agility is used. David Marquet was assigned the command of a nuclear-powered submarine, but was trained for a different submarine. What he found there was poor morale, poor performance, and the worst retention rate in the fleet. He then introduced agile principles and practices and skyrocketed from worst to first in the fleet.

Summing up, agility embraces a new understanding of management, challenges existing hierarchical organizational structures and finds its way into non-IT organizations. But what has all this to do with Happiness Research?

If one asks humans, what is the one thing that is closest to their heart, what they finally expect from live, happiness and content come first. Exactly this is where Happiness Research enters the scene. Happiness Research investigates what it is that makes people happy and content. To clarify, when we talk about happiness we mean the subjective well-being of people. Although Happiness Research has been part of the discussions amongst the economists since the 1970th, it just became an official science around the turn of the millennium. It is an interdisciplinary science covering philosophy, psychology, sociology, economics, and neuroscience. Especially the breakthrough in neuroscience and related medical devices, that enabled scientists to measure the brain waves, boosted the spreading of the science Happiness Research. One of the pioneers of Happiness Research is Lord Richard Layard. His studies laid the ground for the science and many other psychologists and sociologists jumping on that train of well-being. So now, what is it all about?

Let’s look at two figures, the real income per head and the percentage of people very happy. Research has revealed that in the US the real income per head has steadily increased since 1945. In contrast, the percentage of people that are very happy with their live has been a straight line. This trend is not special for the US, instead it was found likewise in all industrial countries. This means that even though people were getting richer they did not become any happier. Money alone doesn’t make people happy! But why? Why don’t people get happier even though they become wealthier?

Let’s consider three different research results from Happiness Research. First, studies all over the world have shown that the wealthier one is, the less is the impact of additional money on one’s happiness. Up to an income of 10.000 US-$ GDP per head per year there is a strong correlation between an increase in income and an increase in happiness. This is mostly due to the satisfaction of one’s existential basic needs like food, living, clothing, security, sex, and education. This correlates with the two bottom levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – Physiological and Safety needs. Between 10.000 US-$ and 20.000 US-$ GDP per head per year the correlation is still there but getting weaker. Above 20.000 US-$ GDP per head per year the correlation nearly no longer exists. So, this means: One secret of happiness is to distribute income equally!

Now imagine you get an increase in salary. Well, this definitely makes you happy. But for how long? After a while the more money gets integrated into your daily live and the good feelings have diminished. To become happy again you need another increase in salary. The same is true for books. When I receive a book that I bought I get a feeling of overwhelming contentedness. But a few days later these happy feelings disappear. So, I buy more books to become happy again. And then I need even more, and more, and more. Meanwhile one needs a guide when walking through my library because all the bought but unread books are lying around the floor. This behavior is also true for cars, clothes, postcards, shoes, … every material stuff. The act that someone needs always more and more to satisfy his happiness, like a drug-dependent junkie, is called hedonistic treadmill. So, this means: Another secret of happiness is to choose positive things one does not get used to!

Let’s look at two studies Richard Layard and other researchers have performed.

  • In a first study, they asked students to answer the following question.
    Imagine you could choose in which of the two following worlds you want to live.

    1. In the first world, you earn 50.000 Euro per year, while the average earning of your fellow men is 25.000 Euro per year.
    2. In the second world, you earn 100.000 Euro per year, while the average earning of your fellow men is 250.000 Euro per year.

Question: Imagine, the prices in both worlds are the same. Which world would you choose?

The findings show that the vast majority of students had chosen the first world A. This means that people rather abstain from earning more money in favor of looking better than their fellow men.

  • In a second study, they asked students to answer the following question.
    Imagine you could choose in which of the two following worlds you want to live.

    1. In the first world, you have two weeks’ vacation per year, while your fellow men have only one week vacation per year.
    2. In the second world, you have four weeks’ vacation per year, while your fellow men have eight weeks’ vacation per year.

Question: Which world would you choose?

The findings show that the vast majority of students had chosen the second world B. This means that people want to have as much leisure time as possible, despite that their fellow men have much more leisure time.

Both studies reveal that there is a difference in people’s behavior when comparing money, or material things, on the one side, and leisure time, or immaterial things, on the other side. This social envy regarding the material or monetary side is another reason why people are unhappy with their lives. So, this means: Another secret of happiness is to not orientate oneself with people who are more successful than oneself!

Let’s summarize the three secrets of happiness.

  1. Income should be distributed equally.
  2. Choose positive things you do not get used to.
  3. Do not compare yourself with other people who are more successful.

But what does this mean? What can we draw out of these findings? What has all this to do with agility? Let’s have a look at how these findings relate to people and organizations.

  1. Distributing income equally is synonym to the declining worth money offers for employees. Especially creative workers can’t be motivated with money. For them other things are more important. Their work needs to be meaningful, they are looking for a purpose in their daily work, they value freedom of choice, self-organization, and to carry their life in their own hand. Empowerment gets more and more important. New motivational methods are indispensable. All those measures are expressions of the low value money plays and that money should better be distributed equally.
  2. Choosing positive things, one does not get used to, is a concept that is mirrored in the importance of social contacts in work environments. People prefer having good relationships with their teammates, instead of being compensated with money. People like to work in teams, have fun, and share their knowledge and experience. Team coherence is more important than monetary compensation. In addition, people are looking for meaningful and varied tasks. All things that one can’t get used to, even after month of existence.
  3. Do not compare yourself with other people who are more successful than oneself, is expressed in different ways. The ones who do not compare themselves with others turn towards their own needs. They focus on their personal growth and search for self-actualization, they like pair-working and sharing experience. The team takes center stage. Everything is secondary compared to one’s own life and happiness and the team performance.

Creative workers cannot be motived with money, thus new motivational approaches are required. Furthermore, more and more research studies from fields like neurobiology, psychology, and economics prove, that content and happy employees lead to better business performances. Happy employees accomplish more than unhappy ones in the long run. They come to work more regularly, are less often ill, are more successful, more engaged, more innovative, much more loyal, and they attract alike people. Happy employees are the best organizations can wish for. Organizations on the other hand become more productive, more effective, more efficient, more resilient, respond with faster reactions, and are much better economically viable. Taking all this together we can conclude that people need to be in the center of organizations. Organizations must focus on their employees’ needs. This requires a totally new understanding of management that changes the perception of roles and organizational structures.

OK, so let’s put the things together. As we all know from experience, agility changes organizations, it changes the mindset about what management means and hence the role of managers and organizational structures. This in turn changes people and influences our society. People strive for a happy, motivating and engaging workplace. On the other hand, we now have seen that Happiness Research revealed that the one thing that is closest to people’s heart is a happy and content live. And this not only holds true for their private lives but spreads into the workplace. People living to the core findings of Happiness Research exhibit behavior and expect work environments that require a completely new understanding of management, roles and organizational structures. Happiness Research influences the society and therefore people and organizations. Both, Happiness Research and Agility reinforce each other. They are two sides of the same coin.


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