In a call centre in Burwood, one of Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs, there is a sign posted on the back of the toilet doors telling staff that they can become happier if they smile. If they’re having trouble maintaining a cheery disposition because of the pressure of weekly sales targets or are copping abuse from irate customers whose evening dinner they’ve just interrupted for the third time in a week, staff are advised to smile their frustrations away.

The company is drawing – directly or indirectly – from a fast-growing movement called ‘positive psychology’. Unlike other branches of psychology, which tend to be preoccupied with disorders such as depression and anxiety, positive psychology pays close attention to what makes people optimistic and happy.

Writing in the Chronicle Review in 2009, Jennifer Ruark notes that the US National Institute of Mental Health handed out around $226 million over the previous decade for positive psychology research.

Research findings about what makes us happy have begun to influence public policy. In December 2011, the US Department of Health and Human Services convened a panel of experts charged with devising a reliable measure of ‘subjective wellbeing’ – the academically respectable term for happiness. If successful, measurements of Americans’ happiness may be integrated into official statistical data collection.

The US move came on the heels of David Cameron’s government announcing in November 2010 that £2 million would be spent to measure the happiness of Britons on a regular basis. In 2007, an advisor to Tony Blair’s government argued that happiness ought to be taught as part of the standard school curriculum as a way to tackle increasing rates of depression. The following year, the Sunday Times reported that 1500 eleven-year-old students from twenty-two schools around Britain were taking part in a positive psychology program. Closer to home, the prestigious Geelong Grammar School reportedly employed a former president of the American Psychological Association for two terms to help ‘students become happier, more resilient and less prone to depression’.

But the more we know about happiness – or think we know – the greater the temptation becomes to manipulate people’s emotional states.

Call it Happiness™: a form of happiness that, like any other industrial product, is manufactured in a predictable, standardised and, perhaps most importantly, reproducible fashion. As we’ll see, Happiness™ is both a management tool to ensure compliant and efficient workers, and a product in its own right.

Ally, a former student of mine, briefly worked in a call centre for a subscription television company, a place where she experienced Happiness™ first hand. As far as call centre work goes, Ally had a plum job: she worked 9 am to 5 pm and was paid good money to take in-bound calls only.

Ironically, one of the most unpleasant parts of Ally’s job was the company’s demand that she should be happy.

‘From the get-go, it was all a bit creepy,’ she says. ‘I remember one of the bosses walking in saying, “I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t want to work here. You guys are in for a treat!” He was almost high-fiving people.’

The training centre, like the call centre office itself, was decorated with garish colours, streamers dangling from the ceiling. It was also adorned with slogans about being happy, as if designed for preschoolers rather than adults. Trainees were told that the job was ‘awesome’ because they could wear what they want. As was made clear at the induction, you could even wear your pyjamas to work – and a few people did.

A recurring motif throughout Ally’s time at the call centre was the ‘Rainbow Connection’ (as in the song by Kermit the Frog). Employees were told they could retreat to the ‘Rainbow Connection corner’; the manual on dealing with customers was called the ‘Rainbow Book’; the preferred term for employment contracts was the ‘Rainbow Connection’. The implication: work was just one big extension of your social activities, seamlessly combining all the strands of your life – your work, your friendships and your personal values – into a single way of thinking. New recruits were even fed stories about how other employees had met their spouses while working the phones.

But the fun came with nasty barbs. One of the training exercises involved the new recruits naming a daily ‘fun person’ or ‘fun fact’. Trainees were asked to share their proudest or happiest moment with the trainer and the rest of the group; in other words, the usual team-bonding corporate awfulness that will be familiar to anyone who has worked in service industries.

On one such occasion, the ‘fun fact’ question was ‘Do you have any scars?’ Everybody who had one was asked to raise their hand. The trainer then went around the ten or so people asking them to reveal the fun-filled story about how they had acquired it. When it came to Ally’s turn to share, she refused, telling the trainer that she wasn’t comfortable divulging such personal information.

‘It’s a scar,’ explains Ally. ‘The chances of it being from something that wasn’t very pleasant are pretty high. It’s likely to be pretty personal. And why would you want to share that with people you’ve known for a week?’

The trainer affected to be mildly taken aback by Ally’s reticence. After all, it was all a bit of fun. Why didn’t she want to take part?

Pressing people to share stories about injury might seem macabre, but if your aim is to foster camaraderie among strangers, then you need to get people to feel they have a special bond with each other. There is no better way than getting them to share intimate personal details, to reveal the kind of information that is normally only known by close friends and family. And if you present it as all a bit of a lark, it’s more likely the group will open up.

Worse was to come when Ally worked on the phones.

She recalls one of the managers telling her and the other employees that ‘everyone is happy here, so there is no need for a union’. Fortunately, Ally’s mum had been a union officer for thirty years and her sister had worked for the union that looks out for call centre employees, so she was well warned.

‘You were always logged on,’ Ally recalls. ‘Say your shift started at 8 am, you were docked if you weren’t signed in at 8 am exactly. If you were logged out for longer than fifteen minutes, you were docked. You would get a call asking, “Why aren’t you on the phone?”’

Even going to the toilet or getting a drink of water would incur a pay deduction.

‘If you’re working in an office with over fifty people, going to the toilet is obviously not always going to be a two-minute absence,’ says Ally. ‘This kind of job is today’s industrial production line, so I knew if there was ever a work environment where I ever need a union, it’s now.’

Ally’s experiences are not uncommon. Health sociologist Nicky Welch wrote her PhD on work practices in Australian call centres. Ostensibly, the companies she studied considered the happiness of employees to be paramount: ‘One of our main priorities is having fun,’ one manager told Welch. ‘It is mandatory; you have got to have some fun.’ Welch notes, however, that the kinds of fun activities on offer – fancy-dress days, raffles, charities, team names and so on – were conspicuously lacking in spontaneity or playfulness. Instead, they seemed designed to drive productivity.

Erwin, who has worked for the same company as Ally, thought there was another reason why happiness and fun were pushed so heavily. In his reckoning, making work like an all-day party was about getting people to drop their inhibitions and do things that they might not normally do in a professional setting. Like lying, for instance.

‘They were constantly trying to let us know how great it was to work there with all the colour and the idea of the Rainbow Connection that joins everyone, as if we’re all connected like a rainbow in work and in friendship,’ he notes. ‘What they were really doing was making you think that you were in a really cool place so that you would do what you wouldn’t normally do, which is be dishonest to sell a product.’

Erwin sold mobile phones and internet plans to unsuspecting customers. He had previously worked in a call centre where the emphasis had been on customer satisfaction and there was less pressure to sell at all costs. After watching the most successful and celebrated salespeople in the new call centre, he quickly realised that – despite all the talk about fun and happiness – the fastest way to get ahead was to strongarm customers into signing up for deals and packages that they didn’t need or want.

This typically meant offering to bundle a customer’s home and mobile phones with the internet service. The bundled plans were dressed up as a special, not-to-be-repeated offer, when in fact they were standard services at normal retail prices. While some people could see through these sales pitches, many of the customers were older and, most likely, unfamiliar with the products and services they were purchasing.

In Erwin’s estimation, the talk about happiness was a gloss to ensure no-one reflected too deeply about what they were doing. Signing people up to products and plans was just a game. The more successful you were, the more you were doing your bit to ensure the happiness of your team. The ‘fun’ environment was a means of stripping everyday inhibitions so that employees might become better salespeople. The dull business of selling took on a carnivalesque atmosphere, where the usual constraints and norms were suspended.

Not surprisingly, Erwin and Ally didn’t last long at the call centre, leaving after eight and four months, respectively.

But the commercial application of happiness research goes well beyond motivating and managing employees. Another side effect of treating happiness as a scientific discipline, as something that can be studied, controlled and harnessed, has been to encourage the idea that it can be created to order – in other words, that it is just like any other industrial product.

Stuart, the Manager for Culture (yes, really) with the call centre operator that employed both Ally and Erwin, likened his staff to the machinery of a large steel producer.

‘Our people are our machinery and so we need to invest money in order to maintain that machinery. If that means giving someone an opportunity to put a streamer up, or giving someone the opportunity to celebrate their birthday or a birth or a marriage or something else that’s important to them, then we need to make that happen.’

Just as a steel mill needs to ensure its machinery is operating efficiently, a call centre needs to grease the wheels of its employees’ emotional lives.

The growing interest in managing the emotional lives of employees is not at all surprising. It is the logical outcome of a shift towards service-based work. In many developed countries, increasing numbers of workers are employed in service-related roles. In the UK, for example, service employment is estimated to generate around 73 per cent of the country’s total wealth. In economies where increasing numbers of people work in service-based industries – whether it’s something relatively low level, such as call centres or retail, or professional services where personal rapport is crucial, such as management consulting or law – projecting a positive outlook and, more importantly, being able to elicit positive emotional responses from clients matters much more than in manual labour.

Of course, emotions have always played some role in the workplace. Being a miserable sod has never been a wise career move. The difference now is that in industries selling ‘weightless’ services, as opposed to tangible goods like toasters or turbines, emotions have become all important.

If you work in a service role, emotions aren’t just one part of the job – displaying emotions and, in turn, inducing emotional responses is your job. Emotions are the product.

Compare a bus driver and a call centre worker. So long as the bus gets to its destination on time and without incident, then most passengers are not really interested in how the driver is feeling. The bus driver’s emotional state has little direct bearing on the ability to drive a bus.

Things are quite different for someone who works in a call centre. If the person is surly or miserable, then he or she is likely to find themselves called into the team leader’s office for an extended counselling session. Customers are, after all, talking to a disembodied voice; the worker’s emotional demeanour is inseparable from the product or service on offer. From a management point of view, personable workers aren’t just preferable, they are absolutely essential to the bottom line.

In The Managed Heart, a study of the ‘emotion work’ carried out by flight attendants, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild writes that ‘the emotional style of offering the service is part of the service itself in a way that loving or hating wallpaper is not a part of producing wallpaper’. She continues:

[T]he smiles are part of her work, a part that requires her to co-ordinate self and feeling so that the work seems to be effortless … part of the job is to disguise fatigue and irritation, for otherwise the labor would show in an unseemly way, and the product – passenger contentment – would be damaged.

This extends to anyone in the business of selling services: workers need to be more Kermit the Frog than Oscar the Grouch.

With the rise of service jobs, it’s not surprising that so many resources and so much energy is now devoted to studying what it is that makes people happy. As psychologist Dieter Zapf notes in a 2002 literature review, ‘Emotion work may help to make the social interaction more predictable and help to avoid embarrassing situations that might otherwise interrupt the interaction with clients.’

Zapf further notes that emotion work helps to stabilise relationships between organisations and their customers. This is particularly important when it comes to service work because it is difficult to assess the quality of something intangible. Unlike a faulty toaster or a broken fridge, services are consumed immediately. As such, they can’t be returned if the customer is dissatisfied. As much as you may want to, you can’t return rude service.

These differences don’t mean that emotions and other industrially produced products are entirely dissimilar. In fact, they are alike in at least one important respect: they need to be manufactured in a standardised and predictable manner. In a call centre, it’s no good if employees are pleasant to one customer but snarl at the next. We’ve all had an experience where a call centre worker has been particularly unhelpful or abrupt with us – and our first response isn’t always sympathy for the poor guy or girl who is having a bad day. Instead, we form our opinion of the whole company based on that one interaction.

If nothing else, scientific approaches to happiness hold out the promise of producing happiness – or at least its close cousin, Happiness™ – in a controlled and predicable way. The primary aim of happiness studies has not been to create happier, more rounded and well-balanced human beings, but rather to develop a form of happiness that can be switched on and off like a light bulb.

While Happiness™ might be good for a company’s bottom line (for instance, by boosting productivity, managing people and delivering a service at a consistent level of quality), it comes at a cost to the individual employee.

In Welch’s PhD research, she found that while some call centre employees enjoyed the ‘fun’ mandated by management, others felt burdened by the requirement to assume a particular emotional state in line with corporate strategy. In extreme cases, the constant requirement to be ‘up’ at work left some employees estranged and alienated from their true feelings. One former call centre worker, Amber, told Welch that this expectation had led to emotional changes:

Often my husband makes that judgment that I am a bit cold, and a bit, well, he doesn’t say heartless, but I distance myself, I don’t get involved. And I say ‘Well, that is how I cope’, and I feel that a call centre job instilled a bit of that in me.

Amber’s husband wasn’t the only one to notice the changes: ‘The kids constantly remind me, don’t ever go back there Mum, because you weren’t yourself.’

Amber’s experiences are consistent with research that shows that faking emotions may, over the long term, be harmful to employees’ health and wellbeing. A study by German researchers Christian Dormann and Dieter Zapf in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, for example, found that ‘emotional dissonance’ – defined as ‘discrepancies between felt and expressed emotions’ – is a key factor in employee burnout. When faking emotions becomes a habit, rather than a temporary coping strategy, people can become estranged from their authentic emotions.

Those who study and advise the hospitality and service industries (those that are sometimes called the ‘smiling professions’) are not unaware of the dark side of Happiness™. For example, an editor of the academic journal Hospitality Management recounted his experience of a cruise ship holiday where the crew seemed to be in a constant state of bliss.

Intrigued by the all-smiling crew, the editor asked one of the employees about whether his perpetually sunny disposition was genuine or just put on for the benefit of the passengers. In response, the staff member pulled a plastic card from his pocket. Printed on it was the cruise line’s ‘Service Credo’, one line of which read ‘We smile; we are on stage’.

This is Happiness™ at its purest.

Soon after the cruise, the editor’s home town was hit by a hurricane, cutting the power to his and hundreds of thousands of other people’s properties. No longer able to work at home, the editor checked into a hotel. As on the cruise ship, he was struck by the happy demeanour of the staff, which was particularly surprising given that many had also been personally affected by the hurricane. Concerned at the possible adverse effects of fake displays of cheerfulness on the personal lives of hospitality workers – particularly the possibility that the workers might become alienated from their own emotions – the editor urged human resource managers ‘to initiate a set of programs aimed at preparing employees to deal with emotional labour issues’.

However, his concerns didn’t extend to questioning the wisdom of having workers fake smiles day after day. Instead he proposed what amounted to a new-and-improved version of Happiness™. His suggestion: force staff to undergo tests to ensure they can cope with the stress caused by the disconnect between genuine and faked emotions and provide more counselling services to help such employees. In the editor’s words:

Such programs as the inclusion, in the employee selection process, of psychological tests to determine the ability to cope with emotional dissonance, and mandatory periodic training and counselling will reduce job burnout, increase job satisfaction and ultimately lead to an increase in customer satisfaction and profitability.

In a perverse twist, the answer to problems created by Happiness™ is better employee-screening processes to weed out job candidates who are more likely to suffer the ill effects of emotional labour.

The point is not that happiness researchers and those running service industries are engaged in some vast conspiracy to exploit and brainwash their employees. Nor is it being suggested that happiness researchers approve of or condone the ways in which their work is applied. No doubt many look on these kinds of activities with dismay, regarding them as superficial, short-sighted and perhaps even unethical applications of their research.

Yet there is a frequently overlooked and unacknowledged downside to the quest for a science of happiness. Despite surface appearances, the ‘science of happiness’ hasn’t transported us to the sunny uplands of more enlightened workplaces. Too often its applications aren’t really about people’s wellbeing, but rather about ensuring a continuous quality of a service.

The shortcomings of the supposed ‘science of happiness’ and the perversity of Happiness™ do not mean that we’re all doomed to a life of unhappiness. If you look closely at most of what passes for the science of happiness, you will find truisms dressed up in complex-sounding language.

Assuming you’re not clinically depressed – and, if you are, you should see a trained psychologist, rather than take notice of anything you might read about the science of happiness – most of what you can do to improve your chances of leading a happier and more fulfilling life fall squarely within the category of the bleeding obvious.

Chances are you’re already well acquainted with most of them, but if you need a hint, they’re things like having a few close friends you can confide in; treating others as you would like to be treated – namely, with kindness and respect – especially if they work in a call centre or hospitality and their job requires them to display Happiness™; finding a balance between things you don’t like doing (which, for many people, is work) and things in which you take pleasure; treating anything you can buy as secondary to people and relationships; looking for meaning and purpose larger and beyond yourself. Hackneyed and proudly non-scientific as this list certainly is, it remains the surest and quickest path to a happy and fulfilling life.

Best of all, you could probably add to or modify this list as you see fit, without consulting an expert or getting an advanced qualification in positive psychology. And if your employer gives you some free emotional advice on the back of a toilet door, then it’s a safe bet that you should ignore it.


Christopher Scanlon

Christopher Scanlon teaches Journalism at La Trobe University.

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