You’re not doing happiness right. Please try harder!

I like being happy. It feels good. But, I’m exhausted from trying to “get happy right” based on a formula. And, more often than not, feel like I’m failing miserably at it.

I work with incredible scientists, economists, and creatives. So, I fully appreciate the benefits that happiness offers. My friend Carol Graham has some particularly powerful work on this:

So, what makes such a good thing like happiness go bad? It seems to me that there is an increasingly vast chasm between what research shows, and HOW that knowledge ultimately gets applied as part of a patchwork of management feel-good fads — often gleaned from summer reading book lists, reductionists media approaches, and the like.

I spent some time this weekend getting my thoughts together on how we might do things differently in bridging the chasm between research and applied science. Lots to unpack here. But, it is my hope that some of you resonate with these challenges and will engage in the beautiful, messy, human dialogue that helps us all get to a better place.

It's not us. It's you.

Imagine it’s your first month on a new job. You’re excited to make a contribution to your new company. Then, via email, you get a “personality test” link from corporate headquarters requesting you complete the assessment. Being new, you dutifully complete it.

Then, in your second month, a virtual group meeting is called with all your new colleagues. A person from corporate headquarters who you have never met, but is “trained” in the personality assessment model comes on screen and begins presenting. They put up a slide with everybody’s individual results (by name) mapped on a chart. You see 95% of your new colleagues clustered tightly in a category the trainer says is “good”. This category is characterized as “compliant and cautious.”

Then, based on your score, the trainer names you as the loner in a category that is almost on the opposite side of the chart. The trainer suggests you (remember, they are using actual names) will need to work on your “personality” in order to be more like everyone else because, again, that’s what the trainer says is “good”. Welcome to your new job!

This actually happened to me. When it did, it mustered up a lifetime of being “othered” and bullied. First, as a queer, neurodiverse kid growing up in southeastern Kentucky in the 1980s, then for my accent when I entered college and my first corporate jobs, and so on. While being white in America afforded an immense privilege, the schools I was in and the companies where I worked were not made for people like me to be “happy”. So, I found ways to create meaning instead.

Today, my work as a Culture Futurist™ — mixing research, strategy, data analytics, and storytelling — helps me to understand a lifetime of things. Things I knew were not right at the time but didn’t yet have the words or insights to fully understand why. Now I do.

Happiness Pursuits

Before continuing, let me make something clear. I like being happy. It feels good. I work with enough scientists to fully appreciate the wellness benefits that come from happiness. But, I am exhausted from trying to get it “right” based on a formula. Which, if we’re being honest, is often promoted by leaders seduced by the formula’s inherent message. Namely, it’s not the company’s culture, but the individual employee’s motivation that is the “problem.” The employee, not the company, is the thing that needs to be “fixed.”

This focus on the individual is dangerous thinking for leaders who need to innovate in a fast-changing environment. Why? A recent article entitled Cognitive Behavioral Soulcraft: Running into the limits of wellness culture put it this way:

In its attempt to give us control over our own stories, Cognitive Wellness Culture (CWC) impoverishes the stories we share and the meanings we make together.

Perhaps this is at the core of why a lot of corporate “happiness models” meant to improve individual employee engagement become deeply problematic. When not contextualized within a greater socio-cultural environment, one where culture shifts and shocks are increasingly the norms, these models may inadvertently harm the trust and belonging they are meant to support while exacerbating company ills like purpose fatigue.

Culture Shifts & Curiosity

Ostensibly for team building and creating “good” culture, it seems to me that we have a lot of outdated corporate approaches hanging around these days. What if many of these old (pre-2020) methods are actually reducing the creative capacity of companies to innovate?

In my own exploration, there is one empirical example of this that comes up often. Over and over again I see companies having 9 of 10 employees with, basically, the exact same curiosity orientation. While the overall company profile may differ slightly between industries, the concentration of employees around curiosity sameness is a consistent feature.

This tells me that companies are doing a “good” job hiring for historical culture fit. But, if something comes along that changes the operating environment, like a pandemic, despite earnest, well-meaning intentions, some companies literally might not have the organizational capacity to think and act differently.

On the other hand, companies who intentionally create a diverse workforce ecosystem — and then use paradox mindset leadership to effectively manage the creative tension that comes along with it — lay the foundation to experience innovation multipliers and higher Culture ROI™. This happens because these companies are able to generate novel, high-value, multiple-pathway responses to both opportunities and threats in the external operating environment.

Interestingly, this phenomenon can be understood, in part, by measuring hope. Hope is different from optimism. Optimism is a belief that circumstances will have a positive outcome. No real action is required by the person holding the belief. On the other hand, hope helps to measure the capacity for action by a person (or group) towards future, uncertain goals. In clinical, educational, and entrepreneurial settings, hope is a proven, powerful predictor of outcomes. Measuring hope helps an organization identify the latent capacity that exists within. Then, with this cultural intelligence, resources can be optimized and targeted toward both human and economic growth across the myriad of different needs and assets present in a well-balanced, diverse workforce.

BUT (and this is important), “positivity cheerleading” alone will not unlock the competitive advantage of a well-balanced workforce. In fact, this one-size-fits-all approach to positivity may actually block the very creativity such a workforce can offer and tank the well-being of employees across the board.

As we transition to the future of work and continue to experience a growing number of new culture shocks and shifts, we must imagine different roles, supports, and metrics for manager success. Ones that are more consistent with where things are going, more in tune with who employees are, and more aligned with what culturally-responsive research supports.

Toxic Positivity: The unexpected killer of creativity in the workplace.

WHAT IF we trained, supported, measured, and promoted managers based on their success in unlocking creativity, wellbeing, and belonging in the workforce? It’s an idea that has real, measurable human and economic growth opportunities for those companies that get it right. And, a manager whose approach is “good vibes only” positivity is unlikely to deliver the goods.

I recently came upon a brilliant, digestible breakdown from Jacinta M. Jiménez, PsyD, BCC on the relationship between creativity and toxic positivity.

The article outlines 3 major ways that toxic positivity can ruin creative efforts at a company:

1. It limits breakthrough opportunities resulting from creative tension.

2. It stifles deep customer empathy.

3. It shuts down psychological safety

Reading through this insightful article by Dr. Jiménez, my mind also connected other storytelling challenges in management. For example, one of the most cited Academy of Management articles of the last decade notes that when a company’s external stakeholder messaging (PR/Marketing to consumers, and investors) is out of sync with internal stakeholder experience (employees), overall organizational capacity is negatively impacted.

The Future of Culture @ Work

As we look to the future, courage and imagination are needed. I’m excited to be part of a wide-ranging collaborator network of creatives, scientists, entrepreneurs, and changemakers of all kinds in a long-term journey to map, measure, and raise up #CourageousImagination.

Step one is now LIVE! It’s the national ✨Workforce Census of Creativity & Belonging in America✨

To participate in the census survey:

Step two will take place October 13–14, 2022, in Denver, Colorado (#TheElevationEffect) at the Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship when the University of Colorado Denver’s Imaginator Academy hosts the first-ever Courageous Imagination Summit.

This will be a different kind of futurist summit focused on bringing together action-oriented, big-thinking, inclusive innovators from business, research, arts, media, healthcare, and education to advance economic development and innovation strategies that focus first on human growth as the key to unlocking economic growth for a future of work, that works for all.

Preliminary data insights from the ✨✨2022 Workforce Census on Creativity & Belonging in America✨✨ will frame the work of the summit.

SUMMIT GOAL: Generate an actionable, collaborative, wildly creative, innovation initiative that pushes the boundaries of our traditional understanding of what public-private partnerships (#P3) can do — and, importantly, pilot the initiative in 2023.

All human knowledge begins as Imagination. It is a precursor to creativity and the operating system of humanity. Imagination makes possible all our thinking about the past, present, and future. Imagination is critical for expanding our human experience.

Courage is the sum of those small, hard choices a person or organization makes each day in striving to live the best story they can tell. A story that may even be a little scary because it liberates the greatness within. Through the wilds of untouched life, courage calls our hearts to freedom.

I hope you will join me in Raising Up #CourageousImagination to make the future of work, work for all!



Rockies-based Culture Futurist™from Appalachia. Pioneering into the wilderness of unopened life at intersection of Arts, Science, and Business.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Culture Futurist ™

Rockies-based Culture Futurist™from Appalachia. Pioneering into the wilderness of unopened life at intersection of Arts, Science, and Business.