Who Goes to Work to Have Fun?

“ONE of our core values is to inject fun and quirkiness into everything we do,” Neil Blumenthal, a founder of the online eyeglass retailer Warby Parker, recently told The New York Times.

This is a philosophy currently enjoying a resurgence in the tech and retail industries, among others. As we enter the season of office holiday parties, it’s a safe assumption that the workplace quirkiness quotient will skyrocket. Which means it’s also the season for the curmudgeons among us to renew our passionate entreaty: Please — no, really, please — can we stop trying to “make work fun”?

Despite the sobering economic shocks of recent years, the Fun at Work movement seems irrepressible.

Major companies boast of employing Chief Fun Officers or Happiness Engineers; corporations call upon a burgeoning industry of happiness consultants, who’ll construct a Gross Happiness Index for your workplace, then advise you on ways to boost it. (Each week, Warby Parker asks “everyone to tell their happiness rating on a scale of zero to 10,” Mr. Blumenthal explained.)

Countless self-help bloggers offer tips for generating cheer among the cubicles (“Buy donuts for everyone”; “Hang movie posters on your walls, with employees’ faces replacing those of the real movie stars”). It’s all shudderingly reminiscent of David Brent, Ricky Gervais’s wince-inducing character from the British version of “The Office”; or of the owner of the nuclear power plant in “The Simpsons” who considers distracting attention from the risk of lethal meltdowns by holding Funny Hat Days.

Lest my curmudgeonliness be mistaken for misanthropy, let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with happiness at work.

Enjoyable jobs are surely preferable to boring or unpleasant ones; moreover, studies suggest that happy employees are more productive ones. But it doesn’t follow that the path to this desirable state of affairs is through deliberate efforts, on the part of managers, to try to generate fun. Indeed, there’s evidence that this approach — which has been labeled, suitably appallingly, “fungineering” — might have precisely the opposite effect, making people miserable and thus reaffirming one of the oldest observations about happiness: When you try too hard to obtain it, you’re almost guaranteed to fail.

Oliver Burkeman

 

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Posted in Work and Play

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