For most of us, Independence Day has two-fold significance. First, it brings to mind vacation: crowded beaches, the smell of burning charcoal, the loud pop of fireworks, the taste of chocolate ice cream on a waffle cone. Second, we think of the historical foundations of the Fourth of July, including the Declaration of Independence and its most famous phrase:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
You’ve seen those lines so many times, it’s hard to actually read them and appreciate their meaning. There is a lot of thought packed in this one little sentence: a radical conception of equality; the assertion that men are born with rights that cannot be denied them by government; and, lastly, that mankind is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Much ink has been spilled on the origin and import of each of these phrases.
This week leading to Independence Day, I’d like to focus on just one little phrase of this sentence: the pursuit of Happiness. It’s fair to say that, to Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers, “Happiness” meant more than fair weather, outdoor cooking, and tasty, cold treats. They were using Happiness in a deeper sense, a meaning closer to betterment, fulfillment, or greater good.
The most obvious way that we pursue Happiness is through our work. For all the talk about salaries, bonuses, benefits, and opportunities for promotion, these concerns are often secondary in motivating employees. Many of us want to do meaningful work for an organization whose goals we respect. The research bears this out. In the oft-cited 2015 Deloitte Millennial Survey, 6 out of 10 respondents said that they chose to work for their current employers based on a sense of purpose.
Research regarding the importance of employee engagement illustrates the importance to employers of finding employees that find purpose in work. Employee engagement refers to a convergence between the employee and the organization’s goals. It occurs when the employee buys into the organization’s goals and is committed to furthering them. Employee engagement is positively correlated with a variety of metrics important to employers. According to Gallup, highly engaged employees outperform their peers in profitability and productivity, and are less likely to leave the organization. Companies with more engaged employees have higher earnings per share than those that do not.
Some commentators draw a sharp distinction between engaged employees and happy employees. They contrast engaged employees as passionately committed to the company with happy employees who are lazily content with the status quo. This distinction has important repercussions not only for companies, but for employees. If there is no payoff to keeping employees happy, why should a company try to improve its employees’ happiness?
Fortunately, this supposed distinction between engagement and happiness is illusory. It applies a very narrow definition of the term “happiness,” rather than the larger meaning of “Happiness” used in the Declaration of Independence. Picture going to a lavish Fourth of July barbecue hosted by your company. It would likely make you happy, but you’d never say that attending a barbecue was part of your “pursuit of Happiness.” The pursuit of Happiness involves something greater: building a career, improving clients’ lives, or developing relationships with your coworkers. It is about contributing to a meaningful goal, whether that goal is building a bridge or winning a legal case for a client or crafting a successful business strategy. These endeavors inevitably involve frustrations like difficult clients, long nights, and setbacks. Engaged employees recognize that these frustrations are sacrifices they make in order to achieve something worthwhile. When we speak of “engaged employees,” we are speaking of employees that are pursuing Happiness, even if they are not happy every day.
With Independence Day weekend upon us, even hard-working, committed employees will take a well-deserved break from their careers, enjoying a weekend with family or friends, a fireworks show, or a baseball game. A long weekend away from the pursuit of Happiness can do everybody good.