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Chief Happiness Officer Is the Latest, Creepiest Job in Corporate America

Ben Avny

Happiness isn’t something you find, or work toward—it’s something you buy and have delivered. Or at least that’s the premise of one of the newest jobs over in the C-suite. Now, alongside the CEO, CFO, and their ilk, we have the CHO, or chief happiness officer. As the name clearly suggests, the CHO is responsible for the contentment of individual employees, sort of like an h.r. manager, but on steroids; the theory goes that happy workers are productive workers, so happiness turns out to be in the company’s best interest. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many CHOs reside in Silicon Valley—both at start-ups and more blue chip tech companies. But it’s starting to spread: Southern restaurant company Hopjacks created the position in 2012 and the Quality of Life Foundation, an education nonprofit, created one in 2010.

On a day-to-day basis, CHOs busy themselves with diagnosing the emotional wellbeing of their workers, as well as adjusting workplace policy and culture in order to create the conditions for happiness. This can involve distributing surveys that measure contentment, leading workshops on everything from communication skills to mindfulness meditation, and generally diagnosing the office atmosphere. The job can also mean out-of-office activities—or, in the case of Hopjacks, a “Serial Killer Secret-Santa Weapon-Exchange” (an event, according to CHO Jarod Kelly, “where all of us blindly ordered each other [weapons] gifts from”).

The CHO’s rise may have begun with Chade-Meng Tan. Meng is Google’s chief happiness officer equivalent, officially known as the Jolly Good Fellow. According to his self-made job description, his goal is to “enlighten minds, open hearts, create world peace.” He began at Google soon after the company was born, and spent eight years in the engineering department, before switching to the company’s “People Development Team” in the mid-2000s. Meng was inspired to work happiness into Google after encountering studies on the 65-year-old brain of a Buddhist monk named Mathieu Ricard. Ricard, after earning a Ph.D. in molecular genetics, turned his back on science and became a Buddhist monk in 1972, with the aim of exploring happiness through meditation.

In a 2010 TED talk, Meng explains that Ricard “is the happiest man in the world,” based on brain activity in the left prefrontal cortex. Whether or not measuring happiness in an MRI machine holds water is beside the point—Meng liked what he saw, and aimed to spread Ricard’s cognitive tendencies throughout the Google community.

Google’s involvement in worker happiness set off something of a trend, with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh releasing a book in 2010 called Delivering Happiness. The book, which covers strategies to increase happiness in corporate culture, was a New York Times best seller and spawned a consulting firm of the same name, devoted to, well, delivering happiness to companies around the world. 

Delivering Happiness, according to CEO and CHO Jenn Lim, devotes its time to measuring the contentment of clients and to laboring to improve their working conditions. So how exactly does one create joy? “We take a snapshot of all the employees, and basically identify their happiness levels,” Lim says. “And using [the Happy Business Index], we can see, what are the key points of unhappiness?” (The Happy Business Index is a survey based off of “well-being researcher” Nic Marks’s Happy Planet Index, and scores how motivated and engaged employees feel in their workplace.) In an interview, Lim also explained that they look out for “how empowered employees feel, how much progress they feel they’re making, how connected and aligned they feel with the company.”

“Basically we’re able to derive actionable things that we recommend companies work on. I think of us as kind of a heart monitor,” Lim noted. CHOs not only monitor, but also calculate. Beyond the Happiness Business Index, the company uses a “happiness calculator” which is featured on its website and does little except tabulate how much money you stand to earn if you carry out a “happiness at work survey” (created by Delivering Happiness, of course).

Since 2010, with the publication of Delivering Happiness, the job of CHO has been featured prominently in the annals of feel-good corporate advice. Much of the impetus for CHOs stems from fears over declining productivity and the desire to swipe away anything that could rob companies of extra profit. There are studies to back this up: One measured the productivity of workers who had just seen a clip of a comedy routine and found that productivity increased after watching the video. A longitudinal study was also performed, which showed that key events like bereavement and family illness cut into employee productivity. Companies bring CHOs on not so much out of some bizarro competition to become the happiest company on Earth, but to become as productive as possible.

So what’s the problem with someone being professionally responsible for your happiness? Nothing on the surface. Good bosses, of course, should promote a positive work environment. Having an officer appointed to direct and proliferate the emotion, though, presents some issues. Besides the eerie similarity between “chief happiness officer” and concepts like “ministry of love” and “war on terror,” it represents an intrusion into our emotional lives that should not be permitted to any kind of authority figure—be it corporate or governmental—regardless of intention.

This also comes amid a larger, well-documented trend of privacy being sucked out of our day-to-day lives. The New York Times recently published an article on new forms of surveillance in the workplace, some of which are aimed at stoking employee happiness. For example, companies have begun to implement mandatory 15-minute coffee breaks after research showed that increased social interaction boosted productivity. The article also mentions a “digital Big Brother” whose omnipresence manifests itself in gadgets like ID badges that “monitor the communications behavior of individuals—tone of voice, posture, and body language, as well as who spoke to whom for how long.” Kelly, the restaurant chain CHO, even said he has access to “every e-mail account” in the company: “Knowing that an error in handling even a small situation could snowball into an unhappy customer means I am always on top of e-mails/notifications.”

That brand of surveillance has a level of detail that might do more to increase panic attacks than worker contentment and output. At what level of behavioral analysis do research and monitoring of productivity begin to constitute a violation of privacy? 

Fortunately, not all CHOs have access to “every company e-mail address.” Walter Chen, founder of tech start-up iDoneThis, used to keep a CHO in his executive stable. He defines the position more as a human resources-customer support hybrid position, explaining, “If we called her head of customer support, it would sound really antiseptic. And so it’s part of trying to better frame and articulate what it is that [our] company is about.” Chen’s CHO didn’t have responsibility for company happiness, instead she was meant to “embod[y] the positive aspects of the company culture that you want to cultivate.” 

So in that version, the CHO becomes a kind of culture officer, devoted to upholding whatever values a company designates as its own. The problem here is whether or not it’s possible to artificially impose such values, or whether adding them only in the interest of profit is a worthy endeavor. Deidre McCloskey, an economist and historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago (who wrote a New Republic cover story in 2012 called “Happyism: The creepy new economics of pleasure”), told me that companies "shouldn’t call themselves value-driven if their only value is maximizing the bottom line.”

What’s most problematic about CHOs, though, is that the intense focus on happiness may actually backfire. Upbeat workers might be more productive in certain situations, but it has been noted that people who constantly worry about being happy are in fact miserable. And while “virtue increases the value of the stock,” as McCloskey sardonically pointed out, in a larger sense, it might not be healthy to place happiness as the end-all be-all of our day-to-day lives. Chen’s efforts seem benevolent enough, McCloskey notes: “It’s a positive attempt to build an environment where people are excited about their jobs and making progress everyday towards something that’s important.” But the sincerity of the attempt doesn’t necessarily make it correct: “There’s more than the profit motive in human relations. … I think it’s a fools errand, to have a happiness officer.” 

The line between surveillance of our individual tics and that of our internal lives straddles the boundary into personal choice. And while chief happiness officers might honestly have employees’ best interests in mind, the future of work should not be one in which walking into an office means giving up the right to a private life.