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Happy cows give more milk. This is what an entrepreneur told me. In the same way one could say that happy employees are more productive. In the past 10 years there has been an evolution in how we look at certain psychological constructs in the workplace. We talked about employee satisfaction, commitment and organisational citizen behaviour (OCB). Then we started to talk about employee engagement. For a short while we thought we needed passionate employees. And since a couple of years we seem to think that people need to be happy, before  they can be productive.
Let ‘s return to the cows. Keep them happy and they will produce more (and better) milk? This is what this veterinarian confirms.

There is even a book on the matter and one consultancy company has taken this up as their creed. In more general one could say that animals – cows, horses, dogs, cats, … – that feel well, will perform well.

Milk or meat

Let me ask you this question: do happy cows also produce more and better meat? The legend about Kobe-steaks is that they come from cows that were massaged and extremely well cared for. Rumours go that they drink fine beer and even listen to classical music. If this were true, they lead a life that is envied by millions of human beings who are living in dire circumstances.
The question in itself is not nice. And maybe not fair. But to compare a happy employee to a cow isn’t either. There are differences.

Happiness or Contentment?

First of all the cow is not happy. It is content. There’s a huge difference. Keeping employees contented would mean they are mentally sedated and put in some sort of trance. It means you influence their mental state either by manipulating their expectations or the perception of their experiences. The people in Plato’s cave were perfectly content with their lives, even when it meant they were in a mental dungeon.

Deliberate Happiness

Second, the cow has no choice. It receives the treatment that it receives and has hardly influence on it. Even when it would want something else, it would have very limited possibilities to express its desires. Moreover, the cow cannot decide to leave. It is condemned to stay in the stable, or the meadow.

Transactional happiness

Third, the cow gets what it gets. This view on employee engagement is very limited as it is extremely transactional. I will make the cow happy in order to have it produce more and better milk. But if it doesn’t I can still send it to the slaughter house. How cool is that? Imagine that we think like that about the people we work with? I want employees to be happy because they will be more productive. And if they are not productive enough, I will fire them. That’s logical isn’t it? However, we know that being laid off is for most people a traumatic experience, with effects comparable to those of a divorce. If we believe that we have the right to fire someone, we should maybe stop talking about employee happiness.
Maybe you think that a dismissal might be the best thing that could happen to someone. But think again. This is valid for people with high job mobility, transferable skills, … But not for the specialised mortgage-burdoned employee who is due to whatever reason not able to move to a region where his limited skills are wanted. How happy will that make him? I admit. I have a problem with the instrumental view on happiness.

Thinking about happiness

Fourth, the cow does not think about it. Happiness requires a mental development that goes beyond the limited cerebral capacity of a cow. Can a cow be happy? I believe a cow can be happy the moment it experiences pleasure like standing in the sun, drinking water, being massaged. But the next moment it might have forgotten the experience. Cows can have a form of hedonistic happiness. And also humans can be caught in a kind of hedonistic treadmill. Eysenck coined that term to express the relative importance of hedonic experiences. People seem to have a constant experience of happiness, regardless of their concrete experiences. People seem to return to a constant set point of happiness. And the question is how to raise that set point.
But hedonic happiness is only one kind of happiness that we might share with other mammals. Humans (and maybe some primates) are capable of a different kind of happiness. There’s also something like eudaimonic happiness, that is derived from a sense of purpose. I cannot believe a cow will wake up and say to itself that it will produce milk to quench the thirst of many school children. A cow has no conscious purpose. Employees do. And this purpose does not necessarily need to be found in the place of work. A person’s sense of purpose might be found in family or community life. What if work is only a means that enables someone to do other, more meaningful things like raising a family, or travelling, or … The thing is, that happiness is a very individual experience that is almost related to a decision. People ask themselves – usually implicitly – what they find important in their life. It’s an important question, with no bad answer. And no one can judge the other person’s answer. Happiness is personal. And it’s a choice. Cows do not make that choice.

Happinesss and Regrets

Fifth, the cow cannot regret anything. I believe that being able to regret something is essential in the quest for happiness. In a blog palliative counsellor Bronnie Ware has listed the 5 top regrets of the dying. Here they are.

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I didn’t work so hard
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.

After Reading that list, employers should be modest about their impact on happiness. Work does not feature in the list. At the end of your life, it’s about family, friends and pursuing your true purpose. Indeed, it’s in the last item that employers can contribute the most. If someone can find fulfillment in the job, then an employer can genuinely add value to someone’s life. And as to the second item on the list, it should not be about more milk, but about better milk.

Adding quality to someone’s life

Employers can add quality to someone’s life by making sure the work someone does is sustainable, meaningful, … Employers can create a context that contributes to employee happiness. Happiness is then one of the outcomes of work. It’s less one of the input factors. Satisfaction is. Happiness isn’t.
Increasing productivity as a goal of happiness enhancing measures is dangerous, especially if there are no limits. But then again, I assume there are also limits to the milk production capacity of a dairy cow. So let’s make the cows as happy as they need to be to reach the limit of the milk production quota.To make them more happy then that, would be not in the interest of the company. I rest my case.
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David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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