Freedom, happiness and fulfilment

Dr Nicholas Ind
Partner, Equilibrium

Adapted from the book, Meaning at Work, by Nicholas Ind. Published by Cappelen, 2010.

I CAN FIND examples of both freedom and happiness within 400 m of where I live. First there is a women’s clothing shop, which also sells Swedish Gustavian-style furniture, that proclaims in its window, in a nice hand-written script, Shopping makes us happy. I’m never quite sure if this refers to the owners of the shop or is aimed at would be shoppers—perhaps, in a recognition of mutuality, it is both. Anyway, once I have contemplated, or even experienced, happiness, I only have to walk down the road to arrive at my nearest 7-Eleven. This is a shop that is defined as a convenience store and sells a limited range of everyday items, but the advertising banners inside the shop shout one thing: freedom. An interesting use of such a fought-over and argued-about word. Is this the same freedom that John Stuart Mill wrote about or Gandhi protested for or Che Guevara died for? Seemingly not. It is, in fact, the freedom to shop early in the morning and late at night. That such diversity can be contained in one word is perhaps a problem of the inadequacy of language, but it also points to a problem in our world: the inadequacy of ourselves. In other words, we too often fail to spot the difference between the significant and insignificant. It may be true that my 7-Eleven offers me some sort of freedom, but it is not in any way a profound freedom. Similarly, maybe purchasing a nice Gustavian table might give me a temporary lift (if I did indeed covet such a piece of furniture), but that happiness will be impermanent. When we think about finding meaning at work, we face the same problem—how to find that which is enduring and significant. This requires us to unpick the meaning of such ideas as freedom, happiness and fulfilment and to understand their relevance for our working lives. 1
   Freedom is something that we seek and chafe against when we don’t have enough of it. Its denial seems particularly important for us, for as the philosopher, Isaiah Berlin argues, freedom is a requirement of humanity: ‘to surrender one’s freedom is to surrender oneself, to lose one’s humanity.’ 2 Indeed, Berlin argues that the only reason we should submit to authority is for utilitarian reasons—because it seems to make sense to do so. Much influenced by Mill, Berlin argues that individuals should be free to follow their own interests, to ‘allow more spontaneous, individual variation (for which the individual must in the end assume full responsibility) will always be worth more than the neatest and most delicately fashioned imposed pattern.’ 3 What Berlin is reacting against are totalizing systems that seek perfection and that require individuals to conform to an ideal. We might judge that rather than accepting the dictates and directives of an organization, we ought to have the courage to be sceptical and questioning. This is not an argument for sabotage, because the point Berlin makes about responsibility ought to be at the front of our minds. It is the attitude we adopt when we challenge that is important. The idea of responsibility is not a cover for only making the right conformist choice, but rather for choosing with courage. 4 If we are part of an organization, we ought to assume a minimum of alignment of values—a degree of mutual interest. Yet, the result of this identification should not be passive acquiescence in the seeming certitude of managers, but a positive participation that is driven by the desire to improve the organization, together with others. This way of thinking is not about individualism as such, but the individual seeking change for the betterment of all. Managers might groan at the thought of all this unfettered freedom. If everyone takes up the opportunity to challenge—even if they are thinking of the good of the organization—might it not generate a state of anarchy and destroy the unity of the organization? It certainly might be messy and require a lot of dialogue—even perhaps a need for what Deirdre McCloskey calls ‘sweet talk’5—but it has the real virtue of utilizing the intelligence and creativity of all of an organization’s members, rather than just a select élite.
   Yet the challenge here is that societies, organizations and communities can place the commitment to unity above the integrity of the individual. Sometimes they might be right to do so, but the repression of individuals may be the result of a desire to preserve what is convenient and comfortable. A common theme that we see, for example, in Ibsen’s drama, is the constraint imposed by a society that tries to hide the unpleasant and the unpalatable—and the consequences of avoiding difficult truths. It’s a theme we see surface again and again in films and books from Charles Dickens to Ingmar Bergman to David Lynch—the superficial veneer of outward well-being and conformity that masks deceit and violence. It should be a strong reminder to managers of the need for openness and freedom; to not repress individual desire, but to give it some focus. Berlin gives us a guide as to how to manage this by making a distinction between negative freedom—the degree to which individuals are free from man-made barriers—and positive freedom—the degree to which individuals are free to determine how they do things and their ability to self-organize. 6 For the organization to have some degree of unity and to distinguish it from the unstructured world around it, there must be some limit to freedom from. Freedom to, on the other hand, comes from the desire of the individual to be master of their own life and not dependent on the will of others; to be free to realize potential. The issue here for the organization is how freedom from and freedom to are dynamically determined, for organizations all to some degree try to coerce, manipulate or encourage the individual to adhere to certain goals and a way of doing things. Generally we accept this Faustian pact because freedom from is an instrumental freedom in that it enables discovery and creativity within specific constraints. However, it does of course depend on the space of freedom. There is a specific metaphor I sometimes use to explain this: a framed painting, by the semi-abstractionist, Howard Hodgkin. Hodgkin spends a lot of time—sometimes several years—on his paintings, returning to them periodically as his ideas and perspective change. He also paints on the frame of the picture, exploring its boundaries. The frame signifies the area of negative freedom. An individual can explore and create within that boundary and can also explore the extent of the boundaries, questioning the frame of freedom from. The painted area represents that which the individual has mastery over—the domain of positive freedom, where we generate content and a sense of meaning.
   As with all metaphors, while the idea of the picture attunes us to certain ideas, it also closes down others. It misses out the sense that this is a picture that is painted in an organic way together with other members of the organization (and even interested and influential outsiders). It is also a rather static metaphor in that ideally the frame itself should change shape to reflect the dynamic nature of freedom and the likelihood that our space will be invaded by the incursions of others. We might even argue that a lot of the time we are not consciously painting, but simply daubing without real thought. And yet, in spite of these limitations, Hodgkin’s paintings remind us that we exist in different worlds. In other words each individual participates in several pictures which vary depending on the space of freedom. The sports team we belong to, the community we are part of and the place where we work all offer different spaces. Additionally, the picture space changes depending on the organization. For someone who works in a call centre or in a logistics organization, where the rules and policies are perhaps more tightly defined, the canvas might be quite small, whereas for an academic or an innovation consultant, where there are fewer constraints, it might be quite large. Yet, we should always argue for maximizing the space for the benefit of the organization and for the individual as a means of self-discovery and self-realization; to provide the opportunity to overcome a sense of alienation and purposelessness and to create something of value. That the space of freedom is rarely maximized in practice seems largely to do with blinkers. Organizations fail to trust their people sufficiently, preferring the security of control and continuity to the adventure of freedom, while individuals are inured to the possibilities of thinking differently. If we only use the freedom that we have to do the mundane, the obvious and the superficial, it is not much of a freedom. Nietzsche sees the way people use their freedom in terms of a dull morality that trains them to follow the herd.
   We might conclude that freedom creates opportunity, but how we use that opportunity at work determines whether freedom has any larger relevance both for the organization and ourselves as individuals. The issue then becomes what ‘relevance’ might mean. Traditionally for the organization that has meant that individuals use what freedom they have for the greater good to deliver a certain level of performance. Economists and analysts like this type of relevance because it is easy to measure. However, some question where the individual is in all this. They suggest that it is all well and good to have an employee benefiting the organization, but what about the individual’s happiness. Shouldn’t work contribute to happiness? And wouldn’t happier workers also contribute more? We might answer yes to both these questions, but I think there are several problems with the concept of happiness. Frankly, happiness is over-rated.
   The first problem with happiness is to determine what it is. We might argue that is a feeling of well-being, of satisfaction, perhaps of euphoria. Yet, we should also note that happiness tends to be a temporary condition. We might on balance look at our life and say we have been happy, but there will undoubtedly have been ups and downs. Richard Layard in his book Happiness (2005) asserts that it is not possible to be both happy and unhappy at the same time—that we move from one to the other and back again. When we talk of happiness we might think about how it seems to lift us above our normal state, but while we can perhaps share some common notions of happiness, it’s always an individual experience. We can analyse brain activity and we can conduct research into the attributes of happiness, but I cannot exactly communicate the feeling, nor is it easy to judge the happiness of others. When it comes to work and happiness, the concept feels misplaced. I might be able to correlate work and being happy, but what drives me at work is more about fulfilment. If we think about people such as Mark Rothko or Ingmar Bergman or Samuel Beckett we do not see a quest for happiness. Rothko’s life, for example, was full of challenges, anguish and only the realization in late middle age of his artistic potential. If Rothko was happy at some point it was as a result of his finding meaning in his work. Happiness then is a result, even a by-product, of the discovery of meaning. It derives from our failures, wrong turns and miscalculations as much as our successes. Indeed, misery can contribute just as much to our fulfilment as happiness. It is when we try and make happiness the primary focus that we end up pursuing the wrong things—by which I mean experiences that lack any substantive resonance in our lives. We can see this in John Logan’s Red (2009), a play which weaves a narrative around the real life commission of Mark Rothko to produce a series of large scale paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant in the iconic Seagram Building on Park Avenue, New York. Rothko, who has been commissioned by the architect, Philip Johnson, is excited about the status the paintings will give him. In the play he walks around his newly acquired downtown Manhattan studio happily musing to himself, ‘Rembrandt and Rothko … Rembrandt and Rothko … Rothko and Rembrandt … Rothko and Rembrandt … And Turner.’ His vanity has been stirred by his sense of outdoing his peers and he justifies doing the commission by arguing that his paintings will not just be decoration for ‘the richest bastards in New York’, but ‘will transcend the setting.’ However, stirred by the challenge of his assistant, Rothko comes to realize what he is doing is pointless and superficial. He might be enjoying the accolades, but he is not being true to himself and his quest for fulfilment. He calls Philip Johnson and tells him he will return the $35,000 he has been paid (equivalent to $2 million today) and keep the pictures himself. As he hangs up the phone his assistant says, proudly, ‘Now … now you are Mark Rothko.’ 7
   The desire to uncover a deeper meaning in what we do is, I believe, widespread. Take, for example Randy Hodson’s ethnographic study of individuals. It features numerous examples of individuals who bemoan the lack of opportunity to find meaning at work. In the words of one, ‘There isn’t anyone among us who doesn’t resent how the factory is operated so fast and sloppy, because there’s no way to respect what we’re doing and what we’re making. In fact, most people here like it best when things don’t work right and production goes to hell, and I’m right along with them. And that’s a crummy way to waste your working time.’ Hodson concludes that ‘meaning and satisfaction in work are grounded in doing quality work … employees prefer to act positively at the workplace and do so whenever the workplace situation allows positive action.’ 8
   The second issue I have with happiness is that it has become our god. We pursue it blindly and we try to restructure our worlds so that happiness is somehow contained within everything we do. The philosopher, Alenka Zupancic points out that ‘it has become imperative that we perceive all the terrible things that happen to us as ultimately something positive … negativity, lack, dissatisfaction, unhappiness, are perceived more and more as moral faults—worse as a corruption at the level of our very being or bare life.’ Life must encompass challenges and failure and rather than wishing it were not so, we should rather accept and learn from it. Of course, when we fail to learn from experience it becomes either tragic or comic, or perhaps both. If we simply try to make everything and everybody happy we must distort the world and the way we see it. It is suggested by some that all we need to make our lives happier is the power of positive thinking; that we can overcome adversity by attuning our minds to success. Yet this ignores the importance of questioning ourselves and those around us. We should not accept things at face value and we should understand that the negative things in life are as much a part of our being as the positive. Positivity might encourage us to try new things and help us to persist in the face of adversity, but we might also end up arrogant and deluded. We ought to have the courage to confront the new, but some cynicism helps us to get through life.
   The third failing of happiness is that organizational happiness must be seen collectively. My vision of greatest happiness might be total freedom to pursue my own interests, including spending every afternoon watching films, while my colleague might like to work very hard and be completely dedicated to working life. These and all the other countervailing ideas that co-exist in an organization need to be managed. In most contexts there needs to be order and constraint, so the absolute individualism of happiness must be denied. Individual happiness must be tempered by the principle of the greatest happiness. Yet this view, which was espoused by utilitarian thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, seems particularly difficult to apply. We might look at statistics of happiness and see that certain groups or nations are particularly happy, but we would still have to pose the question as to how we might actively create and maintain happiness. There might be some argument here about the value of equality—that as many people as possible in a community share in both the decision-making and the rewards that result—but in practice collective happiness seems both dubious and simplistic. We might imagine a scenario in an organization where industry over-capacity has led to consistent losses. The business logic here might be to cut volumes and people, yet this would clearly make a large number of people unhappy, in favour of perhaps the happiness of a limited number of institutional shareholders. The greatest happiness principle would argue that large numbers of employees should not be made redundant, yet by continuing with high levels of production, the long-term sustainability of the company is undermined and perhaps in time, everyone will lose their jobs. Also we might raise the more complex issue that if institutional shareholders suffer, then that would have an implication for the pension funds (and the individual pensions within the fund). The connectivity of different audiences and the length of time over which the issue of happiness is viewed, create significant problems. We might also wonder: who is best positioned to be the overall objective judge of happiness? Who enjoys a perspective over all the impacts of a decision and is sufficiently disinterested to make the right choice? It’s an impossible call to make, for even if we accepted happiness as the determining principle, we cannot decide what happiness might mean for every singular person in a multiplicity. As the narrator says in Conrad’s Lord Jim ‘It is when we try to grapple with another man’s intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun.’ 9 The only antidote to these problems is to let individuals decide their own route to nirvana, but with the proviso that their quest must take account of the needs of others and the entity that is the organization.
   It is my belief, based on the arguments above, that happiness is an illusory ideal which is neither the basis for working in an organization nor for managing it. Organizations exist for a purpose—and the purpose is not based on the greatest happiness principle. That people might enjoy their work is a result of a belief that a positive working environment is conducive to success; that we work harder when we feel connected. Yet this is far more than happiness. And far more than freedom. It is more about the quest to find meaning in our lives and to attain a sense of fulfilment.
   How might we define this idea of fulfilment? It clearly connects to the idea of meaning in the suggestion of something beyond an immediate experience. It is the feeling of lightness, of pleasure, of enlightenment, of expressivity that is generated when we go beyond our perceived limits. There is in this a sense of fulfilment as liminal and as connected to Bataille’s ideas about challenging boundaries, such as when Rothko stepped out of his derivative past and into originality when he painted No. 1 in 1941. 10 To fulfil we must exceed. Whether fulfilment comes because of our active involvement in a political group or in the writing of a novel or in the leading of an organization, we must surpass our expectations. Anything less is just satisfaction or well-being—a sense of having done what was expected of us. This does not create fulfilment, but rather a cosiness that we might find comfortable or reassuring. Fulfilment is something different in that it can derive from discomfort, from destruction, from disharmony, from danger, from necessary suffering and from the tragic. We seek fulfilment because in exceeding we extend our sense of self, and we find that which gives a life meaning. Fulfilment is thus connected to memory, because it is the recall of past euphoric moments of fulfilment that drive us to seek future fulfilments. Fulfilment is born of restlessness; a desire not to repeat but to find difference, to find the new. An apt example of this was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 opera, The Rake’s Progress. When it premièred in Venice it was accorded respect, applause and plaudits across Europe. Stravinsky, then 69, should have been pleased; it was far removed from the booing, fights and riot that had accompanied the first performance in 1913 of his seemingly shocking, The Rite of Spring, which challenged the accepted norms of classical ballet. W. H. Auden, who was the co-author of the libretto of The Rake’s Progress, wrote later of Stravinsky, ‘Once he has done something to his satisfaction, he attempts to do something he has never done before.’ After 1951, Stravinsky set out to reinvent himself and to challenge the expectations others had of him. He borrowed the ideas of atonal twelve tone serialism that had originally been devised by Schoenberg and melded it with what the biographer Stephen Walsh calls his ‘vibrant physicality,’ 11 to create a new style that was distinct from that of his younger rivals. This sense of the need to go beyond the comfortable accolade of critics and others is also given voice by the artist John Baldessari who, when accorded critical acclaim and a Whitney retrospective, suggested, ‘It’s a bit scary to have acceptance. You wonder what you’re doing wrong.’
   We might say that people like Stravinsky and Baldessari, while exemplifying a quest for fulfilment, are very individualistic; yet both of them, while exploring their own limits, were fully aware of the participation of the viewer. Indeed, whether the individual is a software developer, a sales assistant or a composer, one cannot but be affected by the thoughts and actions of others. Our sense of responsibility should extend to those around us. The danger is that in seeking our own fulfilment, we deny the potential for fulfilment of others. Here we could use the word ‘ought’ to make a judgement that we ought not inhibit others and we ought to be aware of the mutuality that exists in our working lives. Kant believed we should ‘act on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’12 while Karl Popper in The Open Society (1945) refers to the value of reciprocity (do unto others) in terms of ‘the golden rule is a good standard which is further improved by doing unto others, wherever possible, as they want to be done by.’ 13 Yet the power of these ‘oughts’, while carrying weight with some people, is not always reflected in practice. People do act out of self-interested motives and sometimes actively work against others. To counter this we should stress the performance benefits of working together because it maximizes the knowledge and skills of organizational members.
   The challenge with this whole way of thinking is the impossibility of universalizing fulfilment. When we little know how to generate our own self-fulfilment, how can we make judgements about it for others? Fulfilment is an individualized experience, even if it is generated with and for others. If, for example, a group of people come together to form a new business, they perhaps do so with a broadly common perspective, but it may be that one member is concerned primarily with the organizational cause, another with an individual quest of finding meaning through action and another with the social goal of working with like-minded and interesting people. All these motivating desires are potentially realizable within the group, but in realizing the business opportunity, some needs may be catered for more than others. As the business evolves and develops, choices must be made and some of the founders may leave as it ceases to meet their needs. The implication of this is that there needs to be a strong emphasis on communication within the group—a dialogic approach that helps to produce thought in common that brings meaning forward. Rather than focusing on an end state, we should concentrate on the journey.
   It is in the way we interact with others and create a world that we each become ‘we’, and the ‘we’ creates new and previously unseen links. If we are open we can move beyond the narrow confines of our own thought and gain new insights—together. In this way ‘we’ act ourselves into organization—the ‘ment’ of fulfilment indicating action or process. This is not about compromise, but about creating the movement that leads to deeper understanding, which rewards each individual and benefits the organization. As John Shotter says, ‘if Wittgenstein is right, meanings are not hidden in people’s heads, but occur out in the ceaseless flow of living language-interwoven relations between ourselves and the other and othernesses around us.’ 14 This Wittgensteinian idea feels true to experience. In our social world, most of us do not sit thinking about the meaning of things and developing theoretical frameworks. Rather we think and act with others. We uncover ideas through writing and speaking to others and in hearing and seeing their responses.
    Yet the caution we have to exercise here is that we have to be receptive to moments of discovery. When we work with others, if we approach a problem believing we already have the answers, we close down the flow of thought. Meaning cannot be uncovered by adopting a fixed perspective, but only through participation and openness to others. When working cultures lack the means to adapt and prevent the vitality generated through questioning and new ways of thinking, it reduces the opportunity for new ways of seeing the world. Working with creativity may not always be comfortable for managers, but curiosity is something that should be encouraged. It is a source of energy for the individual and innovation for the organization. As Noam Chomsky says, ‘a fundamental element of human nature is the need for creative work, for creative inquiry’. 15

1. Böhm and de Cock write in their paper on the Slovenian philsopher, Zizek, that there are certain fantasies that sustain the hegemony of the global capitalist system including, ‘you are free to do anything, as long as it involves shopping.’ S. Böhm, and C. de Cock: ‘Liberalist Fantasies: Zizek and the Impossibility of the Open Society’, Organization, vol. 14, no. 6, 2007, pp. 815–36.
2. I. Berlin in H. Hardy (ed.): The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas. London: Pimlico 2003, p. 222.
3. I. Berlin in H. Hardy (ed.): Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005, pp. 92–3.
4. Zizek argues that freedom with responsibility is a variation on forced choice. You have freedom as long as you make the right choice. He also argues that in the west, ‘oppression itself is obliterated and masked as free choice.’ S. Zizek: Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. London: Profile Books 2008.
5. D. McCloskey: Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1994.
6. I. Berlin in H. Hardy: Liberty, op. cit., at pp. 166–217.
7. J. Logan: Red. London: Oberon Books 2009. First performed at the Donmar Warehouse, London, December 2009.
8. Hodson, Randy. (2001). Dignity at Work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press p. 257.
9. J. Conrad: Lord Jim. New York: Bantam Classic 2007, p. 134. (Originally published by Doubleday 1900.)
10. ‘Suddenly the middle-aged balding chain smoker (Rothko) who, on the strength of everything he had done up to that point (1949), would have been remembered at best as a mildly interesting, derivative talent, produced eye-popping miracle after miracle.’ S. Schama: Power of Art. London: BBC Books 2006, p. 415.
11. C. Fox: ‘Igor the Great’, The Guardian, May 1, 2009.
12. I. Kant (tr. M. Gregor): Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2004.
13. K. Popper: The Open Society and Its Enemies. London: Routledge 2002. (Originally published by Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1945.)
14. J. Shotter: ‘Peripheral Vision’, Organization Studies, vol. 26, no. 1, 2005, pp. 113–35, at p. 130.
15. N. Chomsky and M. Foucault: The Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature. New York: the New Press 2006, p. 37.

Nicholas IndFreedom, happiness and fulfilment

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