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the future of work

As a kid, a trip to Disney World felt like the ultimate vacation destination. While my children would certainly welcome the opportunity to visit the Magic Kingdom, their access to so many other virtual fantasy worlds means it doesn't hold the same appeal. They certainly wouldn't buy into the tag line that the venue is "The Happiest Place on Earth."

Nowadays, we seem simultaneously confused by and obsessed with the concept of happiness. This likely explains why there is a World Happiness index that ranks the happiest countries on Earth (Canada comes in sixth) and why books like Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project became an international bestseller. Organizations now compete with each other to be named one of the happiest places to work. It accompanies the belief that the emotion remains integral to a company's bottom line.

"Happiness, in its various guises, is no longer some pleasant add-on to the more important business of making money, or some New Age concern for those with enough time to sit around baking their own bread. … It has penetrated the citadel of global economic management," writes William Davies, author of The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being.

That desire for happier employers is presumably the motive behind Amazon's recent announcement that it intends to experiment with a 30-hour workweek. The company seems to want to leave behind the highly unflattering narrative presented in last year's New York Times exposé of Amazon's recruitment and employee management practices, which one former HR executive described as "purposeful Darwinism."

Can such a company – at which one executive said he had seen most of his colleagues cry at their desks – really be buying into the business case for happiness? Perhaps. If so, it is far from alone in its attempt to appeal to a new generation of workers who, more than anything else, are demanding happiness, said Neil Patel, co-author of the newly published book Hustle: The Power to Charge Your Life with Money, Meaning, and Momentum.

What people want now, he maintains, is freedom and the flexibility to do what they love. In other words, they want to be happy. That's why Amazon is rethinking work hours, he said, and why companies such as LinkedIn offer unlimited vacations.

"They know to get top talent you need to make it an enjoyable place where people want to work. … It's not just about work-life balance. They want you to be happy," Mr. Patel said.

This is no small shift, he argued, but a new American Dream, where increasingly employees' professional lives will become more personal, raising their happiness quotient and producing better results.

"The biggest change … is that more companies are treating employees like a person, like a family member and not just a line worker," he added.

Sounds great, but how far will companies be expected to go to ensure their employees are happy? How do we measure the impact of happiness? Do we really want our companies to feel like families? And what does this mean for life outside work?

According to André Spicer and Carl Cederstrom, co-authors of The Wellness Syndrome, expectations of happiness on the job can have a negative impact on your relationships with your boss as well as your relationships at home. They cite research that shows those who search for happiness at work can conflate bosses with spouses or parents, and when they don't receive the emotional response they are looking for, feel neglected. Taking that to an extreme, when an employee is fired, they not only lose a source of income, but the promise of happiness, making them incredibly vulnerable.

All this talk about happiness may also make us lose sight of what it truly means, if we ever understood it in the first place. A recent ruling by the U.S. National Labor Relations Board determined that employers cannot force their employees to be happy. The issue arose when T-Mobile employees felt that their company, which demanded "a positive work environment," was asking too much.

Expecting your employer to make you happy or demanding happiness from your employees sets high and perhaps unreasonable expectations that threaten to make the large number of employees who are already disengaged feel that much more miserable.

So stop expecting to find happiness nestled between the foosball table and beer fridge at work. Your office may not be the happiest place on earth – and that's okay.

Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) writes about workplace trends.