Can A Company Be Happy?

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Continuing on the “happy” theme I have been on, I just read an article entitled, “How to Build a Happy Company,” in the latest issue of Newsweek. While the article is interesting, the headline is nonsense. How can a company ever be happy? I have never seen one and won’t ever—no more than I can ever expect to stumble over a happy rock. Only people can be happy.

This kind of metaphor is not helpful even to the kind of companies the article points to. Attributing human possibilities to non-human things, except perhaps in poetry, produces at least two bad outcomes. One is the diminution of what it is to be human. If a company, generally seen as some kind of machine producing things, money and jobs, is thought about in anthropomorphic terms, this usage will only reinforce the already existing background hum that that speaks to what humans are: some sort of machine. All the recent talk that GDP, an indicator representing the machine-like metaphor of an economy, cannot capture the richness and qualitative nature of human being highlights this same danger.

The second problem is the suggestion that happy companies (whatever that is) are needed to produce happiness out in the world. Happy companies may be able to do this, but I expect that such firms have the same problems making the world of people and nature happy as do sad companies. Perhaps Adam Smith and his contemporaries had an understanding of the connection between what companies were supposed to do and happiness out in the world, but such understanding is completely missing in today’s model of a firm and its place in the economy. The author of the column, Ted Leonsis, touts his raising of ticket prices to produce more revenue so he could bolster his poor hockey team, the Washington Capitals, and, that way, make people happy. His hockey team as a business was richer, and maybe happier, but all this says is that money can buy happiness. We know that this isn’t true in general. Except maybe for long-impoverished Capitals and, of course, for the even longer-suffering Chicago Cubs fans.