The Choice interviewed the authors of ‘La Tyrannie du bien-être’ and ‘L’Art de changer de vie en cinq leçons’, respectively Benoît Heilbrunn and Philippe Gabilliet. Both are professors at ESCP Business School, but each has a different take on well-being, particularly when it comes to the world of work.
Could each of you please give your definition of well-being?
Philippe Gabilliet: Well-being is a positive, subjective evaluation made by an individual at a given time and in a given context. So, well-being is basically a non-subject in my view. However, the notion of well-being at work is an interesting one. The aim here is to try to understand the extent to which the workplace can be a source of unhappiness, and what needs to be done to create a policy for well-being at work. Clearly, well-being involves people understanding the usefulness and purpose of their work, having good relationships with their colleagues, and feeling appreciated and respected by their management… the rest is what I call ‘gadgets’, like the armchair that gives you a massage in the breakout room, the table football or the free coffee. None of that is very important.
Benoît Heilbrunn: Well-being is a sensory and emotional state, which means it depends upon the context. It’s difficult to imagine a philosophy of life that is based on a contextual element. It’s something instantaneous, which makes it difficult to measure. The question of well-being has been developed since 1948 with the creation of the World Health Organization (WHO), which clearly indicated that its goal was to promote physical, psychological and social well-being. Since the 1960s, this notion has led to the idea of a “happiness economy”. At that time, the first critiques of the consumer society were beginning to appear, notably with the economist Tibor Scitovsky. In his book ‘The Joyless Economy’, he wonders why our economic system, which is supposed to give us greater freedom and more leisure, along with a more open approach to sexuality and better health care, has failed to increase the level of satisfaction that people feel in their lives. All the surveys about subjective well-being and perceived happiness indicate that people are no happier today than they were before.
In the business world, the latest way to commercialize well-being is to make people within a company think that it could actually be someone’s job.Philippe Gabilliet
How old is the idea of well-being?
Benoît Heilbrunn: Hellenistic philosophy was the first to raise the question of happiness. It is a very clear anthropological marker in western philosophical thinking. Along with Epicurus and Aristotle, all the Greek philosophers interested in temperance support this idea of turning to material goods and desires to combat pain and suffering. To my knowledge, the notion of well-being has never really been conceptualized, although happiness has been the subject of a great deal of theorizing since antiquity.
Philippe Gabilliet: The very concept of well-being is inapplicable because there is no formal structure behind it. From 1990 to 2000, when the University of Pennsylvania created the field of positive psychology, researcher Martin Seligman devised a set of rules with the aim of formulating a concept of well-being, known as the PERMA model. It has five measurable components: positive emotions, engagement, positive personal relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. No single component can define well-being, but each one makes a contribution. Today, we are dealing with a catch-all narrative where people are trying to sell well-being. In the business world, the latest way to commercialize well-being is to make people within a company think that it could actually be someone’s job.
It’s true that some companies have appointed Chief Happiness Officers to improve the well-being of their employees. Is it just about image or is there a real management transformation underway?
Philippe Gabilliet: The moment you have a Chief Officer title, it means you have power. Having a Chief Happiness Officer is a way of introducing a trendy subject. What annoys me about this aspect of well-being at companies is that the subtext is deceitful, in my opinion.
Benoît Heilbrunn: It’s total nonsense. It is one of those paradoxical calls to action that are a permanent feature of capitalism — wanting employees to be happy and, at the same time, exercising power and control over them. It is an incompatible vision and a move that masks the simple fact that we don’t have answers to the problem.
Philippe Gabilliet: The world of work is not a natural creator of well-being; instead, it tends to create certain symptoms (fatigue, mental stress, back pain, etc.). The challenge is knowing to what extent managers are expected to be responsible for an employee’s state of mind. And as soon as people are given that responsibility, you have to try to control it.
Well-being is a soft notion that looks to a future world where there will be no material resistance because people will seek to avoid any physical sensation that is unpleasant.Benoît Heilbrunn
Should a manager be responsible for people’s well-being?
Philippe Gabilliet: Politicians say that well-being is a bad answer to a good question. The right question is about unhappiness, which needs to be freed from ideology. When someone achieves an objective they have been set, we call that effectiveness. On the other hand, when they achieve their objective by optimising available resources to the maximum, we call that efficiency. Many HR practices are designed to address unhappiness caused by the pressure on people to be competitive. But the real questions are about the definition of work – ‘What am I doing?’, ‘What’s the point of it?’ and ‘How am I being treated by those around me?’
Benoît Heilbrunn: Well-being is not the opposite of unhappiness. It brings together two founding notions of Greek philosophy – the ideas of being and of good, which together make for “being good”. However, this juxtaposition also limits its impact. One of the few thinkers to really focus on well-being was Jeremy Bentham. The aim of his idea of utilitarianism and the political economics that emerged in the 17th century was to provide the greatest amount of utility, to do things that had meaning and improved people’s existences. This notion of utility is essential when considering the difference between effectiveness and efficiency.
Benoît Heilbrunn, in ‘L’Obsession du bien-être’, you compare well-being with molten chocolate cake. “Under the dictatorship of comfort, it governs our choices and anaesthetizes our freedom”, you wrote. Could you tell us more about that?
Benoît Heilbrunn: Well-being is contextual and sensory. It is a very difficult emotion to conceptualize and to measure. It is a soft notion that looks to a future world where there will be no material resistance because people will seek to avoid any physical sensation that is unpleasant. It’s why well-being is culturally linked to the arrival of the New Age movement in the United States at the end of the 1960s. The fundamental basis of New Age cannot be defined, and that is its great strength. Well-being draws on the key principle of New Age, a sort of inherent religion that rejects all ideas of transcendence and, according to which, we are all part of the same living entity, which has no hierarchy. So, softness remains the essential physical and ideological component of happiness.
During his journey around America, Alexis de Tocqueville was absolutely fascinated by the cult of the ‘God of Comfort.’ For him, the danger in turning comfort into a cult is that people become willing to give up their freedom, provided that they are guaranteed continued well-being in return. This “cult of comfort” makes any idea of resistance impossible. It gives people a feeling that they are sliding their way through life and that it requires no effort. The psychological feeling created by this sense of sliding is not far removed from the idea of mindfulness, which runs through all theories of personal development. In both cases, the objective is to ease/reduce any idea of stress and resistance, physically and psychologically speaking.
Philippe Gabilliet: As the world creates unhappiness, what is the alternative? Benoît has a very interesting approach in his book ‘L’Obsession du bien-être’, where he calls for a sense of discomfort. It’s a worthwhile approach, even though I do find it elitist.
Benoît Heilbrunn: It’s an idea I took from Nietzsche. It links good health with a willingness to take risks and to step outside the comfort zone created by the routine and the reassuring. For Nietzsche, “a desire for self-preservation is the expression of a distressful situation”. Being guided by an instinctive impulse can lead us to sacrifice self-preservation, if we want “something to happen to us”. In other words, it is a state of health that does not react to events and is the very opposite of the utopia of connected health. Our search for well-being is based on homoeostatic balance — being at just the right temperature, having just the right physical posture… but like a tightrope walker, life is a permanent expression of balance and imbalance. To really exist, we need to abandon this form of mental comfort. And this is why I think it’s important to distinguish between living and existing, and to be willing to go beyond our usual way of life. Focusing on well-being can very quickly lead us to become trapped in the kind of life that prevents us from truly existing.
Philippe Gabilliet: If an individual or a group can be placed in a situation of managed discomfort, under pressure from their senses, dreams and objectives, that’s something very interesting. Nietzsche had this phrase: “Someone who knows why they are living can accept how they are living.” And that’s the idea we have here.
Benoît Heilbrunn: I’m convinced that the role of a university is to help people ask questions, and not to give answers. One of the features of ESCP is that we introduce students to critical thinking and a view of management as a social science. We aim to develop individuals who are independent in their decision-making. And for that to happen, there needs to be a level of discomfort. Which brings us back to the question of work having meaning – in the sense of direction, feeling and purpose. If you believe in the failings of the “bullshit economy”, as described by David Graeber, there is a real issue around meaning. To see gadgets as a valid response to the need for well-being is to be blind to this question of suffering and unhappiness, particularly at work. That’s why, rather than talking about well-being, I think it’s more useful to focus on being well.
The issue of well-being at work is going to move into the sphere of people’s private lives, as the separation between the two is beginning to disappear.Benoît Heilbrunn
According to you, has well-being at work been affected by the Covid-19 crisis?
Benoît Heilbrunn: This crisis has raised a question about the pointlessness of a certain number of tasks. To some extent, the issue of well-being at work is going to move into the sphere of people’s private lives, as the separation between the two is beginning to disappear. If someone is responsible for their employees’ state of mind, it covers not only when they are at work but also when they are at home. In turn, this is also going to raise new questions about the level of control that management can have on aspects of home life.
Philippe Gabilliet: For some people, remote working and virtualization can increase their productivity, while at the same time maintaining their sense of well-being at home. But some people don’t have a choice because their added value cannot be dematerialized. The Covid-19 crisis has also led certain people to speak up about what they no longer want to do and how they would like to change their lives. In comparison with being in the workplace, remote working tends to reveal some of the “bullshit jobs”.
Benoît Heilbrunn: This idea of “bullshit jobs” is something that people prefer not to think about in the world of work. David Graeber has highlighted a major taboo that is related to this issue of meaning. The worst aspects of our existence are the result of cynicism or meaninglessness. In my view, by far the best way of combating cynicism is to use irony.