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Pursuing Happiness

August 20, 2009

smiley“The good life, as I conceive it, is a happy life.  I do not mean that if you are good you will be happy – I mean that if you are happy you will be good.” — Bertrand Russell

Happy, healthy employees are essential to high performance in any organization.  The good work they do depends on their happiness, not the other way around.  By the same token, it’s much easier to do well when you know you’re doing good.

I’ve spent my career working on public safety issues.  And while I tend to be a bit of a curmudgeon, especially when it comes to what I see as a growing tendency toward self-promotion among my professional peers, I still take great satisfaction and enjoyment from seeing the difference they make every day in the lives of ordinary people.  These stories are usually heartwarming, and more than occasionally simply amazing.

When I walk into a fire or police department and find discontent and grumbling, it’s usually a sign that people are simply not sufficiently engaged in the core work of helping others.  Cops and firefighters love action, and are usually happiest when they’re busy.  And the busier the better.  The problem for most of them is that the work they most enjoy and find most rewarding happens only when someone else is having the worst day of his or her life.

A great deal of the unhappiness I hear expressed by cops and firefighters these days focuses on the fiscal crisis caused by the worldwide economic downturn and decisions and actions concerning hiring, promotion, or assignment that they view as political interference.  A marked decline in fire incidents and serious crime in recent years hasn’t helped their mood either.

None of this is meant to imply that firefighters or cops aren’t busy.  They are.  Some more than ever.  But the incidents they’re attending tend to be much less serious in nature and more numerous to boot.  In response to the decline in serious emergencies, most of the agencies employing them have expanded the scope of their services.  As a consequence, much of the interaction they have with the public today involves patching up people and issues that have fallen through the cracks between other institutions in our society.

Most cops and firefighters realize that they can claim little credit for the positive trends, and can’t do much about the negative ones.  The drops in fires and violent crime reflect declining birth rates, urbanization, and growing relative prosperity.  The fiscal stress facing most state and local governments has as much to do with unsustainable cost and revenue structures as it does with the speed, scope, or scale with which the economic situation impacted them.  And the impacts of this situation on the growing ranks of the underclass have only made the situation more frustrating for everyone.

We may be free to pursue happiness, but we’ll never catch it unless we stop running after it and take stock of what we already have.  My best days as a firefighter were not spent at fires, they were spent in the firehouse sharing meals and swapping stories with people I liked and wanted to share my life with.  I enjoyed helping people, and while they didn’t always seem to appreciate my intervention, I know the work I did had an impact on others who were there to witness what we were doing.

Without fail, firefighters and cops tell me they love their jobs.  They take pride in who they are and what they stand for even if they question their employer’s commitment to these values.  We may not be able to share the love through added pay or benefits, but we can encourage a culture of commitment and community that recognizes what people most desire and that which makes them happiest is the affirmation they receive from connections to and interactions with other human beings.

This means we have a choice: We can either stop papering over the cracks altogether or we can embrace the opportunities we have to make a difference, however small or insignificant that difference may seem, in the lives of the people who decide they need us.  We can be happy that we still have at least some small chance to make a difference, and we can grasp that opportunity with compassion, commitment, and real creative energy.  Doing so will be a whole lot easier if we start with smiles on our faces.

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