The Happiness Conundrum

By Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries

Based on a case example of a deeply unhappy person, this article examines the elusive topic of happiness, paying special attention to the Big Five theory of personality, the interface between health, resilience, and happiness, and the importance of social networks, the workplace, and other variables in the happiness conundrum.


“Happiness comes when your work and words are of benefit to yourself and others.”

– Buddha

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.”

– Dalai Lama

“It’s pretty hard to tell what does bring happiness. Poverty and wealth have both failed.”

– Frank McKinney Hubbard


Carl was unhappy and he had been unhappy for a very long time. He was unhappy with his work, with his life, with the world, and, most of all, with himself. People who knew Carl remarked on the way he managed to find misery where others found happiness. No matter what the occasion, he always found something wrong to focus on. He seemed blind to the good things in life. He very rarely smiled. This attitude made people reluctant to associate with him and Carl had become a very lonely man. Unsurprisingly, his pessimism had shut the door on most connections outside his inner circle, making it very difficult for him to establish new relationships both inside and outside work.

Carl was a fully paid-up member of the self-pity club. His view of the world had always been dark. He was a pessimist and moaner who believed he was fated to have bad things happen to him. Life was unfair and he was its victim. Others were much more fortunate than he was and he envied them. He hardly helped himself by never expressing any gratitude to people who were kind to him. His wife was thoroughly fed up and at her wit’s end. None of her efforts to accommodate Carl seemed to be good enough.

Things were no better at work, where Carl was VP of Sales. His negativity was legendary within the organisation. He never complimented people on work well done. Wherever he turned up, his presence lowered morale, affecting productivity – he seemed to have a knack for getting the worst out of people. His colleagues continually reminded him about the benefits of a positive approach, to no effect.

The fact was that Carl didn’t like his job, which he had drifted into. But when he was asked if he would be interested in finding a position that would give him more satisfaction and meaning, his response, predictably, was “mission impossible”. He had always avoided taking risks. He also worried a great deal about money, and that any change in his position might have negative financial consequences. Very few things interested him – drinking alone in the local pub the one sorry exception. Most who knew him regarded Carl as a tragic figure who had never stretched himself to his full capacity or reached his full stature.

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About the Author

Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries is Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change at INSEAD, France, Singapore & Abu Dhabi.


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