Can employees become happier based on an algorithm?

Postdate: 01 June 2018

This week was dedicated to the business college of Baker Tilly Berk. The aim of this lecture series is to inspire and inform entrepreneurs. An important topic for us was the link between happiness and algorithms. The question was therefore: can employees actually become happy with an algorithm? You can read the answer in the article below.

Happiness and your personality

Our personality determines our view of the world and how we behave. The choices you make in your career also depend on your personality.

About business professionals you could roughly say that they tend to:

Always want to win and are ambitious
Need freedom
Be tenacious
Be outcomes focussed
Be able to live with delayed reward

You could see personal qualities as needs that must be satisfied. When these needs are met, at home and at work, you will be happier. Imagine you are an entrepreneur, but many of these conditions are not being met. You will end up feeling less happy.

Captured in an algorithm

If you could realise happiness with an algorithm, you would assume a causal relationship between your behaviour and what you experience and the degree of happiness. A well-known example of someone who wanted to know how this is logically linked is Mo Gawdat. For years, Mo Gawdat was an important Executive at Google. He was very successful and earned extreme amounts of money, but was not happy. In his work, hard work led to success, but he was not able to – by really trying to do his best – control his gloomy moods and depressions. Prompted by the death of his son, he began a quest for happiness. The book that it came out of this: ‘Solve for happy’ became a global bestseller.

As an engineer he wanted to capture happiness in a formula. In the formula, he makes it very clear that the degree of happiness depends on the extent to which your expectations of life align with reality and how you perceive that reality.


But when are you unhappy?

That's actually a very logical derivative: you are unhappy if you have little self-awareness. If you do not know your personal characteristics and needs well, if you are not aware of your behaviour and as a result create the wrong ideals. In other words, when you have wishes and expectations that are not in line with you as a person.

So, the art lies in learning to create a realistic picture of yourself and of your desired circumstances. And you need to learn to recognise when you are in a place or in a situation where you don’t thrive and where you may possibly be unhappy.

But how do you do this? Because in practice it is difficult to constantly reflect on your own self-image and behaviour. A psychologist or coach could help you to discover a realistic self-image. He or she does this by asking questions that force you to think about who you really are and how you behave. You get this information from within yourself. He/she uses techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy or positive psychology. You will gain insight into how you can stand in life in different ways, think of new solutions and work these out. This gives you more control over your life and behaviour and consequent successes will become more predictable.

Reflecting with an algorithm

But you can also automate this process! A psychologist or coach who helps you in the process of reflecting, adjusting your expectations and training in new behaviour is then replaced by self-learning or non-self-learning algorithms. An automated process that helps you in determining who you are, what you can do and how to reach your goals. Whether this involves steps in your career, friendships and relationships or sporting goals.

Is this actually possible? The idea that a psychologist or a coach is replaced by an algorithm may for some of you instil certain doubts. The reality is that non-complex tasks and processes are increasingly being automated. Netflix and Spotify give you suggestions for what you could listen to or watch based on your previous viewing and listening behaviour. And in the artificial intelligence system from IBM, Watson, cardiologists collect worldwide diagnoses and heart investigations so that they are now able to predict heart failure two years earlier.

So, how does it work if we start using algorithms to become happier?

For the use of algorithms, you need data about people and their behaviour, preferably as much as possible. The more data, the more accurate the algorithms will be. Fortunately, this links to a major trend that already exists: ‘the quantified self’ or the measurable human. The fact that by tracking body data, such as how much you exercise and what your heart rate or blood pressure is, you learn more about yourself. And therefore, live a healthier life. I regularly look at the number of steps I've done that day to go for another walk in the evening. I also tracked my sleeping pattern at some stage with a sleep-tracker.

And this trend continues on. In chronic illness patients, it is already very common to monitor certain bio-markers such as blood pressure and insulin levels. By using these measurements, they get more and more control over their physical health and they are less dependent on medical support. Keeping track of these kinds of values will also increasingly be done by people who are not chronically ill, but who take their health seriously.

Firstly, these self-reports and measurements create self-awareness. Think of the wearable pedometer that offers awareness about your level of activity. There are also similar methods of creating mental self -awareness: by self-reporting and wearables that measure stress, but also relaxation. These are so-called bio-feedback techniques that use this method to clearly help you feel the difference between tension and relaxation.

Practical examples

OK, so you can become happier by using algorithms and new technologies. So, what does that look like? At home and internationally, we see fine examples of algorithms, artificial intelligence and other innovations that chance the classic approach to health care; including mental health care.

There are wearables that include measurements of your heart rate, breathing and perspiration. Based on this input, you get feedback such as a vibration and soothing sounds you reduce stress. A little stress is not bad, it makes you perform well. But prolonged stress gives you the chance of developing the signs of a burn-out. By being aware of the difference between tension and relaxation you will learn to deal with these effectively.

What you also see more of are artificial intelligence chat bots that help you based on techniques from positive psychology and behavioural therapy when you are stressed or down or they help you to learn new behaviours. Instead of static questionnaires, you have the idea of having a real conversation. This is a very efficient way of guidance, which is always and everywhere available.

And one more example of a totally different order. Do you have problems with eating a healthy diet? Or do you have diabetes for example and is it important to keep track of what you eat? Tufts University (Boston) has developed a tiny sensor that records what nutrients you ingest. If awareness helps you to change your behaviour, this will ensure that you can no longer fool yourself.

Virtual reality is also increasingly being used to reduce stress in the workplace. A good example is the collaboration between #TNO and Defence. They use VR glasses so that Defence personnel can experience war situations. This is how they prepare themselves well and at the same time, they can examine the physical reactions that this evokes in their employees. Based on this, they develop interventions that prepare them better for missions.

We keep raising the bar

Now go back to the beginning and the fact that your personal properties determine what makes you happy. Do you know what makes you happy and where you are at your best? And do you have realistic expectations for yourself?

Recently, several studies on this subject have appeared in the media. Among others, about students and twenty-something old people who demand too much of themselves. They create high levels of pressure for themselves, they experience it from their environment and they take it on themselves because they compare themselves to their peers. This of course also applies to other generations. Social media and globalisation, makes us raise the bar higher and we experience more competition than the generations before us. As a result, our feelings of happiness decline and the number of burn-outs among all age groups and at all levels of education increases.

Shared responsibility

The labour market is tight and people need to work longer. It is therefore very important that employees stay healthy and fit. Initially this is a responsibility of employees themselves. However, digitization and constant accessibility have ensured that the boundary between work and private life becomes increasingly blurred. And there is a clear business case for facilitating employees in this. Healthy and happy employees are sick less often and for shorter periods and perform better. This means huge savings on long-term sickness related absences and re-integration costs. Not only that, they are more motivated and research shows that, for example, they are better representatives for the company in which they work and they are much more inclined to believe in the organisation’s strategies.


Many companies already have vitality programmes or programmes related to sustainable employability. The danger is that these are individual activities that are not sustainable contributors to the happiness and health of employees. It is important that people learn about themselves, making them capable of consistently adjusting their expectations and behaviour. Are you an employer and looking for meaningful ways to promote vitality? Always consider the behavioural component as well. Look for solutions that work on self-awareness to bring about sustainable behavioural change.

Also look beyond the traditional forms of coaching and guidance. There are increasing numbers of great digital tools available that allow access to happiness and health for everyone in ‘a low-threshold’ and cost-effective way!

algorithm     artificial intelligence     baker tilly berk     business college     happiness     mo gawdat    

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