How happy are workers at New York City’s “Happy” businesses?
We talked to employees at a few businesses in New York City with “happy” in the title. It was a little awkward.
New York City is home to hundreds of businesses with the word “happy” in their names: Happy Karaoke, Happy Days Diner, Happy Ending, Happy Baby Day Care, Happy Land, Happy Go Puppy, Happy Cleaners & Tailors, Happy Liquors, Happy Happy Chinese Restaurant, Happy Life Fast Food, Happy Lucky Nail, New Happy Taco, Happy Couple Workout, Harlem’s Happy Hounds, Happy Stony Noodle, and many more.
Despite being filled with all these happy places, New York is America’s “least happy” city, according to some studies. And despite piles of new research on happiness in the workplace and more and more companies investing in employees’ well-being (see: Google’s office slides), most Americans are unhappy at their jobs. Are employees at “happy” businesses any happier than the average unhappy American worker? Does seeing the word “happy” on a sign at work every day tend to make these employees happier?
We spoke to employees at a few “happy” businesses in New York City, who varied in terms of industry, income, responsibilities and economic privilege—some were funded by startup capital, others owned by families dealing with immigration costs. We also asked a few psychologists whether new research could reveal anything about what people think will make them happy versus what actually does.
This survey was not scientific. It was pretty awkward. Plenty of “happy” businesses declined to be interviewed—turns out it’s hard to get people to complain about their jobs on the record, even anonymously, for obvious PR and workplace politics-related reasons. In most cases, randomly questioning people about their moods felt trollish and invasive. Inadvertently, it became an odd study of what happens when you ask strangers to talk honestly about their inner lives in a culture where the default answer to “How are you?” is some variation on “Good” or “Fine.”
Happy Wok, Crown Heights, December 2015
“Happy” Chinese takeout
Happy Wok, in Crown Heights, is one of at least a dozen Chinese takeout places called “Happy Wok” in the city. It has red formica tables and folding chairs, a lightbox photo menu that makes the pictured food look radioactive, red paper lanterns with My Little Pony decals hanging from the ceiling, and a giant backlit photograph of a peaceful pagoda-covered mountainscape adorning the wall. Happy Wok is open 12 hours a day, seven days a week, until 11:30 pm on weekdays and 12:30 am on weekends. Behind the counter, in a fluorescent-lit kitchen, four workers in aprons and visors mill over woks. They laugh when Mandarin translator Rebecca Cheong explains her assignment and asks how happy they are.
“We’re all a family, eleven brothers and sisters, from Fujian Province in China,” a man behind the counter tells Cheong. “I am exceptionally happy, and I do think we’re happier than other people working at restaurants, because our whole family is here.”
“Do you feel happy when you see the word ‘happy’ at this restaurant in Chinese?” Cheong asks.
“Yes,” he says.
“What makes you most happy?”
“Everything makes us happy,” says one of the women.
“Money,” says the man. They all laugh. “Most people who come to America from China come because they think money will make them happy.”
“What makes you unhappy?”
“When there’s no money.”
“Is that often?”
“Yeah. Last year around this time it used to be busier. But the neighborhood’s demographics changed. Now business is a little slower.”
An oft-cited 2011 study suggests that there’s a strong positive correlation between well-being and income across countries and over time. Researchers also found rates of happiness did not rise after an individual reached an annual income of about $75,000, and a more reliable predictor of happiness than raw income is how you choose to spend that income. As of 2014, the average annual income for a NY waiter is $25,290.
Some studies suggest that the single biggest predictor of human happiness is the strength of one’s relationships and social network—which is perhaps why, despite slow business, the close-knit family of workers at Happy Wok could be actually be “exceptionally happy.”
Crown Heights average rent
1 Br $1,231
2 Br $1,544
1 Br $1,964
2 Br $2,422
Happy Wok, Crown Heights, December 2015
Seeing the word “happy” at work every day might backfire for some people, like one employee at Happy Life Fast Food, on Nostrand Avenue. This Crown Heights takeout joint has two 25-cent Chiclet machines and a $1.00 per item Chinese buffet, plus fried chicken and mac-and-cheese. Its name translates roughly to “prosperous flourishing accomodation place” in Mandarin.
“Are you prosperous and flourishing, like the sign says?” Cheong asks him.
“No,” he says, seeming, understandably, weirded out by the question. “This is not a good place to work. People come in and take the chairs and steal stuff and knock stuff over and run out.” The man holds up a ketchup bottle that was hidden behind the counter. “I used to leave this out, but kids would always take it and make a mess. Not all the food places are like that. But this is not a good area.” He doesn’t seem thrilled about being interrogated like this, and it feels almost insulting to prod for more, so we leave him alone and he disappears into the backroom kitchen.
Mandarin’s “prosperous and flourishing” versus English’s “happy” points to different cultural attitudes towards well-being. “Americans have an obsession with happiness. We pursue happiness in a way most other cultures do not,” says Dr. Morris, Maryland-based clinical psychologist. Many Americans consider this pursuit our unalienable birthright, along with life and liberty. “We really think everyone should be happy. And what ‘happy’ in our culture means is being free of depression and anxiety and other painful stuff, which is very unnatural.”
The names of these “happy” businesses cater to that obsession; many read like parodies of the classic advertising strategy: “Buy this thing, it will make you happy!” And most of New York City’s “happy” businesses do offer services related to things that make people feel good (food, liquor, dogs, massages). But in many cases, the name seems like cruel irony, highlighting the discrepancy between the aspiration to happiness and the prevailing reality.
NM of HappyFun Hideaway, Bushwick, December 2015
A “happy” bar
Sunset murals and refurbished vintage video games adorn the pink-lit Bushwick bar and community art space HappyFun Hideaway. The owners make a point of hiring artists and musicians as bartenders and letting them have flexible work schedules.
“In most cases, naming something ‘happy’ conjures this weird image of creepy dystopian corporate-ness where everyone’s only photographed as smiling,” N.M., a writer and bartender at HappyFun Hideaway, says. “But HappyFun’s name is a joke unto itself. It’s pretty camp. Almost classically campy. If there is any intentionality behind the name, it’s a way to keep the place less darksided, to avoid the aggressive and hostile.” A lot of bars in the area are “darksided” and have an air of being “super self-destructive,” N.M. says.
What do patrons of these “darksided” places think of a place like HappyFun Hideaway? “I think often, if there’s resistance to words like ‘happy,’ that comes from seeing those terms in a sort of kitschy, sanitized context where they’re employed to promote a sort of complacent productivity,” says N.M. “Like in environments that refuse to acknowledge difficult things. But the flipside of that is in art and activism and such, where we tend to fetishize things that are dark, depressing, somber. That’s a useful aesthetic if you’re confronting an audience that refuses to acknowledge those things. But when your life is already circumscribed by the dark and the depressing, like when you’re part of a socially and legislatively marginalized population, somberness is not necessarily radical or creative, it’s just a daily fact of life, it’s an internalization of all the forces targeted at you. In that context, it’s actually really radical and really necessary for survival to claim happiness and fun and joy as a thing that's desirable and to actively make space for that.”
“I’m super hyped to work there,” N.M. says. “If I hated working there and it was called HappyFun Hideaway, or if it had some other overly contrived, positive-sounding name, that would have potential to be super depressing and dystopian. But as it is, I’d still be hyped to work there even if it was called Bad Bad Terribleplace.” (Like some other respondents, N.M. opted not to talk about aspects of the job they like the least.)
A “happy” start-up
Jay Reno is the co-founder of Happy Any Hour, an app that lets New Yorkers find happy hour-like discounts at select bars around the city at any time of day. Reno works about 60 hours a week, setting up partnerships with bar and restaurant owners, running sales and business development. Though “it can be a little draining,” he claims to be abnormally, deliriously happy at his job. “I absolutely think I’m happier than the average New Yorker,” Reno says. On a mood scale of one to ten, with 10 as the happiest, “I’d say I’m about a nine or 9.5 every day when I go to work. I never really imagined that work could be this fun.” He was reluctant to admit to disliking any aspects of his job on the record.
These self-reported numbers seem, to me, suspiciously high and probably PR-driven—or maybe that many discounted drinks a day really could make a 60-hour work week “fun”? Still, they reflect the relatively new and, arguably, particularly American idea that work should be fulfilling and enjoyable. “Older generations here scoff at this idea that you should enjoy your work,” Dr. Morris says. “Most older generations think that’s a ridiculous expectation young people have.” But in recent decades, the influence of positive psychology has transformed management in businesses, making companies more actively cultivate employees’ well-being.
Reno’s company’s logo is the word “Happy” written in loose, cheery cursive. When he comes into work and sees “Happy” plastered on the wall of his office, Reno actually said that he feels “a warmth of positivity that rushes over my eyes and my face.”
But Reno’s seemingly positive reaction to an affirmative word like “happy” is far from universal. Something psychologists call the “Suicide Theory of San Francisco” might help explain why.
“San Francisco apparently has a pretty high suicide rate, and the idea is that it’s such a great city to live in—like you’re supposed to be happy—but if you’re not happy then, wow, there must be something wrong with you,” Sonja Lyubomirsky, Psychology Professor at the University of California, Riverside and author of The How of Happiness explains. “So it’s like, if you’re not happy in a ‘happy’ restaurant, you might be even more miserable.”
A person’s reaction to a “positive” stimuli depends on whether it’s consistent with their mood or not. “A beautiful sunset, for example, might make you simply think ‘oh, what a beautiful sunset,’ or, it might make you think, ‘Here I am with no one to watch this beautiful sunset with, my life sucks,’” Dr. Morris says.
None of the jobs
Research shows the jobs in which workers are happiest aren’t necessarily the most glamorous or high-paying. A study done by Careerbliss, based on over 100,000 employees’ reviews of their jobs, ranked the top five happiest jobs as follows:
software quality assurance engineer
executive chef and property manager (tie)
Happy Lucky Nails in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Happy Wok in Crown Heights, December 2015
A “happy” nail salon
The manicurists at Happy Lucky Nail on Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant were reluctant to be interviewed. It’s not suprizing. Earlier this year, a New York Times expose revealed brutal working conditions in many New York City nail salons, stating that the majority of manicurists in the New York City are paid below minimum wage, if they’re paid at all; some endure physical abuse from salon owners; all face various health risks. Wage theft is common at places with rock-bottom prices. (Happy Lucky Nail charges $10 for a manicure.) Governor Cuomo responded with a taskforce to investigate and combat these issues (43% of salons inspected in August were not paying minimum wage or overtime), and the backlash from salon owners is only getting more legally convoluted.
One manicurist spoke anonymously to Cheong in her native Mandarin about the job. She works six days a week from 9:30 am to 9:00 pm. She likes painting nails “enough,” she says. “My husband works in a restaurant, and I used to be a waitress, but it’s so tiring. My leg got hurt. Here, at least I get to sit down.” But the manicurist’s financial struggle is desperate. “It’s so hard to make money. Monday through Wednesday, you can barely make a few bucks. But we have to pay bills, bills, bills. So whatever job you have, it doesn’t matter. Most of us who come here from China do whatever we can to make a living. We Chinese people are all very hard working. We don’t rely on the government. But even if we had government support, we’d still want to work. There are people who don’t work, and then complain about not having money. If you don’t have a job or money, there’s nothing, nowhere to sleep. Money is everything.”
“Why is this place called Happy Lucky Nail?” Cheong asks.
“People come in and they’re happy. Everyone who comes to do their nails feels happy. But the name doesn’t mean anything, really. We could be called Best Nail, or Lucky Nail.”
Happy Wok in Crown Heights, December 2015
A “happy” charity project
“A lot of the kids call it Happy Camp, or ‘the happy day,’ or something like that, because that’s how they feel,” Penny Shaw, 78, a director at Project HAPPY, says of her charity organization. Project HAPPY, an acronym for Hunter College Activity Program for Parents and Youth, is a Saturday recreation program for young people with disabilities, offers free sports classes on the downtown campus of Hunter College. Shaw, like Reno and N.M., says she’s satisfied at her job, and seemed eager to be interviewed. On a one to ten mood scale, “mostly I’m way up there in the nines and tens,” she says. “I’m definitely happier than the average person in New York City, even though I’ve had a rather tragic life.”
Shaw attributes her happiness to the altruistic nature of her work. “We have a big focus on teaching swimming,” she says. “Drowning is one of the leading causes of death among children with autism, so we’re literally saving lives. If that doesn’t make a person happy, I don’t know what does.”
Despite dealing daily with debilitating physical and mental disabilities, Shaw says most people at Project HAPPY’s Saturday program tend to be in good spirits: the children (“They’re all happy, they get to play wheelchair basketball”); the parents, who “get at least three hours of rest while their kids are occupied”; and the 140 volunteers, many of whom work in finance and business. “I think those corporate jobs may not be all that fulfilling. So the volunteers are the ones who need us the most,” Shaw says. “On Saturdays, they accomplish something from the heart—they’re making a contribution in a way that they don’t if they’re working with money.” Research supports Shaw’s observation that altruism makes people happier—studies have consistently found that people report a significant happiness boost after doing good deeds for others.