Virtues @ Work
Cheerful Peasant Woman, Nicolae Grigorescu, 1894
“I live in a constant endeavor to fence against the infirmities of ill health, and other evils of life, by mirth; being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles, but much more when he laughs, it adds something to his fragment of life.”
What is Cheerfulness?
Cheerfulness is a virtue that helps us find joy, which we ultimately receive as a gift by loving good things and others. The cheerful person exhibits a becoming disposition toward other people, and in doing so, is able to foster mutual relations characterized by friendliness.
Cheerfulness is not thoughtless positivity, always smiling, ignoring difficulties, or being unfailingly optimistic. When the situation requires other responses, to remain cheerful would simply be inappropriate, and represent a lack of virtue. On the other hand, cheerfulness consists in always endeavouring to control one’s emotions, so as to foster an environment of affability with others.
What does cheerfulness look like in practice? It is something that is closely related to being joyful. Joy is a deep-seated contentment that we receive when we possess a great good. It is different than experiences of sensory and bodily pleasure in that it involves the cognitive dimension of understanding – it is reflective. We feel bodily pleasure in tasting good food and drink, and joy in contemplating the dimensions of the experience, savouring it in a reflective way.
The curious thing about joy is that it is in response to something we receive, as a gift. It has this kind of lightness to it. We cannot reach out and grasp it with great effort, like some things. We have to put ourselves in a condition to receive it. How are we to do so?
One way is to practice taking up our duties in a spirit of detachment and humble enjoyment. Once we give up our attachments to wanting certain things and feeling a certain way, and expecting them with a kind of entitlement, then we can be slowly freed of the weight of our own petty desires, which only draw us down and in on ourselves.
To refuse to display cheerfulness can be a sign of self-absorption in our own perspectives, problems and desires. On the contrary, we recognize that the goods we experience come and go – they do not last, nor do they satisfy the deepest longings of our heart. Cheerfulness involves renunciation and suffering. To be cheerful in spite of life’s many challenges, we must renounce the fleeting character of our changing wants, desires, and circumstances, ceasing to seek in them the source of all meaning and happiness in our life.
Cheerfulness, then, must be in spite of difficulties and enjoyments. It must be rooted in a higher calling to love and care for others in a transcendent, self-forgetful fashion. Being free to recognize the immense good all around us and in other people, is a great gift – something that when harnessed, takes us out of ourselves and into a state of love.
In summary, to be cheerful is to open one’s self to receive joy, which comes from seeking out and reflecting on the good in all things. Practically, it involves being affable with persistency and constancy, fostering mutual relations characterized by friendliness with others.
Written by: Peter Copeland
Interview on Cheerfulness with Brendan Steven
How does the virtue of cheerfulness relate to work?
We talk a lot about workplace culture today: How can we create a working environment that fosters the creativity, effectiveness, health and joy of those who are part of it?
I recently read an article on this topic that resonated with me and it relates to our topic. The author talked about the idea of a “friendship-friendly” workplace, one where it is easier for colleagues to become friends. To me, that is one of the great powers of cheerfulness at work. It is one way we become close and learn to trust our colleagues. In my experience as a writer who collaborates with other writers and designers, this depth of connection makes extraordinary work possible.
Beyond cheerfulness as the fuel of friendship, it is also a balm for suffering. Work naturally brings stresses and tensions between teammates — tight deadlines, underperforming initiatives, hard-to-satisfy demands from senior colleagues. Cheerfulness towards others can be a gift in these moments of difficulty. It elevates people from becoming lost in their challenges and reminds them that this too shall pass, and that the relationship transcends the struggle. We have a duty to comfort others when work gets hard — and through this, comfort ourselves as well.
Why is it important in a work context?
I’ve outlined a couple of the key reasons above, but let me share some more quick thoughts on the importance of cheerfulness:
Cheerfulness helps us to feel a sense of gratitude. Gratitude for what we have — and what we have been given responsibility to steward. It draws out the best in us.
Cheerfulness is the seed of charity. When we are cheerful, we love more easily — those around us, the work we do, and the mission of the organization we are part of. Cheerfulness helps us focus on these essential things.
Cheerfulness draws others to us. Everything becomes easier with a cheerful disposition. Colleagues want to work with us, senior leaders want to elevate us. As a result, we have the chance to give more of ourselves more generously to our projects.
Cheerfulness gives others joy! I have always enjoyed making other people smile and laugh. Who doesn’t?
Cheerfulness positions us to learn and grow. A friend once told me that the Marines have a saying when they face a challenging situation: “Full benefit.” When we face challenges with grumpiness or frustration, we are crushed by their weight. But with cheerfulness, we can learn to not only bear challenges more lightly, but use these struggles to learn and grow. Cheerfulness clears our minds to notice what can be learned and to gain the full benefit from every situation.
How have you personally built on this virtue?
I am fortunate that cheerfulness was part of my disposition from a young age. I’ve always been a bit of a people-pleaser and I’d like to think I have a good sense of humour. These qualities combined, make cheerfulness a part of who I am. But I also have an introverted tendency, which means I can lose my cheerfulness when I feel socially exhausted. For me, building on the virtue of cheerfulness has required keeping an eye on my introverted side — having an out-of-body experience to see how I am presenting myself to others, most especially when I’m not feeling at my best. That way, I’m aware of how I am subjecting others to those negative feelings.
Did somebody mentor you about this? Have you mentored others about cheerfulness?
I can’t say I have explicitly mentored others about cheerfulness, and no one has ever directly mentored me on it. However, I have enjoyed the mentorship of observing others demonstrate cheerfulness.
A current boss, as well as a former boss, were both living masterclasses on it. The former boss always took time to greet each of his employees when he arrived in the morning, and when he left at night, he always complimented the good work of others. He told jokes at appropriate moments and showed extraordinary excitement that was infectious.
My current boss shares many of these virtuous behaviours. He is also so good at noticing when a teammate goes above and beyond — when a project was harder than anticipated, when the creativity delivered was of extraordinary quality, and when they are suffering unusually. He acknowledges this, offers a cheerful word, and makes the situation better. I admire that so much.
How have you lived this virtue at work?
I try to lead with cheerfulness in all my interactions with colleagues — joking around at appropriate occasions, being personable in meetings, smiling, exhibiting warmth to the best of my ability.
Do you have any examples of failing to live this virtue at work, and did you overcome that?
As I said, I have an introverted side, and so there are many occasions when my instinct is to avoid people, and to project coldness in hopes of keeping them away. I have also engaged in behaviours that are the opposite of cheerfulness—for instance, gossiping amid particularly difficult projects, as a means of letting off stress. These things are not helpful.
Brendan Steven has worked as a professional writer and communicator for nearly a decade, a career which includes founding a student newspaper at his alma mater, McGill University; serving as a speechwriter for a former federal finance minister, along with other leaders in Canadian politics; and working as a senior creative writer at Hill+Knowlton Strategies and GCI Canada, one of the country's foremost communications agencies. Today, Brendan is Chief Writer at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, a leading Canadian charity.
Outside the office he is an active member of Toronto’s Catholic community, volunteering with several Catholic ministries in the city including as a director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Greater Toronto Central Council and Catholic Family Services of Toronto Foundation. For nearly four years, Brendan served as volunteer Executive Director of Catholic Conscience, a dynamic apostolate focused on growing Catholic civic and political engagement through education in Catholic social teaching. During his tenure, the organization’s activities expanded to reach a national audience, engaging thousands of Canadians through innovative new programs and strategic partnerships with dioceses and Catholic organizations across Canada.
Brendan was born in 1991 in Sudbury, Ont. In 2020, he married his wife Catherine, who he met at St. Basil’s Catholic Parish in downtown Toronto, where they continue to worship and serve together as a couple. He is an alumnus of the Cardus NextGEN Fellowship, the CivicAction DiverseCity Fellowship, and the CJPAC Fellowship programs, as well as a recipient of McGill University’s Scarlet Key Award.