Published: 06/01/2005, Volume III, No. 5937 Page 34

Why is it so difficult to be happy? One reason psychologists have come up with is that it takes just one thing to go wrong in your life to bring about gnawing discontent, but complete contentment requires practically everything to be going well. The dice are loaded in favour of unhappiness.

This might ring a few bells with NHS managers. Despite all the improvements they bring about, it seems to take one thing for the unit to be disgruntled.

But there is a fundamental predicament at the heart of the management profession. Trying to manage without a clear sense of where the good life is located is like someone giving directions by only knowing where you do not want to go. At the heart of all management is a value system that locates the good life somewhere, but often does not articulate it clearly.

There is, for example, a strategic view of happiness: I do this thing this decade, and that thing another decade in order to eventually arrive at a place resembling happiness. This involves incredible foresight and long-range planning - something economists are more used to than most managers.

But there is a key conundrum with the way managers approach producing fulfilment in staff. In the long journey towards the achievement of any worthwhile ambition there is much suffering. It is the ability to tolerate and not be afraid of pain that underpins true bliss. Yet modern society is intolerant of distress.

The paradox at the heart of happiness is that you are going to have to experience anguish in order to get there - you need to embrace the one thing you are trying so desperately to avoid.

Perhaps our corporate culture is unable to engage with and promulgate key truths about the human predicament.

Raj Persaud is consultant psychiatrist at South London and Maudsley trust and Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry.