Why happiness at work matters for people
When I got my first consulting job I worked very hard. I was the picture-perfect, traditional IT consultant working many overtime hours in the name of success. I’d moved to a new city for that job, far away from my friends and family, but that was fine: I didn’t really have time for anything outside of work. Basically, my main goal was success at work!
But after a year of this I suddenly realized something: I was successful, certainly, and I made good money. But I was not happy. I was in fact feeling lonely and unhappy, because all I ever did was work. I thought about that for a while, and I decided to change my life and to always work in a way that would make me happy. I cut back on work and started spending time exercising and making friends in my new hometown. Over the course of a year, my life transformed completely. Before my evenings consisted of the drive home from work, some fast food and lots of TV. Now I had new friends, interesting hobbies and I was in the best shape of my life from all that exercise. I also lost that extra 20 pound consultant-belly I’d been slowly amassing :o)
Think about it: You will spend more of your adult life on your job than on anything else, except possibly sleep. Your work will take up more of your time than your family, friends and hobbies combined. Won’t it be nicer if that time is spent at a job that actually makes you happy?
All through the industrial age there has been this sense, that work is hard and unpleasant – that’s why we get paid to do it. This is expressed most clearly in Max Weber’s biblically based work “The protestant work ethic”, which was used by protestant preachers to preach that hard labor was good for people, good for Christian society and a salve for original sin.
Traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs state that sometime after the dawn of creation, man was placed in the Garden of Eden “to work it and take care of it” (NIV, 1973, Genesis 2:15). What was likely an ideal work situation was disrupted when sin entered the world and humans were ejected from the Garden. Genesis 3:19 described the human plight from that time on. “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (NIV, 1973).
Rose stated that the Hebrew belief system viewed work as a “curse devised by God explicitly to punish the disobedience and ingratitude of Adam and Eve” (1985, p. 28). Numerous scriptures from the Old Testament in fact supported work, not from the stance that there was any joy in it, but from the premise that it was necessary to prevent poverty and destitution (NIV; 1973; Proverbs 10:14, Proverbs 13:4, Proverbs 14:23, Proverbs 20:13, Ecclesiastes 9:10).
The Greeks, like the Hebrews, also regarded work as a curse (Maywood, 1982). According to Tilgher (1930), the Greek word for work was ponos, taken from the Latin poena, which meant sorrow. Manual labor was for slaves. The cultural norms allowed free men to pursue warfare, large-scale commerce, and the arts, especially architecture or sculpture.
Source: Historical Context of the Work Ethic by Roger B. Hill, Ph.D. – http://www.coe.uga.edu/~rhill/workethic/hist.htm
In short: life is hell (or “nasty, brutish and short” as Hobbes put it), therefore work is hell but we must endure it because we’re all sinners, but don’t worry we’ll get our reward (and/or punishment) once we’re dead.
Maybe it’s time to put that particular view of work behind us. Richard Reeves had this to say in his excellent book Happy Mondays:
Anybody who thinks work should be miserable simply because it is work or that there should be a cordon sannitaire between ‘work’ and ‘life’ needs to find a time machine, key in the year 1543, and go and join Calvin’s crew. They’ll feel more at home there. In the meantime, the rest of us will get on with enjoying our work, and our workplaces.
Patricia’s story shows that being happy or unhappy at work also spills over to your private life. Some people have the ability to have a lousy day at work and to then go home and be happy as if nothing has happened. Most people can’t do this, I certainly can’t. When I have a bad day at work, it tends to also affect the rest of my day.
Patricia’s story also shows how easy it is to accept a job that makes you unhappy, because the way it changes you can sneak up on you very gradually. Think about it – did you use to be happy, outgoing and energetic, and lost that somewhere? The explanation could be found at work, and many people find that having a job that makes them happy gives them energy and zest for life.
Work is fast replacing religion in providing meaning in people’s lives. Work has become how we define ourselves, it is now answering the traditional religious questions: Who am I? How do I find meaning and purpose? Work is no longer just about economics; it’s about identity.
– Benjamin Hunnicutt, historian and professor at the University of Iowa at Iowa City
Just 50 years ago people had many sources of identity: Religion, class, nationality, political affiliation, family roots, geographical and cultural origins and more. Today many of these, if not all, have been subsumed by work. When you meet someone at a party, what’s the first question you’re typically asked? “So, what do you do?”
We are increasingly defined by our work. It’s what takes up most of our time. It’s where we get to employ most of our talents. It’s where we experience our greatest triumphs and failures. It’s also the basis for our standard of living. All of this means that when work is not working for us, we become very vulnerable, and that being happy at work becomes crucial!
Health – mental and physical
Being unhappy at work can make you sick and being happy at work can make you healthier. This sounds like an unlikely claim at first, but it’s perfectly true.
Lancaster University and Manchester Business School performed a study in 2005 involving 250,000 employees which found that low happiness at work is a risk factor for mental health problems, including emotional burn-out, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. The report warned that just a small drop in job satisfaction could lead to burnout of “considerable clinical importance”.
Mental stress symptoms like the ones found in the study also increase the risk of physical health problems including ulcers, heart problems and a generally weakened immune system. Martin Seligman found the same thing in his positive psychology studies, in which he concluded that optimists are healthier and live longer than pessimists.
So not only are people who’re happy at work happier – they’re also healthier.
Success – at what cost
A business coach who often coaches top executives told me this tale:
It happens quite often that when I coach top leaders, they end up realizing that while they have indeed achieved all the outward signs of success, they’re just not happy at work or in life. They have the corner office, company Mercedes, million dollar salary and stock options. But ask the right questions, and it turns out that many of them are lonely and lost. Their work brings them no joy, it holds no meaning and creates no positive, lasting relationships. It also takes up all their time and keeps them away from their family and friends.
One well-known top leader broke down crying over the realization, that most of his work life had been wasted on chasing money and power. Soon after, he quit his job and is now doing work he enjoys – at 1/10 the pay.
This begs the question: What is success worth, if it doesn’t make you happy?
The Dalai Lama once said:
I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So I think the very motion of our life is towards happiness…
He was talking about happiness in life, but the point applies equally at work, and I believe that we are seeing a new approach to work emerge. Where previously work was something we did to earn a living, in the future the point of going to work, is to be happy.
The happy are successful
So should you just be happy and forget about succes? This is where it gets interesting: In december of 2005 a group of researchers published the results of a meta-study. A meta-study is a study that combines the result of a lot of other studies done in a specific field, and this meta-study combined 225 studies in happines that had examined the lives of 225.000 people.
The researchers concluded that while sucess does make you happier, there is an even stronger correlation in the opposite direction, ie. that happiness will make you succesful. The study also found that happy people are more optimistic, outgoing, likeable, motivated and energetic – all essential qualities for business success.
This means that we don’t have to sacrifice happiness for the sake of success – a depressingly common assumption today. In fact, the opposite is true: The happier you are, the more succesfful you’re likely to be.