Why being happy at work matters for people

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

Happiness leads to success

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.

10 thoughts on “Why being happy at work matters for people”

  1. I think you should expand on this:

    This is where it get interesting: Studies show that happy people are more succesful than others.

    Talk about those studies, talk about the happy people and their improved success.

    If you incontrovertibly tie happiness to improved business metrics, then Happiness at Work could be the next big management trend (here’s hoping!) The response I often encounter when talking about happiness at work is “that’s why they call it work–you’re not supposed to be happy.” But if you show folks with this old-school mindset that they can make more money by embracing the creation of an environment where ppl are happy, you’ll have accomplished your goal of making the world a happier place :)


  2. Updated with study of how happiness leads to success.

    Thanks for tip, Kareem! THIS is why I’m writing the book on the blog – this kind of feedback is priceless!!

  3. i think the can also make you happy and when you are the succesful person you are the boss of the surrounding . you can make a person to laugh to cry and to be at you nearest or to be at your farest. you can buy something you like of your own interset . you are self dependent you are the boss . i really appreciate to be happy is the best medicine to the sucess but there is something where you have to be the hard worker. when ypu are the hard worker you slowly become the smart worker , all this happens only when you are the hard worker. the smiles can never make it can only make you chaerish . after you are charged you have to start working and there fore i think working is the best medicine

  4. Rupesh, I have to disagree with your observation that you learn to be the SMART worker only when you are the hard worker. Of course there are exceptions for everything, but basically someone who has too much focus on only working hard creates a vacuum or tunnel vision if you will – you box yourself in.

    You can learn to work smart without having to find it after years or hard work, which in itself does not always open you up to being able to work smart. When you work smart you actually expend less energy in working. Working smart means that you work efficiently, and to work efficiently you need to utilize everything you have available to you. Using all of your available resources must include as wide a perspective as you can bring into your personal view – and in order to do this you have to be open to all concepts, those you know of, those that others bring to you, and those that come from pure inspiration, which is spirit.

    Being happy or working happy, raises your vibration, it attracts more to you! So when you are in a happy sate, a state of higher vibration, everything is going to flow easier than when you are in a fixed and focused state which can close you down. Being happy allows you to open your channels of awareness which in turn leaves you open to infinite possibility. And infinite possibility as always the most productive state you can be in no matter what you are trying to achieve.

    Sometimes letting go can bring you much more than holding on to tightly. For instance… let’s say you are working on an issue or problem at work that is really getting to you because you can’t find an optimum solution. You slave away at work daily even working into the late evening. Co-workers ask you to join them after work just to hang out and chat. But you are determined to solve your work problem and you stay behind at the office to forge on. When you start to shut out the world around you for the sole purpose of focusing on your work, you begin to close down your windows of opportunity that could very well help you to solve your problem.

    Letting go will very often take you out of your boxed in focus and open you back up to the realm of infinite possibility. Perhaps if you were to let go of the work and join your coworkers for a little rest and relaxation, you could find that when you least expect it, you become inspired by something you see, or by something a coworker says that leads you to a new perspective that will actually help you to solve the very issue you have been working so hard on.

    This is just a random example… but I just want to point out that being happy, following your joy, and learning to go with the flow is a process of raising your vibration into the positive, which opens you up to the infinite.

    A little fun and happiness can often go a long way!

  5. As a long time fan/reader, I was browsing your archives and came upon this post. Good insights, as to be expected. Everyone else has already followed up on the other points, so there is only one thing I would like to add – you mention the ‘protestant work ethic’

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