New article says happiness at work is impossible. I don’t buy it. Surprise :)

An article called The Dangers of Viewing Work as Play by Zeesham Aleem makes some great points about shifting working conditions and the need for organized labor, but then goes on to argue that being happy at work is basically impossible.

I found the article because I’m mentioned in it:

Google is known for promising outstanding quality of life to many of its employees, from its cafeterias to its napping pods.

Alexander Kjerulf, a consultant who calls himself The Chief Happiness Officer, wrote a book called Happy Hour is 9 to 5. Ideally, the knowledge worker is able to make play out of work.

Sounds great, right? But no, that’s not how things are according to Aleem:

But reconceptualizing work as fulfilling doesn’t alter its ultimate infringement on leisure.

Enjoyable work at a desk still takes a toll on the body and the mind. The non-physical nature of labor masks the fact that on average, knowledge workers peak in productivity after their sixth hour of work.

But most importantly, no matter how much you love your job, it’s time that generally isn’t under one’s control — time that could be spent on health, family, friends, community and doing things that can alter the conditions of society.

Got that? No matter how you dress it up, at the end of the day work is hard, unpleasant, out of your control, bad for you and takes time away from all the other things you would rather be doing.

This is presented as just the way things are and even worse as the way they should be with Benjamin Franklin as the role model:

Franklin represented an attitude toward work that coupled industry with frugality, the signature sign of grace according to Calvinist doctrine. Hard work was an end in itself

This attitude towards work is all-pervasive in the Western world and has been for thousands of years. Just yesterday I mentioned it as a prime example of some of our most pernicious work-related cognitive illusions. But it’s still wrong for two reasons.

First, it’s factually wrong.There are and always have been plenty of people who love what they do, who come home from work fulfilled and energized and for whom work is a beneficial influence in their lives.

Secondly, this attitude is morally wrong because it’s hurting people. This attitude towards work is one of the main reasons why so many people accept stressful jobs, jerk bosses and bad working conditions.

Let me say this very clearly: If your work brings you down, drains your energy and makes you stressed and frustrated then something is wrong. This is not something that should be accepted or (even worse) idolized and sought out.

Work can make you happy and it should make you happy. Why anyone would argue otherwise is beyond me.

Your take

What do you think? Is work ultimately a draing on your time and resources? Or can it actually be a net-positive influence in your life? Please write a comment, I’d love to hear your take.

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9 thoughts on “New article says happiness at work is impossible. I don’t buy it. Surprise :)”

  1. “But reconceptualizing work as fulfilling doesn’t alter its ultimate infringement on leisure” and ” it’s time that generally isn’t under one’s control” — then, real life is leisure, and work has to be a pain because it prevents you from *living*. The depressing conclusion of his article seems to be that the worker is thus, by definition, a slave.

    Work *can* make you happy as long as work is *living* ie it enables people to act as autonomous beings and participate to society. Work *should* make you happy if you are to be a real human being, not a slave.

    But that’s not how the world works at the moment. So it’s a matter of individually saying, “no”, and finding one’s own path. It’s a risky journey, and I can understand it’s somewhat reassuring to repeat, “nah, there’s not way I can be happy at work…”.

    Until you find enough courage to move to: “this has to stop”.

  2. Couldn’t resist sending this lyric from Tony Bennett’s “Are you havin’ any fun” (which was playing as I read the post):

    Are you havin’ any fun?
    What y’gettin’ out o’ livin’?
    What good is what you’ve got
    If you’re not havin’ any fun?

    Just substitute “workin'” for “livin'”.

    This is all about how we think about work and what I can do for us, rather than what it takes out of us.

    Having said that, it is not an easy task to be having fun in overwhelmingly negative, dull or meaningless organizations. But, one can’t wait for these old ships to turn around, so if you really want more happiness, satisfaction, gratification and meaning from your work, you will have to create it yourself.

    Alex has lots of great ideas to help you get started!

  3. Mr. Kjerulf, I appreciate the thought-out commentary. I do think you have refuted a man of straw rather than my argument, though. At no point do I say that work is “hard, unpleasant” or “bad for you.” And there is nothing in my short piece at odds with the idea that “there are and always have been plenty of people who love what they do.” In fact, I love what I do. You are in fact reinscribing the very issue I’m trying to problematize — that loving work has nothing to do with the implications of the extension of the work day and the corrosion of the line between work and life via technologies such as email. I’m not saying work takes a toll on your body and your mind because it’s bad; I’m saying it does that because ANY human commitment by definition requires expenditure of your resources. What I’m trying to prompt is a revaluing of unadulterated free time, which has nothing to do with liking work. I am not familiar with your work, but there isn’t reason to assume that we are entirely at odds. I encourage you to take a closer look at my piece. Cheers!

  4. Zeeshan, you invited criticism on yourself by calling out Alex without it actually adding value to your fragmented argument.

    Your conclusion seems to indicate that you are in favor of advocating a strict 40hr work week for the well being of workers and that the constant-connected technology worker is not being allowed to disconnect due to the prevalence of smartphones and email. This is neither her nor there on the concept of working hard, enjoying what you do, or being happy at work.

    You actually seem to muddy your argument with references to Alex and the citations to Ben Franklin.

    What you seem to be indicating, but don’t say, is that there is a slippery slop if by enjoying your job you let it take over and wreck your work-home balance. Companies like Google can contribute to this by making it more comfortable to stay at work.

    If you’ve read Alex’s stuff, you know that he highly encourages 30hr workweeks that you cite in your article.

  5. As I see it the problem is the implicit separation between work and life. For most of us work, in whatever form it takes, is an integral part of life. Whether you work a 40 hour week or a 30 hour week, the fact is that you spend a significant part of your waking life working. Therefore if you don’t enjoy what you are doing you are effectively wasting your life.

    Being happy at work does not turn work into play. However, you have to enjoy what you to do to be happy at work. That is key and any argument that suggests that work is “competing” with leisure and “the good things in life” turns it into drudgery and is unhelpful and counterproductive.

  6. Being happy at work is definitely possible, in part because many people (not all) have a basic desire to be productive. I do agree that the idea of work as play can be taken too far, especially when it’s used as an excuse to let work interfere with employees having a good balance between work and personal commitments. The company I work for does a great job at trying to make work enjoyable between 9-5, but they don’t bring in food to encourage you to work late, have laundry services so you don’t leave, or have a gym in the office. They want you to go home and see family, take a trip, or just play video games with friends!

  7. Yes if a work or a job doesn’t make you happy at all then quit.You will not grow as an employee and as a person if you are not happy of what you are doing.

  8. That wasn’t the point of Mr. Aleem’s argument though. What he is saying is that unless you work by yourself and for yourself, with no clients, you are going to in some aspects be doing what other people tell you to do. You might get to choose how to do what they tell you to do, but unless you are rich or you want to lose a lot of money fast, you do not get the chance to say no. Certainly there is some flexibility here, but overall, he is correct. Even if work is a great part of your day, most jobs do not let you do whatever you want, constantly challenge yourself, relax and have fun, and/or spend time with loved ones. Would be great if that were the case.

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