An Introduction to Happiness: Work

Over the last few weeks, I have been sharing this idea of being happy at work. Why? Because when you ask the members of Generation Z (the next generation coming into the workforce) what they value most in life, most have a simple answer: Happiness. Happy people are “12% more productive” than those who aren’t, according to a comprehensive study from the University of Warwick.

This week, I’m pursuing the idea that doing meaningful work can help people be happier. 

We Spend a Lot of Time at Work

When I talk about work in this post, I’m referring to the thing that we do for our “vocation.” The thing that we show up 40 hours a week to do for the majority of our lives. It doesn’t have to be a “typical” job we think about like working at a startup or large corporation. Rather, it’s the activity (or activities) we do to create and restore things to their best and highest use as a means to build thriving cultures. This can be done via almost any job—financial planning, art, computer programming, construction, being a parent, and so many more. The bottom line is that the way we spend the majority of our days is actually important.  

Most of us spend at least eight hours of our day pursuing some sort of vocation. The United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics now shows that the average American spends 8.8 hours a day at work, and many people work up to 12 hours a day. If we’re going to spend that much time doing something—and we don’t like it or it’s destructive to our bodies or souls—it’s probably not going to bring us that much happiness.

What the Research Says About Work and Happiness

  • Work keeps our minds sharp. Not only does work help older people stave off dementia, but it also has incredible benefits for younger people. “The work environment places demands on people,” said Michael Hurd, director of the RAND Center for the Study of Aging, to journalists and scholars at Age Boom Academy. “You have to socially interact. You’re forced to be there. People are forced to engage.” 
  • Work is also good for our mental health. There is increasing evidence coming out on how work contributes to our overall emotional well-being as much as exercise. For instance, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists reviewed research from 11 different studies and found that work “can be beneficial for an employee’s well-being, particularly if good-quality supervision is present and there are favourable workplace conditions.” 
  • Work can be good for our bodies. It keeps us feeling good/tired at the end of the day. I’ve mentioned this before, but in the book The Power of Full Engagement, the authors say that to get the highest quality of sleep, you need to be drained, both physically and mentally. It’s an interesting idea. If you are productive during the day, you’ll probably sleep better at night.
  • Finally, work can be good for our world. If we’re going to spend hours doing something, we can actually do something that creates and restores things to their best and highest use as a means to build thriving cultures. Meaning, because of “work,” we are afforded the time and energy to build things that have a lasting, positive impact on our communities. 

Many People Struggle with the Idea of Work

  • Many people don’t like to work in the first place. When the Conference Board surveyed employees, it found that a shocking 53% of people say they are unhappy at their jobs. Half of our workforce is unhappy at the place where they spend 40 hours per week. There are endless reasons people might be unhappy… Bad bosses. Colleagues they don’t get along with. Values misalignment. Boredom.
  • Many people view work as a means to an end. How often do we hear people just “wishing that Friday was here already”? Forget being fulfilled at work; they just want to get to the weekend. Or, for those who are older, wishing that they were already retired so they “don’t have to put up with this crap anymore.” People in this group are seeking an escape. They believe “the good life” only exists outside of work.
  • Many people view work as the ultimate thing in life that will bring them happiness, or as a vehicle that should always bring them happiness. This group of people sees success at work as the only thing that will bring them happiness. We’re especially seeing this with Generation Z. When asked what they value the most in the world and what they think will bring them fulfillment, 43% said more success would bring them ultimate fulfillment. Many times this leads to burnout because we won’t stop until we feel good or happy with some sense of success. And, study after study shows how much burnout is negatively affecting our work in negative ways. Adam Grant puts it perfectly:

How To Make Work Fulfilling

First, you may just need to leave your job. There are bad bosses. There are toxic work environments. It’s okay to leave. If 53% of people are unhappy in their workplaces, maybe you leaving will encourage your current employer to up their game and try to make your current work environment better for the next people joining your team.

Secondly, especially for those who see work as a means to an end, maybe it’s time to realize that work could be a place where you could find some passion. Instead of thinking about your job as “just being a server”, you could reframe your perspective and say, “My job is to provide great service so that people can connect with their loved ones over one of life’s gifts: great food.”

It also may be time for you to understand both your passion and if you can make that passion a reality. I personally don’t believe that we’ll find fulfillment in work unless we are good at what we do, love what we do, are meeting a need, and can get paid for that work. That lens for work came directly from the Japanese idea of Ikigai.
The belief is that we must do the following to find happiness in our jobs:

  • Figure out what we’re good at. We must be able to do something that we’re good at or we’ll constantly feel like we’re letting others down or be unable to reach the goals we set for ourselves. This can take years to figure out and requires testing ideas and seeking advice.
  • Understand what we love. While we can be good at something (I’m amazing at doing the dishes), it’s not always something we love doing. So, how can you figure out exactly what you love? One of the best resources I’ve found is the book Designing Your Life. If you’re struggling with what exactly to do in the world, go and get this book right now. 
  • Understand if the world needs it. You could love rollerblading and actually get paid for it. It could be something that people start obsessing over in 10 years. But, it’s also important to understand whether the world really needs it. Are you doing this just because it’s giving you a paycheck or because it’s truly helping the world? I don’t believe you can find true fulfillment unless you’re solving a problem the world is facing.
  • See if people will pay you for whatever you’re doing. You may be great at rollerblading and love doing it, but you probably can’t do it for a living because people aren’t willing to pay to watch or see you rollerblading.

Finally, we have to find the right relationship with work. While some use work as a “means to an end,” there is a whole other group of people who are defined by success at work and use work as a “means to happiness.”  Doing this, in many cases, leads to the burnout discussed above.

  • Create a life plan. This plan will include all of the areas in your life and what you think they will look like over the next 10 to 20 years.
  • Make “work” one of the key items on the life plan. But just one. Why? Because work is usually just one part of a person’s life. There is also family, children, spirituality, friendships, hobbies, exercise, net worth, etc.
  • Have very clear goals for each part of the life plan. Having those goals actually helps you define exactly what you think happiness looks like for you.

For next week, we’re going to dig into how goal setting helps us define happiness. That’s all for today, but keep an eye out for next week’s blog as we continue the discussion.