Work and Happiness

There’s a lot of people who aren’t happy at work. Aon Hewitt says it’s 39% of people.[1]  According to Gallup a whopping 70% of Americans aren’t engaged in their jobs.[2]  That’s a staggering number of people no matter which statistic you look at.  I’m using engagement data, but it’s not a massive jump to assume that people who aren’t engaged aren’t particularly happy at work.  So why aren’t people happy at work and should we even care?  I believe we should and we’ve been looking at it the wrong way all along.  We’ve been focussed on engagement and that has turned out to be a failure.[3] We should be looking for something more fundamental and that is happiness.  That sounds hippy but stick with me, it’s grounded in science and backed up by recent research.

The stories of Ben and the Queensland Air Museum

To start understanding why let’s take a look at two contrasting examples.  The first is a person I worked with a number of years ago, let’s call him Ben to protect his anonymity.  Ben viewed work as a daily grind.  He wanted to get ahead for a couple of reasons but mainly so he could say goodbye to work at a young age and do the things he “really wanted to do”.  The other way of describing this is retirement.  In Ben’s words he “was working the system”.  Most of us would know a number of people like Ben.

Contrast Ben with a completely different picture.  The Caloundra Air Museum in Queensland Australia is staffed by a wonderful group of volunteers who are all retired.[4]  The volunteers each work three full days a week or more.  This raises the question, why would people who are retired spend days every week working?  Some may come to the quick conclusion that volunteer work is cushy and isn’t real work. Talk to anyone that volunteers and you’ll quickly find this conclusion is wrong.  In my own experience volunteering at a community meals organisation I learnt that it was very much real work.  I liked my fellow volunteers and enjoyed the two years I spent doing this on a Saturday evening meal time, but it wasn’t a utopian experience.  It was rewarding but it was work.

Human beings are innately social and that brings with it a whole bunch of baggage, not the least of which is gossip and politics.[5]  The sort of communication difficulties any group experiences also occur in volunteer organisations.  This means volunteer workplaces are like almost every other workplace, it’s work coupled with the need to get along socially and communicate effectively.  So why do “retired” volunteers like those at the Queensland Air Museum do it?  Answering this question will illuminate what’s wrong with engagement initiatives in the workplace and why we need to focus on happiness instead.

Work and happiness and the Queensland Air Museum

Volunteers at the Queensland Air Museum. Photo credit – Cognology 2016

Understanding happiness

At this point we need to understand what happiness is.  According to Wikipedia it’s a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.  While that may be true it still doesn’t explain what happiness really is.  As unromantic as it sounds, at the biological level happiness is really a set of biochemical reactions in the brain involving neurotransmitters like serotonin.[6]  That’s why people with depression are prescribed drugs to help manage their brain chemistry.

Each person’s biochemistry creates a set level of happiness and range within which it can reach.  Unfair as this may sound this means some people are naturally more happy than others.  Things that impact a person’s happiness like sharing a joke or going to a concert may temporarily lift the brain chemistry and create happiness, but after the event the chemistry will return to baseline levels.  Understanding this is the key to why many engagement initiatives don’t work.

Temporary versus Lasting Happiness

So what creates lasting happiness?  The answer for most people would include family and friends.  The current popular narrative would also include travel.  Having as many different experiences as you can is thought to be a good thing.  But as much as I like travel myself it can only temporarily impact happiness.  There is also no sensation that you can have travelling that you can’t have in other ways. Travel is a consumption activity and that means it can only produce sensations during the act of consumption.[7] Put another way, travel only makes you happy while you are travelling.  Of course for many people travel is an escape precisely because they are not happy.

Very few people would list work as something that can create happiness.  Is it possible though that work can move the happy scale in a lasting way?  Let’s look at what the science says.

The Golden Triangle of Happiness

In 2015 Deakin University published research into what makes us happy.[8] According to the research ‘the golden triangle of happiness’ is strong personal relationships, financial control and sense of purpose.  The research notes that “no one element is sufficient in isolation”.  Luckily work provides all three of these elements.  It provides many people with a sense of purpose (more on this later) and it definitely provides financial control over your life.  Most people also form one or two lifelong friendships at work.

Golden triangle of happiness

Psychologists have long held that success makes people happy.  In the workplace this was translated as meaning that happiness was derived from successful events like promotion, successful attainment of a goal or financial success.  However in more recent years research has shown that happiness often precedes success.  This is an important finding because it means that happy people perform at a higher level and as a result are more successful financially.[9]

Negativity Surrounding Working

The link between work and happiness may be a surprising one for many.  But why is that?  These two quotes from Wikipedia provide us with a clue:

“Workplace happiness has been skewed by popular culture. There are negative images of work in contemporary media, such as the television show The Simpsons.”

“Children and adults have been encouraged to emphasize the negative and downplay the idea that jobs can actually contribute to happiness. Instead, people are prone to thinking that work only leads to unhappiness.”[10]

In short, work has been given a bum wrap.  But further research paints a different and highly compelling picture.  A joint team from the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of North Carolina discovered that a higher sense of purpose leads to greater health outcomes.  Conversely pleasure seeking or consumption based happiness, like the transitory examples I mentioned earlier in the article, resulted in poorer health outcomes.[11]   Researchers from Mt. Sinai St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, New York similarly found that “possessing a high sense of purpose in life is associated with a reduced risk for all-cause mortality and cardiovascular events”.[12]

Having a Purpose

A higher sense of purpose doesn’t necessarily mean something that would “put a dent in the universe” to use an expression of Steve Jobs.  It includes the simple timeless principles of a goal greater than yourself or being of service to others.  Indeed the research describes it as such.  For many people, work provides them with a sense of purpose and it’s one of the primary ways they will be of service to others.  Having a higher sense of purpose disables envy or the need to compare.

If you’re a reader of my blog you’ll know I’ve written quite a bit about engagement lately.  The science we’ve looked at helps us understand why many engagement initiatives aren’t producing the returns they were promising.[13]   Any initiative that focuses on some form of consumption, pleasure seeking or in the moment activities is likely to be counterproductive.  This is why we need to shift the focus from engagement to happiness.  But this needs to be done with a proper understanding of what happiness is and what creates it.

The science also helps us understand the answer to why retired people would volunteer to work at the Queensland Air Museum.  Doing something in the service of others, with others and for a purpose greater than themselves makes them happier people.  Contrast this to Ben who said he was “working the system”.  Rather than achieve the happiness he is looking for, the science shows he may be doing himself a disservice and risking poorer health in the process.  Does that mean people shouldn’t learn new skills and advance their career.  Of course not.

You Can’t Manufacture Happiness

From a practical perspective what does this mean for us as leaders?  The first step is to avoid any engagement initiatives that require us to manufacture fun.  The research clearly tells us these can be counterproductive.  Rather, each of the tools for creating a happy environment are based on what the research tells us makes people happy.  The good news is that the tools aren’t new.  They are simply leadership fundamentals.

It starts with purpose.  Senior leadership needs to communicate the very reason why the organisation exists.  It’s surprising how often this isn’t done.  If people don’t understand why the organisation exists then they are simply coming to work to earn a pay packet.  But when we communicate purpose and remind people of it regularly, people then have a reason greater than themselves and can understand how they can be of service to others.

Communicating purpose at work

The Importance of Alignment

Once the organisation’s purpose has been established, each person then needs to understand the purpose and expectations for their role.  In my experience many people receive a job description, but don’t understand why they do what they do and how it aligns with the organisation’s purpose.  This is important because the research tells us people with a purpose are happier and that happiness precedes success.  Often team members can get caught up on the hamster wheel of daily process, emails and interruptions.  It’s easy in these circumstances for people to lose sight of what their role is meant to do and the importance of that to the group’s success.

To cooperate people need shared beliefs and an understanding of the way to do things.  These are commonly referred to as “values” and leaders need to live, breathe and communicate them.  Imagine one team member who values quality and another who values getting things done as quickly as possible.  It’s easy to see in this circumstance that this will create disharmony.  This is why values need to be part of the recruiting process and everyday organisation life.  It helps people align themselves to each other and be able to work together on a shared understanding.

The Leader’s Role in Creating Alignment

One of the most critical parts of a leader’s role is to ensure people are constantly aligned.  This includes keeping people working towards the vision of the future and helping to resolve roadblocks and issues that occur.  It also includes the tough conversations that need to happen occasionally to resolve performance problems and interpersonal issues.  If the leader doesn’t have these, the whole team pays by being dragged down into a poor state.  A monthly one on one is a useful tool for doing this because it allows a two way conversation and understanding to develop.

For a leader all of this can be summarised as communicating purpose, expectations and keeping people aligned to it and to each other.  Yet happiness isn’t the responsibility of the leader.  One of the unintended outcomes of the focus on employee engagement has been to miscommunicate to people that their happiness at work is the organisation’s responsibility.  When you think about it there is no such thing as an organisation, there is only the people within it.  So which person is responsible?  Of course there is no one person responsible.  Each person needs to take responsibility for their own happiness.  This means understanding the reason behind why their role exists and finding happiness in the provision of that service to others.  Rather than seeking to climb the ladder as fast as we can, we need to choose our workplaces carefully based on a match between what we value and what the organisation values.  If we can do that, we are more likely to be working with people who believe in similar things and who enjoy what they do on a day to day basis.

Naturally there are limits. Happiness in this article shouldn’t be taken to mean some sort of utopian joyessness.  The reality of coming to work on a Monday morning after a relaxing weekend will still be there.  Ups and downs will always occur.  But there’s an important message for our own wellbeing in understanding why the volunteers choose to work at the Queensland Air Museum.




Jon Windust

Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Onboarding, Performance and Learning software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.