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Feb 28, 2023

The Surprising Science Behind What Makes Us Truly Happy At Work

Being happy at work results in better health, more energy, higher quality of work, and richer social interactions.
The Surprising Science Behind What Makes Us Truly Happy At Work

Source: Shutterstock.

HR is all about having a Heart for People — or at least, that is what’s expected of HR professionals. But in always serving others, HR people also get overwhelmed by the insurmountable responsibilities put on their shoulders, so much so that 42% and 98% of them experience high stress and burnout.

The science of happiness

We all want to be happy. But what is happiness?

We define happiness differently based on how we live and the environment that honed our minds. Happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky said, “Happiness is the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

While it may seem like art to achieve a worthwhile life, there’s a lot of science to living happier.

Years ago, I stumbled upon Yale Professor Laurie Santos’ fantastic course on Happiness, the Science of Well-Being, which now has over 4 million participants. In her course, she shares what makes us happy and how to live a happier life, all based on research.

Miswanting: Why we’re bad at happiness

One of Laurie’s big concepts highlights quite an interesting fact: we are all terrible at knowing what makes us happy.

When asked what makes them happy, many would say a job promotion, a higher salary, buying new things, getting married, or looking better.

The research repeatedly proves that these things don’t make us happy. We’re so bad at predicting what will make us happy because we overestimate the happiness some of these “achievements” will make us. Yes, they make us feel good, but this happiness doesn’t last long.

Here’s the truth: we don't know what we want – a scientific concept called miswanting.

Source: Daan Van Rossum.

It’s relative

Let’s look at money as a potential source of happiness.

Each year in the United States, people spend over 70 billion dollars on lottery tickets, more than on books, music, movie tickets, sports tickets, and video games combined.

However, lottery winners are not happier than others. When they first hear the news, they’re happy, but after a while, they feel pretty much the same. And they go broke as fast as they become wealthy. In fact, lottery winners are more likely to declare bankruptcy within three to five years than the average American.

The same happens when you get a promotion or a higher salary. You feel a sense of pride about this accomplishment and happiness … for a while. But after a month or so, your new title and salary are ‘normal,’ and you return to your base level of happiness.

We don’t keep getting happier with more money, status, or anything else we typically work toward because happiness is relative.

Hedonism is the term for something that feels good – but that might be fleeting. And like when we’re on an actual treadmill, where you can keep running without an end in sight, if we keep running towards a promotion or salary raise (hedonic delights), we may forget to enjoy the current moment.

Source: Daan Van Rossum.

Additionally, if we think that that goal makes us happy, we’ll be very unhappy once we reach that goal. One month after that promotion, we may say: “is that it?” And we run towards the next one.

Then there’s the tendency to keep doing things even when we’re fully aware they don’t necessarily give us the happiness we want. This is called the knowing-doing gap: just because you know something doesn’t always mean you’ll put it into practice.

We must embrace that there is no way to happiness (at work); happiness is the way.

Eight ways to be happier at work

We go to work to make money and use that money to do the things we want to do. But if we don’t enjoy our time at work, we’re wasting a huge percentage of our lives. Why would we?

That’s why I’ve renewed my efforts to be happier at work. Here are the eight strategies that I’ve learned over the years researching workplace happiness.

1. Have a purpose.

Purpose has a highly valued, overarching goal you seek to pursue over the long term.

Professors Amy Wrzesniewski (Yale) and Jane Dutton (University of Michigan) found that having meaning and purpose in work makes you like your job more and improves your well-being. And if that wasn't enough, it may also please you to know that having a purpose makes you more agreeable, more social, healthier, and yes: happier.

Having a goal at work sounds simpler than it is. Of course, you might have simple, short-term goals, or maybe your dreams were some of the things we have now learned don't bring us real happiness, like a new title or higher salary. A big, long-term goal to live for and be energized around work daily isn’t easy.

To find your purpose, I would suggest you work on your Ikigai. Ikigai is a Japanese concept that refers to the reason for being. It’s the intersection of four key elements:

  • What you love.
  • What you are good at.
  • What the world needs.
  • What you can be paid for.
Source: Daan Van Rossum.

You can find detailed instructions on how to find your Ikigai here, or comment "Ikigai" on this post to join one of our upcoming online Purpose at Work workshops.

2. Set achievable intrinsic goals and feel a sense of accomplishment.

The "A" in Martin Seligman’s PERMA, the most well-known model for happiness, stands for Achievement.

Source: Daan Van Rossum.

A sense of accomplishment comes from working toward and reaching goals, mastering an endeavor, and having the self-motivation to finish your goals. Accomplishing goals contributes to happiness because you can look pridefully at your life.

Besides having a big goal, setting more immediately achievable goals and feeling a sense of accomplishment is important. Whether completing a course on a subject you want to improve, creating more connections at work, hitting a target, completing a project on time, or helping a colleague, small victories can make a big difference in how you feel about your job.

Celebrating your accomplishments is also an essential step.

It helps reinforce the positive emotions associated with the achievement and gives your brain a clear signal that you have achieved something significant. This can motivate you to continue pursuing your goals and set even bigger ones in the future.

3. Find a friend at work.

Positive relationships in the workplace can help you enjoy work more and contribute to better well-being.

Recent Gallup data support this notion, showing that having a best friend at work is critical for job satisfaction and has become even more so in light of the pandemic.

Having a work friend provides benefits such as making work more enjoyable, providing emotional support, and even improving job performance by allowing for better communication and collaboration.

This aligns with a finding of the longest study about happiness, the Harvard Study of Adult Development. People with warm relationships and who feel most connected to others even live longer. And those who feel most connected to their work friends also feel more engaged.

4. Don’t compare yourself to others.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” This quote, attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, is now cliche for a reason – it is true!

When you’re constantly comparing yourself to others, you may feel like you do not measure up, which can be discouraging and disheartening. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, frustration, and sadness.

Source: Daan Van Rossum.

Even the most successful people, like CEOs, can feel lonely and unhappy. This is a reminder that success and achievement are not the only things that bring happiness and that it’s important to focus on cultivating good relationships, finding meaning in our work, and experiencing new things.

5. Take control.

Having a sense of control and autonomy over your work life leads to increased happiness and reduced stress levels. People who can do more of what they are passionate about, and have control over the basic elements of their work environment, are significantly happier than those who do not.

In practice, this could mean deciding when and where to work, setting your priorities, or having some control over the projects you work on. Feeling like you have control over your work life can help you feel more engaged and fulfilled, leading to increased happiness and reduced stress levels.

This doesn’t mean having complete control over every aspect of your work life. It means having some control over the key elements that impact your work experience and feeling like you have a say in how things are done.

By having this sense of control, you can feel empowered and motivated, contributing to overall happiness and well-being at work.

6. Practice positive emotions.

Practicing positive emotions in the workplace has major perks. Focusing on the good in our work lives can boost your overall happiness, increase motivation, and even strengthen your relationships with coworkers.

You can practice your positive emotions by:

  • Expressing gratitude
  • Fostering hope
  • Smiling more

According to Barbara Fredrickson’s “Broaden-and-Build,” positive emotions turn into more positive emotions!

Source: Daan Van Rossum.

This theory states that positive emotions have a broaden effect, leading you to approach new challenges with a sense of curiosity and creativity, and a build effect, strengthening personal resources such as psychological resilience, physical health, and social connections.

So the next time you’re feeling stressed or down, try focusing on the things that make you happy and positive. It could be a project yo’'re excited about or a coworker who always makes you laugh. Whatever it is, give it some attention and let those positive emotions flow.

7. Find moments of Flow.

When was the last time you were so absorbed in your work that the time flew by? This is a concept called Flow, and it’s incredibly important to feel happier.

Flow, coined by the researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and in the PERMA model included as Engagement, happens when you hit the perfect combination of challenge and skills.

In Flow, our unique strengths are fully utilized and stretched, but not so much that we become overwhelmed or frustrated. This combination of challenge and skill creates a sense of mastery and accomplishment that can be incredibly satisfying.

To get into “Flow State,” create more blocks of time (multiple hours) in which you can slowly get more absorbed in your work. Make sure you won’t get interrupted by anything or anyone during this time by switching off notifications or even WiFi completely.

It’s also important to find activities that you are passionate about and good at, so you can enter a flow state more easily. By creating the conditions for flow, you can experience greater happiness and satisfaction in your work and life.

8. Draw your line.

Having a healthy work-life balance is essential for overall well-being and job satisfaction. Research from the World Health Organization has shown that people who struggle to balance work and personal life tend to experience burnout and stress, negatively impacting their health and happiness.

Especially in hybrid work, well-being can greatly suffer as work is always-on with fewer boundaries between life and work. As a result, 52% of employees in Singapore felt their workload had increased, while 36% experienced a decline in mental health.

To combat these negative effects, finding ways to manage your workload and prioritize self-care activities is crucial. Set boundaries between work and personal life, and make time for activities that promote physical and mental well-being, like exercise, mindfulness, and connecting with loved ones.

Make sure to alarm your employer when things get too much. Enough is enough; nothing is more important than your physical and mental well-being.

Read the full article on LinkedIn.