What makes us happy at work?
Boredom and Happiness at Work
Results of a PCP poll for the TDA on 2113 graduates aged 21 to 45.
Boredom Rating for Graduates (out of 10):
This survey was commissioned by a teaching agency!
The Happiest Professions
According to the City & Guilds Happiness at Work Index some of the happiest graduate jobs were (in order):
A survey by the TUC found that employees in small businesses are more satisfied at work. They were also found to be the most committed and loyal to their organisations. They also felt most engaged by their employer and had the most freedom to choose their working patterns. There were far fewer reports of bullying, lower stress levels and less complaints about long working hours.
The Chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses said "In terms of the way they treat their staff, small businesses consistently out perform their bigger competitors. Small business owners know that the greatest asset is their staff and they are more likely to treat them as individuals and recognise their needs. By having a committed and loyal workforce that has a say in how the organisation is run, the smallest business has a bigger advantage."
Having said this larger organisations do tend to offer higher initial salaries, better training and more chance to specialise.
See our page on Working in smaller organisations
People who have set up their own business tend to be happier. They take responsibility for their own future, and take control of their own destiny. Self employed people are happier about their work-life balance even though they work the longest hours - because they have more control over their time. See our self employment page for more about this.
Research by Sonya Lyubomirsky (University of California) using data for over 250,000 people found that being happy lead to higher incomes, greater productivity and quality of work, more satisfying and longer marriages, more friends, stronger social support, and richer social interactions, more activity, energy, and flow, and better physical health.
A study in 2007 by Nattavudh Powdthavee found that meeting regularly with friends, relatives and neighbours had the same effect on your happiness as a large increase in salary. Being married or living together was also highly beneficial.Factors reducing happiness at work include:
- The length of your commute to work
- Long working hours
- Having to relocate to a new area to get a job (as you lose some contact with friends and relatives)
- Tight deadlines
"People who value money, more than other goals are less satisfied with their income and with their lives as a whole."
Prof. Martin Seligman
Materialistic people tend to be more unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives. They tend to be self centered and this is detrimental to happiness. Research found that those who spent a higher proportion of their income on friends, family and others ended up significantly happier than those who treated themselves to luxuries.
- Lack of control
- Being unemployed.
How important is money?
The Easterlin Paradox
The economist Richard Easterlin found a paradox: high incomes do correlate with happiness, but long term, increased income doesn’t correlate with increased happiness.
Researchers examined 37 countries over the long term (measurements were made over 22 years) and found that happiness ratings within a country didn't increase with income. In China, S. Korea, and Chile, per capita income doubled is less than two decades yet all these countries showed slight declines in happiness. Easterlin said "We may need to focus policy on urgent personal concerns such as health and family life, rather than on the mere escalation of material goods."
Money is surprisingly not particularly important once you have enough to meet all your basic requirements. Extra money doesn't make you much happier. A pay rise does make you happy but only for a short while as you quickly become adapted to it.This is because we rapidly get used to what we have (see the hedonic treadmill below).
In the UK, life satisfaction has decreased since the 1970’s despite a 60% rise in Gross Domestic Product in that time, again showing that buying and owning consumer goods makes no difference to well being. In 1998 Bhutan allowed in television and the Internet into the country for the first time (previously they had been banned). This lead to an almost immediately increased craving for a Western lifestyle and products and an increased dissatisfaction with life - see the hedonic treadmill below.
A new job, house or car gives a short term boost, but quickly get accustomed to it. Having your finances under control (e.g. not being in debt) is more important than a large wage, although earning less than most of the people you know also affects your happiness (keeping up with the Joneses). There is a higher occurrence of depression in those who think happiness comes via money, fame, and beauty.
After several years lottery winners revert to their previous levels of happiness.
Winning £1M doesn't add to self esteem, in fact, after a short term boost in happiness most lottery winners go back to their old levels of happiness and sometimes even lower as they no longer have their old goals to aim for. They feel a sense of hollowness that may make them want to work again.
Some recent research found that mice preferred treats that they had to work harder to get suggesting that the old adage; “The harder you work for something, the more you appreciate it.” is true for animals as well as humans!
Rewards such as bonuses provide a short term boost to performance but ultimately reduce long term motivation. Performance related pay and the carrot and stick approach have little or no long term value in motivating staff.The real value of money lies in it's power to buy you freedom and security. By saving money you also partially insulate yourself from stress.
Money DOES buy:
- security ( = greater freedom from stress)
- more time to enjoy life
- greater freedom to do what you want
- the chance to educate yourself and to enrich your life, for example, by travel
- the ability to help others who have less than you have.
Many people confuse happiness with sensual or sensory pleasures: those obtained from alcohol, food, sex, drugs, money and sun drenched beaches! Sensual pleasures are highly enjoyable whilst they last but tend to be short lived. They are a quick hit. They produce a temporary, ephemeral lift: instant but transient and superficial gratification. The high doesn't last and eventually becomes unfulfilling: rather like eating chocolate but nothing else: wonderful at first, but ultimately unsustainable. It has also been called "Hollywood happiness".
A study by researchers at McGill University found that dopamine (a neurotransmitter in the brain
All the desirable things in life are either illegal, expensive or fattening or married to someone else.
Too many people buy things they don't need, with money they haven't got, to impress people they don't like.
responsible for good moods) is released when you listen to music you enjoy. Even when you have listened to it many times, it can still arouse feelings of euphoria and craving.
The problem with sensual pleasures is something called the Hedonic treadmill. The high you get via sensual pleasures is produced by dopamine; a brain neurotransmitter associated with addiction: the pleasure you get is rapid but unfortunately doesn't last long - you need more and bigger hits to achieve same effect: more alcohol, drugs or whatever. It's called this because it's similar to a treadmill where you have to keep running just to stay in the same place. If you experience a constant sound, smell or image it eventually disappears from your awareness. We quickly become familiar with new sources of pleasure and so the pleasure lessens: enjoyment quickly fades as we get same experience every day.
This leads to a vicious circle of desire with a negative comedown afterwards: the bigger stomach you get or the increased bills can lead to you despising yourself. You therefore need to increase the dose or move to a new source.
Advertisers have a vested interest in keeping the treadmill in place. Our consumer society constantly encourages us to spend leading to increased materialism. We keep comparing ourselves with others to reinforce our identity.
A new study by researchers at McGill University found that dopamine is also released when you listen to music you enjoy. Even when you have listened to it many times, it can still arouse feelings of euphoria and craving!
How to break the treadmill
- You've already made the first step: just understanding the treadmill and how it works is an important start.
- Try to avoid sources of temptation: turn off the adverts on TV for example, or watch them analytically to see how they work on you.
- Try to separate what you want (desire) from what you really need (essentials). You may find that well over half of the things you buy are in the first group!
Also see the BBC article Shopping: The new tactics to get you spending
What motivates us at work?
Happy people tend to be successful at work, but surprisingly it's not your success that causes you to be happy, conversely it's your being happy which tends to cause your success.
Research has identified the following factors which make us happy at work:
- Autonomy means having some control over your work: managing your own time and making decisions on what you do when. Employees who have control over the tasks they have to do have greater job satisfaction and lead more fulfilling lives. People really dislike being told what to do!
Self employed people are happier about their work-life balance even though they work the longest hours - because they have more control over their time. They take responsibility for their own future, and take control of their own destiny.
People working for smaller organisations also tend to be happier.
Studies have suggested that autonomy is twenty times better at predicting happiness than income. People with high income but little autonomy are usually much less happy than people with a low income but control over what they do, so if you can find ways of controlling your life, you can be happy even on a low income.
Autonomy is also related to health: the Whitehall Study study found that Civil Servants at lower grades had much poorer health than those at higher grades who had more control over their work.
- Mastery means being able to use and improve the skills that you enjoy using: see our Strengths page for more about this.
People find it gratifying to exercise control. Our brains want to control the experiences we are about to have. Being effective - changing things, influencing things, making things happen - is one of the fundamental needs; with which human brains seem to be naturally endowed. Our desire for control is so powerful and the feeling of being in control so rewarding that people often act as though they can control the uncontrollable. The feeling of control …. is one of the wellsprings of mental health.
This is related to being involved in "Flow" activities (see below) where we feel completely immersed in the activity.
- Purpose involves making a difference, understanding that what you do has value and having goals that you believe in (see below).
- Having a variety of tasks to do.
- Having friends at work.
- Working in an environment that allows you to focus on your work without being distracted.
- Living close to where you work. The longer your commute to work, the less happy you are likely to be, and people who are able to walk or cycle to work are likely to be even happier: the exercise they get will have an impact but also the lack of stress of sitting in traffic jams or waiting for a late train. In short, they are in control of their journey to work.
A study by Bruce Headey ( University of Melbourne) found that people who placed a higher priority on altruistic behaviours and family goals had a long-term increase in life satisfaction. Those who prioritised career and material success, however, experienced a lasting decline.
People with partners who scored highly on tests for neuroticism were more likely to be and to stay unhappy as long as the relationship lasted.
People who attended church regularly were on average happier than people who were not religious. Women reported being significantly less happy if obese whereas being overweight had no effect on men's happiness!
Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.
We want to feel that we matter and that we make a difference, that we are contributing to something worthwhile and doing what is "right". There is a direct brain-based link between helping others and happiness. Finding meaning in what you do gives long term inner satisfaction. When we think what we do matters we feel that we are being productive and useful. Having a job or activity which embodies your values: there is a saying that you do a job for the money, a career - for the status, but a calling or vocation (e.g. the priesthood) because you care: you would do it even if you weren't paid. People who pursue goals late in life (e.g. by continuing to work) tend to live longer than those who opt for a life of leisure.
Doing something for those less well of than yourself is also an excellent cure for self pity. "By making someone else happy you secure your own happiness".
This could involve:
- Improving yourself: getting fit, losing weight or improving your mind by studying.
- Helping others: supporting your family and friends. It's not what you take out of relationships that counts, it's what you put in. People who try to help friends, family and community tend to live longer.
- Improving the world: this could be a social or an environmental goal such as voluntary work at a nature reserve: fundraising for a charity or helping the homeless or starving people in a developing country,
See our voluntary work page for lots of ideas on how to get involved.
Flow is the state reached when we are so immersed in an activity that we cease to notice the passage of time and have deep, effortless involvement. Time seems to stop. Our happiness is greatest at such times. Sports people call this "being in the zone" and mystics as being in an ecstatic state. It is the full involvement in flow, rather than happiness achieved from sensory pleasures that makes for excellence in life. It produces deep, long lasting satisfaction, rather than temporary cheerfulness.
|This could involve acquiring a new skill or improving one you already have: learning a language, improving your computing skills or playing a musical instrument or sport, improving your cooking skills, successfully mending your car, DIY, creating art or craft works, learning to dance and successfully growing plants.
Hot Courses www.hotcourses.com is a database of almost all courses in the UK which can be searched by location or type of course.
Enjoying doing something you are good at: you feel you are doing exactly what you most enjoy doing and don't want it to finish. Identifying your strengths and skills and then using and improving these in your work, relationships and leisure interests gives a deep and lasting source of satisfaction. It makes you forget all your worries, and gives you a great sense of control and the satisfaction of a job well done.
- there may be a rapid learning curve.
- it involve concentration.
- It involves a challenge: it will stretch our mind or body.
This involves becoming immersed in trying to reach a challenging goal. See our action planning page for tips on setting and achieving goals.
The secret is to have goals that are
- clear and require appropriate responses
- broken down into clearly defined steps.
- compatible with what we want
- you get feedback on your performance: for example in a game you know immediately whether you've won or lost or being thanked for what you have done.
- which require effort and stretch us, so they keep us engaged and allow us to improve our skills: joining a new club, starting a hobby, sport or career.
- problems need to be solved but not so difficult that we give up in despair: you have a good chance of success. If the challenge exceeds our skill level, we simply become more anxious.
- effort and discipline are required: you may need to learn how to persist when things get tough.
- skill is required: you may need to develop your skills to be successful. Choose activities that fit your personality, values, abilities. Think of what you already enjoy doing and do something similar.
- you feel a sense of control
- The learning involved means that your brain is fed with constantly changing positive experiences that prevent the hedonic treadmill from turning.
Life satisfaction is greatest for those involved in short term goals which are enjoyable, not too difficult; and done in cooperation with others. Focus on one objective at a time and always have the next goal in mind. To accomplish more difficult tasks, break them down into components. The most satisfaction comes from pursuing an objective, not simply from achieving it. - Ari Kiev
Zig Ziglar quotes
- Money won't make you happy .... but everybody wants to find out for themselves.
- Unless you have a definite, precise, clearly set goals, you are not going to realize your maximum potential.
- You can have everything in life that you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.
It’s almost easier to come second because then you still have something to aim for. When you win, you suddenly feel lost. You buy a shiny car, only to glimpse it’s superficiality. You win a promotion, only to find the job was not all you dreamed of. Even Olympic winners fall victim to an echoing sense of anticlimax: they have nothing more to aim for. Evolution makes us feel miserable after triumph, so we can disengage and focus on the next challenge. If goal fulfillment induced indefinite periods of contentment, we would be robbed of all future motivation.
- The work has clear goals and rules of performance.
- You get feedback on your performance: increased sales or feedback from customers or your manager.
- A good work environment should encourage concentration and minimise distractions
- The difficulty of the work should match your skills (unless you've been over or under-promoted!).
Flow is often experienced in games such as chess or football because they have goals and rules that make it possible for the player to act without questioning what should be done, and how. For the duration of the game the player lives in a self-contained universe where everything is black and white.
Research at Massachusetts Hospital found that an 8 week course of half an hour a day in mindfulness meditation led to structural changes in the brain. Mindfulness meditation focuses on non-judgmental awareness of sensations & feelings.
Brain scans were taken of 16 participants before & after the training. Increases in density in the hippocampus (responsible for learning & memory) were found & decreased density in the amygdala (responsible for anxiety & stress responses), showing that the way we feel (calm or anxious) can be correlated with real structural indicators in the brain.
Meditating doesn't just give a sense of peace & relaxation, but appears to give benefits in mental & emotional well-being, memory, sense of self, empathy & reduced stress that persist long term. Regular meditators have reduced levels of negative emotion, increased well being & improved immune responses.
Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.Don't underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can't hear, & not bothering.
Winnie the Pooh!There is more to life than increasing its speed.
GandhiStress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency.
Flow is rarely experienced in passive leisure activities, such as watching television or relaxing. Reading books leads to a lot of flow experiences whereas watching television rarely produces flow.
Flow activities need an initial investment of effort before they start to become enjoyable. If you are tired, anxious, or lack the self discipline to overcome that hurdle, you may go for relaxation rather than flow activities. You need some time to do nothing; relax on a sunny beach reading a novel, or just watching TV but it should be in proportion.
Holidays can help to clear your mind & to look at your situation from a new perspective. Getting rid of all the unused junk in your home to produce a tidy, uncluttered environment, can also help.
Relationships can of course also have a profound effect on your happiness but this is dependent on the whims of your partner. Flow happiness is of our own making.
Flow can also be achieved via prayer or meditation - being in the moment. Flow can even be achieved when doing routine tasks: doing the washing up or peeling potatoes, if we approach these tasks with a state of mindfulness (total absorption in the task to do it as well as we possibly can). See the Zen saying "Chop wood, carry water!" (see box on right.)
Lower blood pressure which is related to your state of relaxation is also correlated with happiness. Average blood pressure is lower in Ireland, Holland, Denmark and Sweden than in Germany and Portugal and people have been found to be happier in the first group of countries than the latter.
Blanchflower and Oswald, Journal of Health Economics
Flow is not always positive. Gambling can put you into a flow state, and if not controlled it can have addictive tendencies: for example, a workaholic may neglect other aspects of their lives such as their families
For more on flow see the research done by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Flow usually occurs when you are doing your favorite things
Research in the US found that teenagers experienced flow in
Yet these teenagers spent four times more of their free time watching TV than involved in hobbies or sports.
For further information see
- Professor Martin Seligman's research on this
- Positive Psychology www.positivepsychology.org.uk/pp-theory/strengths.html.
- See the brilliant Youtube video called RSA Animate about what motivates us to work www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc.
- Drive by Dan Pink
Also see our pages on Coping with being unemployed/Maintaining your morale and Striving for excellence
A King was going to his palace after his rounds in the city when he met a beggar. He asked the beggar, “What would you like?”
The beggar laughed and said, “You are asking me as though you can fulfill my desire!”