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This is what makes people happy at work, according to science

December 12, 2021
Borderless Leadership

In a time when so many workers are searching for greener pastures, many of us are giving more thought to what type of work feels meaningful. After all, if you have a full-time job, then you’re spending a significant fraction of your waking hours each week at work, thinking about work, and/or commuting to and from your office. As a result, it’s only natural you’d like to be happy and satisfied with the work that you’re doing.

There has been a lot of research on this topic.

To kick things off, it’s worth distinguishing between overall satisfaction with your work and your momentary happiness. You may love your job and feel completely satisfied with your career path and still have moments at work in which you’re not happy or enjoying what you do. Satisfaction is a long-term state, while happiness is something that happens in the moment.

Studies that explore what makes people satisfied typically ask people about their overall satisfaction, and then relate differences between people in their responses to aspects of the job. Studies that look at momentary happiness focus on particular events. These studies might stop people at particular times of the day to ask what they are doing and about the positive or negative emotions they’re experiencing, or they might have them reflect back over the day and think about activities and emotions.

There are different frameworks that do a good job of predicting people’s satisfaction with their job. One focuses on the degree to which people see their job as a calling or a vocation. A calling is a job that serves a cause that has more societal impact than just the specific tasks. It provides a benefit to others and connects the daily tasks to a more significant theme. People who see their work as a calling are more satisfied with their jobs than people who do not.

You might think that seeing work as a calling can only happen if you have a high-level job in an organization, or work at a nonprofit, but that isn’t the case. Anyone who feels their work is connected to a broader purpose can experience work as a calling, regardless of the specific tasks their job requires.

A second approach draws on a framework called “Job Characteristics Theory.” The idea here is that there are five dimensions of your job that are likely to increase your satisfaction with your work. These are:

  • The job requires a variety of skills and activities to do well, so you perform many tasks.
  • You get to shepherd tasks from start to finish rather than just working on a small piece of the puzzle.
  • The job has broader significance (which relates to the “calling orientation” I just described).
  • You have freedom to do your work without significant micromanagement or oversight.
  • You get frequent and timely feedback about whether your efforts are succeeding.
  • The more your job displays these characteristics, the more satisfied you’re likely to be with your work.

Whether you find your overall work satisfying, what does science have to say about your momentary happiness as the day goes along?

Some studies look just at the amount of enjoyment people get from the activities they perform. Studies like this suggest that of all the things people do during the day, the only thing people enjoy less moment-to-moment than working is commuting to work. They also enjoy their time with coworkers and bosses less than they enjoy their time with friends and family. When you just look at average levels of happiness, then, the story of work doesn’t look so good.

But, there are definitely work events that make you happy. Obviously, successes make you happy. Completing a project, closing a sale, or contributing a great idea feel good in the moment. In addition, any activity in which you think quickly feels good in the moment. For example, having a great conversation in which the ideas flow, or making a lot of progress on a report or computer program, will feel good.

Research relating to the job characteristics mentioned in the previous section also suggests that doing something out of the ordinary for your job, which relates to the positive aspects of job satisfaction, will make you happy. For example, if you generally have someone looking over your shoulder at work, and you get a chance to do a project without a lot of oversight, you will enjoy that.

This research is valuable because it suggests things you can do to maximize your overall satisfaction with your work, as well as to increase your daily enjoyment of the work you’re doing. Even when you don’t have a lot of control over the particular tasks that are part of your work day, you do have a choice about how you perceive them.

By Art Markman


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