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Reflections on Happiness at the Workplace


When organizations and employees think about work satisfaction, they usually consider factors such as the attractiveness of the task, the quality of leadership, the friendliness of colleagues, company culture and brand, career opportunities or compensation and benefits. What is common with all of them is that they are external factors. And the problem with such external factors is that they are exposed to ‘hedonic adaptation:’ No matter how much we improve our circumstances, after a short boost in happiness, we accept them as the new normal, and we demand more.

People with higher and sustainable levels of happiness, on the other hand, work rather on their own attitudes and approaches. They do not make themselves too much dependable on external factors. For them, happiness is a practice. Research led by Amy Wrzesniewski has shown that people within the same occupation can see their work in different ways. Hospital janitors, for instance, can regard their work simply as a cleaning job or they might consider themselves as members of the healing team taking on responsibility for the patients’ well-being, cheering up them, supporting the nurses and doctors, helping visitors and thus expanding the meaning and scope of their work.

Pictured : Bülent Gögdün

This possibility of ‘job crafting’ shifts the attention back to us, to changes we can make with respect to how we define our roles. It is in our hand to add sense of purpose and, as a result, increase our well-being. However, in many discussions I have had with managers, I have found that there are three main issues that affect our happiness at work. The first issue is the continuously rising drumbeat in many organizations to meet ever tougher financial targets. Many executives feel trapped in a rat race that seems to go on endlessly. Furthermore, these financial goals, despite taking so much attention and energy, do not offer inspiration.

Indeed, a strategic goal like increasing the EBIT margin to 20% does not inject any excitement to most people. Such goals might be necessary, but they are utterly boring or, even worse, lead to enormous pressure that, in turn, crowds out satisfaction. The second issue is the focus on career. Status, power, and rewards seem to have almost a fatal appeal – obviously impressing others, gaining their admiration, and rising in relative rank were essential for our evolutional survival. As a result, we accept occupations and assignments that push us away from what we love to do. Or they bring too much pressure and politics. We might enjoy the achievement of the next career step for a while, but we might become unhappy in the long-run.

“There are steps we can take to increase our happiness: Every once in a while, we should pause and be consciously aware of what we appreciate in what we do”

While chasing after the acknowledgment of colleagues and boosting our self-esteem with accomplishments, we make ourselves dependent upon the opinion of others and vulnerable to burnout. The final important issue is the huge amount of expectations we put on work. What we do for a living has become a significant part of our identity. We expect from work pride and passion, meaning and fulfillment, career and growth – all at same time. No wonder that even a fancy dream job cannot fulfill these expectations.

But there are steps we can take to increase our happiness: Every once in a while, we should pause and be consciously aware of what we appreciate in what we do. This fights the hedonic adaptation. Last year, a successful surgeon made the headlines in Germany when he decided to finally fulfill his dream job: driving trucks. After one year, however, due to the heavy work conditions, he was back at work as a surgeon – I am sure with a lot more appreciation of the job.

We should not let our CV and our lifestyle become more important than the life itself. Of course letting go of financial benefits, special privileges, or fancy titles can hurt. But from the perspective of happiness, it is the better alternative to being stuck in a high-status job that we are too scared to leave.

Instead, we should nurture meaning. We should set goals that go beyond some key performance indicators and provide joy and a deeper sense of why. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery put it wonderfully: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” And finally, we should also dare to see our work simply as a job. It does not mean that we should not work hard and deliver results. In fact, I meet again and again very successful managers who tell me, with a wonderful smile in their faces, that they earn to live and do not live for work.

A job that offers a reasonable income, that enables us to do something decent with our time, that brings us together with some interesting people, has already a huge potential to make us happy – because such a view opens doors to richer and more rounded lives.

About the author Bülent Gögdün is program director at ESMT Berlin. He focuses on technology-based industries and executive coaching.

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