The pursuit of happiness in a working life

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” the US declaration of independence describes as ‘unalienable rights’. Many in the US and all over the world are trying to be happy. But what does it mean to ‘be happy’? Can we measure that? What actually makes people feel happy? And how is it connected to work?

Fragments of the US Declaration of Independence. Bottom fragment highlights one of its most famous phrases.
Two types of happiness

Psychologists distinguish between ‘subjective well-being’ and ‘psychological well-being’ when researching happiness.

Subjective well-being

Subjective well-being (SWB) is influenced by pleasure, pain and a sense of life satisfaction. It defines well-being in terms of hedonism; experiencing well-being ‘in the moment’. The ‘life satisfaction’ component expresses general evaluation of one’s own life. The pleasure or pain effects are usually temporary, just like the events that cause them – we revert back to the mean of our experienced well-being level.

Psychological well-being

Psychological well-being (PWB) defines happiness in terms of factors that make for a ‘good life’ (derived from Aristotelian eudaimonia). Factors determining PWB are: autonomy, ‘positive relations with others’ and ‘self-efficacy & self-congruency’. This latter factor can in turn be described in terms of ‘environmental mastery’, ‘personal growth’, ‘purpose in life’ and ‘self-acceptance’.

Although they are distinct from SWB, some of these PWB-factors are correlated with SWB, for example ‘self-acceptance’, ‘environmental mastery’ and ‘personal growth’.

Nature …

Our mean level of well-being is strongly influenced by our personalities; especially by the factors of ‘extraversion’, ‘neuroticism’ and ‘conscientiousness’. Meaning that people who are more extraverted and/or are more emotionally stable and/or are more efficient or ‘organised’ tend to be happier.

… versus nurture

But is our average well-being a constant level that doesn’t change? No, there are life conditions and circumstances that can change and in turn nudge well-being to a different level. Hence, there are certain factors that can predict if your average well-being level will be higher or lower when compared to others. For example whether you have children will affect well-being, but also: women tend to be happier than men, higher educated people tend to be happier than lower educated people and a higher income makes for a happier life. No surprise about that latter finding perhaps, but did you know that this higher-income happiness effect partly has to do with how you compare yourself to others? I.e. more money doesn’t just make you feel better because you can afford more. It’s also because it makes you feel you’re ‘better’ than ‘the competition’ (your peers).

It’s called ‘mid-life crisis’ for a reason

David Blanchflower & Andrew Oswald collated measures on how people evaluate their well being and how that varies with age. The picture below illustrates this for European data. Similar patterns have been found for US and UK data. I suppose the optimistic interpretation of this pattern is that as long as you ‘hang in there’, things will work out fine.

Life satisfaction at different ages in 36 European countries, 2016.
This figure is based on data using the question “On the whole, are you very satisfied, fairly satisfied, not very satisfied,or not at all satisfied with the life you lead ?” scored from 1 to 4.
Happiness and work

Unsurprisingly unemployment is correlated with lower well-being. But is it always better to work? Apparently it is, but only up to a certain point where working more hours decreases happiness. One positive effect of the corona crisis is that many of us spend less time commuting. A longer commute is associated with decreased happiness, so not commuting is one of the upsides of working from home. I suppose that sounds obvious, yet there used to be many people who spent two hours or more of their working day commuting pre-corona. Are they going to change their routine when restrictions are lifted?

Happiness at work
Goals

Whether we work or not influences happiness, but also how we perform work has an impact. Many of us start the year with setting ‘targets’ or goals that we should strive to complete by a given deadline. Some believe that setting challenging goals will lead to greater satisfaction. However, psychologists have concluded that “it is not the general level of one’s aspirations that contributes to well-being, but whether they are realistically set and congruent with one’s personal resources” (Blatny & Solcova, 2015, p.38). So next time your manager boasts about setting ‘stretch targets’ to optimise performance, you can make it clear to him (it’s usually a ‘him’) that he’s deliberately trying to make you feel miserable for the benefit of his own bonus. Then again, not everybody believes we need to be happy at work.

Meaningful work

Of course, reaching any goal carries with it some sense of satisfaction from achievement. But it turns out that this positive effect is much smaller for goals that we don’t identify with. Moreover, “goals that we disagree with and that have the nature of an obligation or undertaking will even reduce our personal well-being. By contrast, even gradual and long-term fulfilment of personally congruent goals leads to experiencing satisfaction, increases general level of personal well-being, and significantly reduces the incidence of depressive symptoms” (Blatny & Solcova, 2015, p.39). This reminded me of a Belgian study on ‘moral stress’ (webpage only in Dutch) among care workers. They were susceptible to burn-out because they could not perform their jobs the way they thought was right (e.g. implicating the quality of personal care for patients).

Narratives have a significant impact on well-being
Narratives

Finally, there is a vast body of research linking well-being to personal narratives. These are the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are, how we fit into our present environments, how we are connected to our pasts and what hopes we may hold for the future. Several posts could be written on that topic, but I will restrict myself here to stating that narratives that are internally coherent (logically consistent), articulate an unambiguous purpose and convey personal significance contribute to well-being.

Conflicting narratives in organisations

This is why a conflict between narratives about what our relationship with our employing organisation is (discussed in this post) can affect our well-being significantly.

With organisations having focussed more and more on the ‘economic narrative’ (as opposed to the ‘community narrative’) more and more employees have started to experience stress as their jobs may have become less meaningful to them or they feel conflicted about how it fits with their own values.

In combination with the fact that many more people struggle to find a hopeful perspective for the future lately, shareholder capitalism has a fine challenge cut out for itself if the dissatisfied hordes reach a critical and unified mass.

The way forward

So what are we to do to become happy? Perhaps the above has given you some ideas on how to optimise your life. Or perhaps you’re one of those people who have found consolation or relief through mindfulness or meditation. Belgian psychiatrist Dirk de Wachter takes an entirely different position. He wonders whether perhaps we should go back to question whether our purpose in life is to be happy at all. Perhaps we are better advised to learn how to cope with being unhappy. For example by maintaining valuable friendships with those who we can lean on when we stumble. Just go for a coffee or a pint to talk it over and live with it. I’m curious about your thoughts.

Acknowledgement

A significant part of the scientific content of this article is based on Blatny & Solcova (2015), itself a volume that summarises vast amounts of research on the topic of well-being. I have deepened some of the concepts discussed by them by consulting other articles and have attempted to identify meaningful implications of well-being in the context of work.

References

Blatný, M. & Šolcová, I. (2015). Well-being. In M. Blatný (Ed.) Personality and Well-being across the life span. (pp.20-59). Hampshire: Pacmillan.

Dolan, P., Peasgood, T. & White, M. (2008). Do we really know what makes us happy? A review of the economic literature on the factors associated with subjective well-being. Journal of Economic Psychology, Volume 29, Issue 1, February 2008, Pages 94-122, doi:10.1016/j.joep.2007.09.001

Martela, F & Steger, M.F. (2016) The three meanings of meaning in life: Distinguishing coherence, purpose, and significance, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1:5, 531-545.

de Wachter, D. (2019). De kunst van het ongelukkig zijn. Tielt, Belgium: Lannoo

The path to happiness? (On Kyushu, Japan)

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1 thought on “The pursuit of happiness in a working life”

  1. Great post, Rik. And good job on this blog, I love how you delve into these subjects and examine them closely. All highly relevant stuff, if you ask me.

    One of the problems of society, in my view, is that people don’t try to find out what they really want out of life, but that they take an automatic route – just because they think that’s the way to go, because others take similar routes, or that they think it’s expected of them. Or perhaps they haven’t found any other option, so they stick with the default. That default is usually, for higher educated people, go to university after secondary school, than go on to work for a big company / government / university, and your career is set. But that particular choice might not really be the best for you. Perhaps you were good with numbers in secondary school and that made you choose economics, but that doesn’t mean you will like a 40 year career as a register accountant.

    In such cases, many people see that there’s something just not right anymore with the narrative that used to depict their career story, but it’s hard to switch to another one if you don’t know what that other one is. To be honest, in many people’s circles there are not that many people like you who make an exit from such a promising career before the age of 50. Usually, they have made other life choices as well that make such a choice impossible practically and financially: daily spending pattern, mortgage, children that might go to expensive schools, social circle, etc.

    For these people, they still have the job security, financial means, and social status, and narrative connected to that career, but it is conflicting with some other beliefs or needs that they have developed over time. The question is then whether they are prepared to pay the price for that internal conflict, or start looking to make different choices.

    Looking forward to the next blog posts. Keep it up!

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