Aristotle thought people would be happier if they didn’t work. We should spend our time enjoying the higher pleasures of the arts, music and philosophy.
Centuries later, every technological advancement brought with it the promise that we would be able to work fewer hours. Today, however, work is a significant part of our lives. “Caring about our work has become a weird status symbol,” according to management writer Lucy Kellaway, who wrote in a recent article that “thanks to [Steve Jobs], caring is now compulsory”.
No wonder many people approach their work with great expectations and want to see it as a source of happiness.
In the academic world, things such as achieving the next promotion, getting tenure and publishing in a peer-reviewed journal seem to be very important. These are high-flying, ambitious goals that aren’t easy to accomplish. People work hard and put an incredible amount of effort in achieving these goals.
We know from research that achieving these makes us happy – but only for a short time, perhaps one day, one week or one month. In other words, happiness levels increase after promotion or publication and soon go back to previous levels. We get used to our new situation very fast and consider it the “new normal”. Our expectations rise, and we are no longer able to appreciate what we’ve achieved.
The metaphor I like is climbing a mountain. The goal is to get to the top, and it’s hard, sometimes painful. But if we think that we can be happy only at the top, then we are fools to not make use of the opportunity to enjoy great moments on the way – we should be able to enjoy our ascent to the top. There is a great quote from Buddha that explains the idea beautifully: “There is no way to happiness – happiness is the way. Normal.”
So what are these opportunities? Feeling happy about the progress we make, enjoying and nurturing relationships at work, helping others, being grateful for what we have and the opportunity to do what we do, reconsidering things we feel passion for, emphasising the positive things and less ruminating about problems, and, very importantly, avoiding social comparison.
We must look at the model of job, career or calling to understand this further. Most people approach their work in one of these three ways, according to Amy Wrzesniewski, professor of organisational behaviour at the Yale School of Management. For those of us who see work as a job, it allows us to acquire the resources needed to enjoy time away from our jobs.
If we see work as a career, we seek not only monetary gain but also advancement within the hierarchical structure, higher social status and increased power. Finally, the work can be a calling if it offers us fulfilment, meaning and gratification.
The most striking part of her research is that people within the same occupation can see their work in different ways. This phenomenon, called job crafting, supports the findings of happiness research. It’s not so much the circumstances we face that influence our happiness but the way we look at our lives. For our professional selves, this means that our approach is much more important than what we do, where we work or how much we earn. The question is: What makes us happier – job, career or calling?
In my view, we need all three approaches, or at least, we should be able to switch between the three perspectives as they fulfil different needs. The job helps us to earn money and feel competent. Approaching work as a career gives the opportunity to advance and assure our future. It provides us recognition and power. And to find meaning in what we do gives us the feeling of fulfilment. The great thing about this fulfilment is that it lies in our own hands.
In contrast to career, for which we are dependent on others, nobody has to offer us this – we can produce it ourselves. We can expand the boundaries of our work and overcome routines. If, for instance, an executive recognises that management offers – like almost no other occupation – so many ways to help others learn, grow and develop self-esteem, then this can provide sustainable motivation far beyond achieving business goals and making the numbers.
A great question to ask ourselves is: When we look at our work, what part do we do for free? What part do we like so much that we would do it no matter whether we get the promotion we want or accomplish the project we work on?
Finally, I suggest managing our own expectations carefully. Ultimately, business is a game for adults. It’s great to have career ambitions and meaningful goals. We can work hard, but we shouldn’t take things, and particularly ourselves, too seriously.
Several experiments have shown that people perform much better if they see their tasks as learning opportunities rather than an irrevocable diagnosis of their capabilities. We don’t need to be someone special or to work in a “special” place to be happy.
We can experience a lot of happiness on the way if we are able to approach work in a playful way.
Bülent Gögdün is director of open enrolment and head of practice group technology-based industries at ESMT European School of Management and Technology.