Pursue Happiness Through Your Work

You already know how frustrated I am about how poorly our leaders are addressing the challenges we all face as a society. I am not the only one, of course. But we each must focus more on what we can do, rather than only shaking our fists at what we can’t do.

In that spirit, I continue to gather the emerging research of what actually drives individual happiness, and promote personal change to achieve it. So that’s what I want to encourage you to do…pursue your happiness—with verve, gusto, and commitment. Right now…in your present circumstances.

Lately, I have been teaching a class of adults at UC San Diego how to take charge of their career to create both more financial security and meaningful work. This is vital because Gallup’s global research confirms that “work well-being” is the second biggest driver of happiness (after relationship/family well-being).

These days, work well-being is difficult to stumble into. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that most jobs being created today are characterized by

  1. high demands,
  2. low pay,
  3. low power, and
  4. low security.

Occupational health research describes these four characteristics as a toxic combination causing relentless stress. But if this kind of job sounds familiar, let me assure you that you don’t have to settle for a stress-filled, unrewarding job or career.

There are many, many forces you can proactively take control of, and the first is to get a deep understanding of how you create value for others. This is the source of our own economic well-being. People who become extraordinary at creating value for others make far bigger impacts than typical workers. In fact, a 10-year research project I am directly involved with reveals that consistently extraordinary performance has both tangible (money) and intangible (inner satisfaction) impact. Extraordinary performance is defined by customers, employers, colleagues, and supervisors who rate individuals across 40 factors related to work performance. It turns out the people in the top 10 percent of these ratings create 2 to 5 times the economic value and are 4 times more engaged than good performers.

So, what has that got to do with pursuing happiness?

Plenty, it turns out.

People who excel in their work life by using their talents to create meaningful value are happier and healthier than people who just earn paychecks. People who simply view work as an economic necessity are generally less fulfilled than people who see that their work makes a difference to people.

That’s the key. Recent Harvard University research found that people in all kinds of jobs found their work engaging and meaningful if they knew it was valued by other human beings. People in all kinds of jobs found their work meaningful. The secret is being consciously aware of the difference you are making, and learning to personalize your work so that it reflects your unique style, values, or flair.

What the researchers discovered is that there are happy toll-takers, maids, and brain surgeons, and that there are unhappy toll takers, maids, and brain surgeons. Of course, some work is more intrinsically enriching than other work. But for the most part, happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment come from our desire to make our difference, rather than the nature of the work itself. With this surprising finding, the researchers set out to find out what happy workers have most in common.

Perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that what they have in common is these three traits:

  1. Gratitude, not just for their job, but as an orientation of life. Gratitude helps them notice all the good things they enjoy, instead of the things they lack.
  2. Appreciation of others’ efforts, and an embrace of teamwork. Socially connecting with teammates is a big satisfier.
  3. Empathy for the people they serve. The more “real,” flesh-and-blood human beings depend on us as colleagues and customers, the more motivating it is to do a personalized job for them.

The research concluded that even in companies with toxic cultures, nearly 10 percent of employees found their work engaging and meaningful. In great companies, that number is over 80 percent.

The lessons for me are simple. If I am serious about my happiness, I need to be serious about doing meaningful work. Of course, meaningful work can include being a stay-at-home parent, or even a volunteer. Whatever my work, if I approach it with gratitude for opportunities I have, an appreciation for my coworkers’ efforts, and empathy for my customers, I will both enrich others and myself.

This is important. If you are unhappy with your work or your employer, seek first to change yourself, because you can make things better for your inner work life right now.

Now, if you are working for a negative, exploitative employer, always be on the search for an upgrade. Our work is too important to waste it working for Neanderthals.

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