Happiness at work, why we should stop looking for it


It might seem like a contradiction, but it is actually true. We should stop to look for happiness where we work. I have been utterly convinced by it since some time now and, despite the enormous number of articles you can find on the web, I feel like I am an outsider in saying such a thing.

23rd – 27th September 2019 is the “International Week of Happiness at Work”. Considering I am responsible of people and their wellbeing inside the workplace, I should have probably been the one celebrating such event, but this is not what happened – let me tell you why.

I personally think that looking for happiness in the workplace is wrong. It is as misleading as an optical illusion.

Let me explain better.

We all look for happiness at worl, let’s be honest

We would absolutely love to shift from the “Thank God It’s Friday!” expression to “Wow, Tomorrow is Monday!”. It would make us more optimistic, more willing and helpful towards other people, more creative and more prone to engage with challenges and problems.

Unfortunately, according to some Gallup research reports, only 15% of the workers know how to do it properly. On average, we tend to spend between 70.000 to 90.000 hours in our workplace – I think we should really start asking ourselves why so many few people have understood what to do in the right way.


The pursuit of happiness makes us unhappy

There is a trick and it easily translates into the reason why I believe looking for happiness at work is a massive mistake. If that becomes our main goal we can be sure that we will end up by feeling exactly the opposite: very, very unhappy.

Why? Well, for two reasons mainly. Firstly happiness, like all feelings is a fleeting emotion and secondly feeling not constantly happy doesn’t always mean feeling unhappy.

What is the solution, then?

Emily Esfahani Smith, journalist and author of the book “The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfilment in a World Obsessed with Happiness”, managed to grasp the whole concept well: even though our life and working conditions are improving a lot, many of us feel depressed, alone and desperate. Researches show that there is a sense of void which is tormenting people and you don’t need to be suffering from depression to actually feel it. They also say that is not linked to the lack of happiness. People are living a void of scope, meaning and significance.

Emily understood that the 15% of people who feel motivated and happy at work strive every single day to actually give a meaning to what they do and to their professional goal and they are able to reach a long-lasting perception of wellbeing in an efficient way.

What are we really looking for when we say that we are “looking for meaning” instead of happiness?

There are 5 fundamental differences between the pursuit of happiness and finding the meaning according to the psychologist Roy Baumeister:

  • Meaning can exist and resist in unfavorable, strained and inconvenient conditions, something happiness cannot endure. When we do something in which we believe passionately (helping a colleague, working in teams, helping the environment – just to make a few examples) the frequency of the alternation between positive and negative feelings becomes irrelevant. We still continue to reach our goal. Such thing does not happen whilst pursuing happiness which is strictly linked with the satisfaction of our needs and wishes.
  • The meaning that we give to our actions translates the importance of our values. Quite differently, happiness does not do such a thing as it is a feeling made up by short-lives moments. The meaning, as a deep significance of our actions, represents our lives and it therefore embraces a wider time frame which encompasses past, present and future making it long-lasting.
  • The positive relationship with colleagues is rich in meaning and it contributes to generate an immediate sense of wellbeing, whilst improving our social life for those who give and those who receive, and it can last in time. Happiness is just a consequence of all this.
  • Challenges, tiredness, stress and conflicts have nothing to do with happiness, but they play a fundamental part in every single working environment. Being aware that they cannot just be eliminated and that it is actually possible to overcome them in an efficient way is part of finding a meaning rather than looking for a feeling.
  • When we are doing something we love, our need to express our personal identity and the way we are is what is leading us. Happiness is a consequential factor of being able to make us feel accomplished.

Once we have understood that, in order to be happy at work we need to look for a meaning every single day,

The question is: how do you do it then?

The psychologist Pninit Russo-Netzer suggests us 4 efficient tools to train the pursuit of our own “why”:

  1. Keep a diary of your own projects and never stop asking questions. When do you feel satisfied about something specific in your job? What have you done during the day to make it better and what hasn’t really worked out? What could you do to improve it?
  2. Always look for coherence between what you do and the values in which you believe. If you think mistakes are helpful for personal improvement then do not judge the colleagues who make mistakes, don’t mock them and don’t talk behind their back. Offer your help instead and share your experiences
  3. Concentrate on the quality of your relationships first with your colleagues and then on your results. The latter are highly influenced by relationships: if they are not working out well, your results are going to suffer.
  4. Promote your best side. Challenge yourself, explain who you really are and what you believe in. This doesn’t mean you have to hide your weaknesses. Offering the company you work for your talent and abilities instead, making sure you are appreciated for what you can give, is really the best way to start improving your weaknesses.

Tracking down meaning instead of pursuing happiness has a cost

You will need commitment, training, willingness to accept yours and other people’s mistakes. It means changing “who did it” with “what happened and why has it happened”.

Time to reflect, efforts and ability to face frustration are some of the other things you will need during this journey. Learning how to face difficult situations at work with awareness will give you a better chance to make you feel happy with no efforts.

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