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How to Make Happiness at Work a Priority

By Dr. Morley Glicken

Is there a relationship between happiness at work and doing better on the job? A number of research studies seem to suggest that happy workers are also more productive, more successful, and more likely to benefit financially. In his book, Authentic Happiness, Martin E. B. Seligman found that happier workers got better evaluations and higher pay. David Meyers (The Pursuit of Happiness) followed young workers for 15 years and found that those who were more positive in their outlook on life had lower medical costs, higher work efficiency, and less absenteeism on the job. Barbara Fredrickson ("The Value of Positive Emotions," American Scientist, 91[7].) determined that people in a more positive mood actually think more globally and are better problem solvers.

On the other hand, a number of studies suggest no relationship between happiness and work satisfaction. For example, a recent study by Stephen Wood and Lillian de Menezes ("High involvement management, high-performance work systems and well-being," The International Journal of Human Resource Management, Volume 22, Issue 7, 2011) found that when management intentionally tried to improve worker happiness through incentive schemes and targeted positive feedback, productivity and quality of work improved but absenteeism, job dissatisfaction, and workplace anxiety stayed at the same level as before the study was initiated. Michael Iaffaldano & Paul Muchinsky (Psychological Bulletin, 97, 251-273) concluded that the relationship between job satisfaction and improved work performance was at best, trivial, illusory, and nothing more than a management fad.

The implication of both sets of findings is that workers who have positive emotional lives to begin with are more likely to do better on the job but that trying to make workers happier isn't likely to improve job satisfaction or diminish some of the most negative work behaviors that lead to job failure.

What does this mean for workers? Certainly, most of us want work environments where we're respected, given opportunities to advance with decent pay, and meaningful work assignments that utilize our abilities. However, having a positive attitude toward work and a happy life outside of work seem to be key factors in whether people experience job satisfaction. While it may be possible to improve worker satisfaction by conditions on the job, the better predictor of work success is a positive mental state prior to work.

Let's consider how levels of happiness affect the way two high-level professionals experience work.

Susan Peterson is a nurse practitioner working in women's health care in a publicly funded clinic in Southern Arizona serving poor and undocumented women. Susan provides neo-natal and post-delivery services to women whom she describes as mostly undocumented. She says that she loves her patients but that while they receive free services and are largely undocumented, she has to pay large co-pays for an increasingly severe back and hip problem made worse by long hours of standing and a chaotic administrative structure where she gets very little help from support staff. She describes herself as being "totally burned out."

Susan is three years away from receiving Social Security benefits. Because her job doesn't have a pension plan and her savings aren't enough to cover early retirement, she forces herself to endure long, grueling days where she often sees death of badly cared for babies and the ruined lives of the women she works with. Her hip pain is so severe that she actually cried from it during my interview with her. When I asked how she would last three more years at work she said that she had no choice and that her three Ivy League degrees were a waste of time. The only thing that gets her through the day, she said, is the pride she has in her individual work with patients and the hope that the next three years will pass quickly.

While Susan likes her clients individually, she has negative feelings about poor people getting benefits she doesn't have. The lack of support at work and a poor benefits package don't help. I asked if she viewed herself as a glass full or glass empty person. She thought for a minute and admitted she was full of anger at the lack of appreciation for her work over the years. She thinks at some point she was happy in life but can't quite think when that was. She says the idea of being happy on the job is ridiculous. Work, she told me isn't supposed to be fun.

When I interviewed clinic staff people said that both Susan and Alicia were excellent providers but that they loved working with Alicia whose positive attitude was infectious. Susan, they said, was a loner who had difficulty working cooperatively and consequently, wasn't able to use support staff in a helpful way. Both workers are highly productive but one is burned out while other thrives on the job. Who would you rather work with, receive help from and, more to the point, who would you rather be?

How can you become happier at work? Two new ideas might help. The first, Positive Psychology (PP) suggests that people do much better in life when they focus on what's positive in their lives rather than on what's negative. Positive psychology believes that most of us are highly resilient and that we've developed ways of dealing with adversity that are often quite creative and lead to better functioning in and outside of work. The trick is to focus on what's positive. Barbara Fredrickson believes that the purpose of positive emotions is to help us to develop our resilience and broaden our repertoire of skills. Positive emotions strengthen inner resources that help us deal with life adversities and are highly beneficial in the workplace.

Most of us have more positives in our lives than negatives but we often tend to dwell on the negatives. A sure road to unhappiness is to overlook what's going well in your life and obsess about what isn't. Having a checklist can be helpful and comparing what's good versus what isn't is one way to do this. You'll be surprised at how the good outweighs the bad but you need to be easy on yourself. Even though you may hate going to work, doing it is a positive. Although you may be in an unsatisfying relationship, developing the skills to deal with it may have positive consequences later on. It's a way of viewing life as half to completely full. You may even find that your cup runs over.

The second idea comes from Quality of Life (QoL) therapy. Quality of life is a way of viewing your goals, hopes, standards and beliefs so that they come together in a way that provides a sense of direction. Too often we go through life with conflicted ideas about achieving happiness. Instead of viewing the various aspects of our life as one interacting set of beliefs and behaviors, we compartmentalize. We're happy in our relationships, unhappy about income, unhappy at work, but happy in our creative work. QoL suggests that we view the many aspects of our lives as one overarching set of behaviors whose end result is a sense of happiness and fulfillment. The following example might better explain this notion:

In this difficult job market we can't always find work that gives us pleasure but we can prevent negative work experiences from causing us unhappiness. We can also look at our lives though a more positive lens and order our goals, aspirations, and values in a way that leads to a sense of fulfillment and joy. It doesn't take a lifetime to do this and it's never too early to start.

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