Why You Should Stop Trying to Be Happy at Work

Why You Should Stop Trying to Be Happy at Work

September 5, 2023

As the average person spends 90,000 hours at work in a lifetime, this HBR article highlights how it is important to understand how to feel better about the time we spend earning a living. However, those who pursue happiness can end up feeling the opposite, given that happiness (like all emotions) is a fleeting state. Therefore, it is more important to make meaning our vocational goal, as people who focus on meaning in their personal and professional lives are more likely to feel an enduring sense of well-being. Indeed, research indicates that making work more meaningful or finding more meaning in work is one of the most powerful yet underutilized ways to increase productivity, engagement, and performance.

The Difference Between Meaning and Happiness

So what are we really searching for when we say we want more “meaning,” and how does it differ from happiness? According to research on happiness and meaning conducted by psychologist Roy Baumeister and colleagues, five factors differentiate both:

  • Getting what we want or need. Happiness was found to correlate with having our desires satisfied, but meaning was not. In fact, as Baumeister wrote: “[T]he frequency of good and bad feelings turns out to be irrelevant to meaning, which can flourish even in very forbidding conditions.”
  • Time frame. Baumeister found that while happiness relates to the ‘here and now’, meaning comes from “assembling past, present, and future into some kind of coherent narrative” that reflects one’s bigger-picture and long-term values.
  • Social life. While connections to others is essential for both happiness and meaning, the type of fulfilment we receive depends on the nature of those connections. Baumeister discovered that obtaining help from others leads to happiness, but helping others leads to meaning.
  • Challenges. Stress, strife, and struggles reduce happiness, but they appear to be an essential element of a highly meaningful life, whereby individuals may purposefully chose a more difficult path aligned with their values.
  • Personal identity. Meaning is closely tied to actions or activities that “express the self.” However, they are much less applicable where happiness is concerned.

How to Prioritize Meaning

The distinctions above provide guideposts on steering our professional life toward meaning, which, as research by psychologist Pninit Russo-Netzer found, can ultimately lead to happiness as well. Here are four practical steps we can take to bring more meaning into our work:

  • Keep a journal of activities to identify the projects and tasks we find deeply satisfying, in contrast to ones that bring short-term gratification.
  • Align our values and actions when choosing what to prioritize. For example, if mentoring is linked with our personal identity and self-expression, we can make coaching part of our weekly activities.
  • Focus on relationships, not just deliverables, as contributing to others’ well-being is strongly tied to experiencing meaning.
  • Share “best-self” narratives with coworkers – highlighting stories of seeing colleagues at their best (and asking them to return us the favour), whereby in the process we can help others to identify what types of activities lead them to authentic self-expression and meaning.

In the short-run, living with meaning and purpose may not necessarily lead to happiness. It requires self-reflection, effort, and dealing with challenges that initially can be frustrating. But when we approach work situations mindfully, with an eye toward contributing to others while honouring our personal identity, we can develop competencies that lead to greater purpose and meaning in work.

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