NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- A lot of personal happiness has to do with work, and, boy, does it seem tough to love what you do -- even beyond the employment prison the New York Times presented this weekend in its Amazon bombshell. Worldwide only 13% of people actually like their jobs, according to Gallup . Closer to home, only about a third of us say that we’re actually “engaged” with our jobs, Gallup says, which defines engagement as being “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to” the job.
Multiplied by our average 47 hour workweek, and that’s a lot of unhappiness bottled up under fluorescent lights.
The good news is that it’s fixable. Job satisfaction has become a heavily researched field over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries as an increasingly productive society has managed to free up hands from producing food and shelter. Thanks to technology and personal mobility, more people than ever have the luxury of factoring happiness into their job search.
The number one thing they should be looking for, psychologists suggest, is personal meaning.
According to an article published by the American Psychological Association, “finding meaning in one’s work has been shown to increase motivation, engagement, empowerment, career development, job satisfaction, individual performance and personal fulfillment.” To paint a black and white picture, it’s what separates soul-dredging days at the office from that guy who bounces out of bed to dig wells in Kenya. The former position comes with money, nice benefits, a comfortable chair and considerably less risk of malaria. The latter may make the person happier.
It’s because believing in what you do and loving what you do are two sides of the same coin. As Monique Valcour, a professor of Management at the EDHEC Business School in Nice, wrote in the Harvard Business Review “work is a huge part of life, and meaning in life is not just a ‘nice-to-have.’ We need it in the way we need oxygen. There are few things more life-enriching and life-prolonging in human experience than a sense of meaning.”
We see this in our own lives all the time. We embrace work or even individual projects that demand personal investment far more than tedious routines that disappear into the ether. More importantly, jobs that provide personal satisfaction are the ones that have personal meaning even when they have all the same problems.
From long hours to boorish colleagues, the issues that we all complain about on the daily commute crop up in just about every workplace. Yet according to a survey published recently by the website PayScale, some of the professions most closely associated with these problems also score most highly in job satisfaction. No one will argue that surgeons, for example, have an easy schedule or low-stress career, yet few workers in PayScale’s study reported higher job satisfaction than these doctors.
“Satisfaction is an attitude,” Valcour said in an interview. “It’s something that can be changeable. Job satisfaction can change according to your environment at work. Is your boss nice or not, are you sitting next to someone who’s nice to you, are you doing something that’s challenging to you, all sorts of things… [But] the core of job satisfaction tends to be about the work itself.”
During the late '90s and early 2000s the casual workplace idea started to come into vogue. Following on the heels of a few tech startups whose founders decorated their offices after their own dream dormitories, companies began integrating casual and “fun” features into their space. From foosball tables to free lunches, it seemed like the key to employee happiness was to take the cube out of the cubicle.
People didn’t get much happier.
The reason for that is because, as Valcour and others like her have found, happiness comes from the job itself. You can only dress that up so much.
Individual aspects of a job or workplace, known by psychologists as “facet satisfaction,” can move based on employee perks, but facet satisfaction doesn’t necessarily add up to overall professional happiness. An employee can answer yes to every variation of “do you like this about your job” and still grumble on their way to the train Monday morning.
Money doesn’t help much either. Or rather, it has more to do with job dissatisfaction than anything else.
Financial stress or feeling like you’re not making enough for the work you do can create enormous unhappiness for the average worker. Once that problem has been solved, though, adding more money to the pot doesn’t actually make people happy in their work.
“We see so much of this in the financial sector,” Valcour said. “People are making just fantastic sums of money but yet feeling like, ‘Am I having a positive impact? Am I actually creating something valuable or is it just about chasing money?’ And a lot of people end up feeling that there’s really something lacking there.”
In large part this is an artifact of needing to earn a living. Making a reasonable amount of money is the bargain that people strike in exchange for showing up, the much discussed idea of working hard and playing by the rules. Making a decent wage by this logic, isn’t necessarily a perk, it’s just an employer living up to its side of the bargain.
It’s also not about how having an important job, at least not by objective standards.
Psychologists differentiate between the idea of “meaning” and “meaningfulness” when it comes to work. A job that has high meaning is one that people place a lot of importance on, for whatever reason. One person might believe that the law has very high meaning because of its role in society as an educated, respected profession while someone else feels the same way about following the family tradition of woodworking. Both convey great importance, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Picking a job that seems important (for any reason) has less to do with being happy than finding work that’s individually meaningful.
Those last three letters make a big difference.
“People tend to experience their work as meaningful when it has some significant outcome on other people,” Valcour said, “when it is closely aligned with their values, [and] when they can see the effect that it’s having.”
This includes fields, for example, like medicine, community service and the priesthood, all of which let practitioners see their work help other people on a daily basis. Unsurprisingly, by PayScale’s measurement, these jobs are not only some of the most meaningful but also have some of the happiest professionals.
The best recipe for loving your job is to find a field that inspires you, but that's not the only factor to consider. Any organization can help its workers find meaningfulness by helping them see their role in the big picture.
One of the bleakest parts about many jobs is what managers call the Henry Ford model, where workers fill their own narrow role and do little, if anything, else. Although Ford pioneered his model on factory assembly lines psychologists see it in many different areas of the working world today. Members of an office play their own role and then push results on without any sense of how they participate in the company’s failure or success.
Is it any wonder that we use language like “cog” and “machine” to describe working in an office?
The best way for individuals and companies to combat this is to help people see how their work matters. Some software companies have begun coming up with shared workspace programs to do just that, letting people see the scope of a project and how their work fits into it overall. It creates a sense of purpose beyond making next month’s rent.
“Really work on what’s the overall purpose that the organization has,” Valcour suggested, “and how does each person contribute to that. So when you think of your employer, do you believe in what the organization is achieving? Does that ring true to what you care about, and do you see yourself as linked to that?”
For some people this might mean looking for a new career, but it doesn’t have to be that dramatic. People who begin to invest in their own results, whether it’s helping a customer or writing a memo, can find that the job they had might have been a good fit all along.
For everyone else, try looking into medical school. Survey says doctors love their jobs.