Do You Want to be Happy at Work?



Too often we look at happiness as something like a present that is given to us and which can be snatched away at a moment’s notice when we are bad.  Unlike previous ages, we now have expectations that we should be happy at work.  Nobody expected to be happy during the Feudal times, the Reformation, the Spanish Inquisition, The Crusades, or the Industrial Revolution.  Life was mostly about surviving, praying and avoiding brutal masters.  Today, however, we have solid expectations that we should be happy as a human right, forgetting that the American Constitution only promised that we should be able to pursue happiness, not necessarily get it!


There is a strong correlation between money and happiness with life. A Gallup survey showed that in the USA 90 percent of people earning the equivalent of $250,000 called themselves very happy while just 42 percent of those earning under $20,000 said the same.   How many of you are wondering just how a person can be happy on only $20,000 a year?  But money doesn’t make you happy at work because work isn’t where you get to spend it. It is actually away from work where it matters—where not having enough creates an enormous pressure. And of course having it enables you to make greater choices.


But back to the topic at hand – being happy at work.  Fortune Magazine identifies  research that has identified 5 factors that contribute to happiness at work:  A sense that you belong and fit in at work, and even more important, to have a best friend at work; Autonomy or a sense that you have some control over both your work and your time at work; Challenging work that requires you to push yourself to accomplish it, but it is doable; Progress and Growth which allows you to see that you are becoming more skilled and moving toward an achievable goal; and finally, Safety which means that you can go to work without fear of losing your job, being bullied or harassed or humiliated or put in dangerous situations which you have not been equipped to handle.  These are very similar to the critical elements outlined in the SCARF model:  Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. See David Rock’s paper on   SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others) at


The important thing to realize about these five factors is that each of us is responsible for seeing that they exist in our jobs rather than believing that it is the responsibility (alone) of the boss or company to provide them.  I find it interesting how some people, no matter how many jobs or different places they work, ALWAYS (and I do mean always) find that there are a number of people at work with whom they don’t get along and whom they quite dislike.  They also tend to have an unhappy home life currently, and probably had a difficult home life when growing up.


So if you are not happy at your job, here is the first question you need to ask yourself:  which comprises the larger number of people at work – those I like or those I dislike?  And the follow-up question is, do I see a pattern here?


The second factor to look at, autonomy, is to identify those things at work over which you have some control.  If you have no power to use personal discretion in your job (everything you do is governed by specific policies and procedures) and no control over your time, chances are very good that you will be unhappy.  That type of job is best suited for robots


The third factor, challenging work, is specific to each individual.  What might be challenging for some can be overwhelming for others, nor should it imply that every day you will be hanging off the end of a precipice trying to figure out a way to hang on.  Now many people do work at boring, routine jobs because they fill their need for challenge in some sort of off-work activity.  These are the folks who work to live, and only truly live and are happy when they are off the job.


Factor four, progress and growth, along with some sort of recognition that these have occurred, are essential.  The problem with many jobs today is that after two or three years, most of us have learned how to do the job and we aren’t learning anything new.  When was the last time you had to learn a new skill in order to do your job properly?  I am bold enough to suggest that after 3 years you have probably outgrown your job.


And finally, safety (and some degree of security).  Safety can either be physical or emotional, and I suppose we are among the relatively few in the world who go to work not expecting that some accident is likely to befall us.  Psychological safety is an entirely different issue, and it is rare to find workers who have not, at least from time to time, been embarrassed or harassed in some way – if not by their boss, then by their colleagues.


If you want to be happy at work, then, analyse your job in view of the 5 factors above, and determine how it matches up.  If you find a factor that is NOT being met, then this is where you need to start. You may be able to alter your job or you may just have to find another job.  But in either case, you have taken the first step toward being happy at work – assuming responsibility for your own happiness.


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