The average Briton will spend 3,507 days at work with another 204 days of overtime in their lifetime. As the line between professional and personal lives blur and as work-related burnout spikes, it’s no wonder that we often attach the idea of unhappiness to work.
An unhappiness index even lists work as the number one cause for our misery in a new book titled Can We Be Happier? Numerous books and over 46 million Google search results for ‘happiness at work’ advise us on what we need to change in order to be happier in our careers and lives. But should we place so much focus on happiness?
This interview with psychologist Dr. Richard MacKinnon explores why the pursuit of happiness could be overrated and how exploring the pursuit of purpose may give us more career satisfaction.
There is a fundamental misunderstanding that happiness is our natural and desirable state. If we chase happiness as a goal, we miss out on other equally valuable life experiences. In the workplace, happiness is never going to be a constant — we’ll have good days and bad days.
The unpleasant states or discomfort we want to avoid are part and parcel of anything meaningful we do. Think of studying for exams, asking for a promotion or taking on new responsibilities. Yes, they can lead to great things, but they also come with anxiety, a bit of fear and uncertainty. Do we persist with them? Yes, if they’re meaningful enough to us and we have clarity about long term benefits.
If we only did things that made us happy, some of us would never get out of bed. Employers have a responsibility to ensure people at work know how they make a contribution to overall success, that they have clarity on why they turn up to work each day and they know why they’re doing what they’re doing. Meaning and purpose trump temporary happiness any day.
That’s the crux of happiness at work. It’s much more important to encourage a sense of meaning and purpose in the workplace, rather than emphasising happiness. When we have clarity of meaning and purpose, we persist through setbacks and disappointments and we learn as we go.
Happiness is so fleeting, an emphasis on it can leave people wondering why they’re not happier on a regular basis. The sense of accomplishment when overcoming problems; a sense of self-efficacy when they’re able to support a colleague with a tricky problem; a sense of satisfaction when they finally complete an onerous task. None of these are, strictly speaking, happiness. But all are worthwhile.
Organisations could explore the extent to which people feel they can be their true selves at work. How much they feel supported by those around them. How they're developing and able to purpose their development journey. How much they understand the organisation's mission and to what extent they align with it.
Meaning, purpose and values are more useful measures than happiness — which is so volatile, it can change from one hour to the next.
It’s important to recognise that burnout happens when workplace stress has gone unresolved for some time. We don’t burn out after a challenging day or even week. Burnout is the result of ongoing stress and remaining in a workplace that leads to it.
To minimise burnout, employers need to ensure that jobs are properly designed, that workload is manageable, that toxic behaviour is challenged and that people understand what’s expected of them.
It’s not enough to provide training in stress management or resilience while the the environment itself remains nasty. If you launch a wellbeing programme while employees are labouring under an unmanageable workload and unreasonable manager demands, it just leads to cynicism. Bring in the yoga teachers once you’ve redesigned jobs to be more humane and sustainable.
To be mindful means that you can bring your focus and attention to bear on what’s important. Less daydreaming, less getting caught up with worries, and more focus on the here and now.
The opposite of intentional focus is the multi-tasking that so many of us engage in. It’s a really unhelpful habit, as it spreads our limited attention to paper thin extremes, leading to mistakes and increased stress.
Learning how to focus on a single task at a time — bringing all our attention and problem-solving ability to it — can help us deal with challenges, with workload and with distractions.
All of these points move a desire for a new habit from a vague aspiration to something much more tangible and realistic.
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