The World of Work: What does happiness have to do with it?


Yesterday, there was an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times that reviewed a study on the topic of depression.  The researchers looked at Google searches for ‘depression’ and related phrases.  Curious was the finding that August 11th is our least depressed day of the year (I hope you had a good day yesterday!).  More importantly, they found that a 1 point change in unemployment rate corresponds to 2 point change in depression indicators.  Separately, PayScale recently studied job satisfaction, and guess what the highest rated profession is?  Dermatologist.  Notably, there was NOT an obvious correlation between job satisfaction and salary (on the top 10 is Child Life Specialist, with an average salary of $39,000).  Finally, there was a study published in The Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences that concluded that, beyond a certain salary level —  $75,000  — there is no correlation between increase in wages and happiness, enjoyment, sadness or stress.  So, what does all this mean?

It is difficult to put these three studies into a neat and headline-worthy conclusion.  What is obvious is that work and happiness are connected, and that having a job is better than not.  Beyond that, it gets muddy.  So, if you’re a young person pondering your choice of career, I’m afraid that the state of today’s knowledge about work and happiness is ambiguous at best.  But, do not lose hope.  There IS help out there, and it comes from a Harvard Psychologist named Tal Ben-Shahar.

Ben-Shahar wrote a book called “Happier”.  He did not do any big data analyses of Google searches.  He did not survey people about job satisfaction.  He looked inward at his own self, and keenly observed people around him.  In that book (Chapter 8 if I remember correctly), he presented a prescription for happiness, and I’ll relate it to you today.  Ben-Shahar offered that, in order to be happier, you should focus your life on the intersection of three spheres:

  • Things that bring you joy
  • Things that bring you meaning
  • Things that leverage your strengths

He suggested you create a list within each sphere, and then look for commonalities.  And those areas of commonalities is where you should focus your life (work and otherwise).  Simple little framework.  Much tougher to actually complete the exercise.  But what Tal offered resonates with me and I’d urge each of you to reflect on these three questions, and you just might find the key to happiness, success, satisfaction, and maybe even wealth.  If you’re curious, here is a quick, partial summary of my answers to his questions:

  • Things that bring me Joy:  Running; Playing guitar; Helping people uncover their unique towering strengths
  • Things that bring me Meaning:  Contributing to personal leadership development; Being a part of a team doing something truly useful to society; Helping my sons continue to develop into happy and successful young men
  • Things that leverage my Strengths:  Situations that demand a different perspective to drive positive change; Being a part of diverse and skilled teams; Environments that embrace ideas

Though I’m nearer to the end versus the beginning of my career, I continue to strive to take my own list of Joys, Meaning, and Strengths, and find that magic intersection…that place where I can put my life focus.  I’m not usually inclined to give blanket advice, but I’d urge each of you, young or not, to do the same.  Forget big data for the time being….ignore the published studies….look within.  You’ll be a better person; you’ll make more of a difference in this world; and you’ll be happier.

Stay tuned…..

One thought on “The World of Work: What does happiness have to do with it?

  1. Darrilyn Peters

    Thanks, Chuck, for this very thoughtful piece. Now I want to read Ben-Shahar, About 20 years ago (yipes!) I read Csikszentmihalyi’s works on “flow” and have re-read them over time. He says we are truly happy when we are in that state of flow — pursuing a very challenging task, which we value, but that is not completely beyond our abilities. It is not related to external rewards or compensation. We are simply one with our effort and concentration. He has loads of research and it crosses a huge range of endeavors and education levels. He writes about curiosity, attention, control, etc. It also helps that he’s a lovely writer.


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