The Quest for Happiness at Work

You’ve heard the saying that money can’t buy happiness? Well, that’s not exactly true. Money can buy happiness—but only to a certain point. Once you make enough to support yourself without feeling anxious about paying for essential needs (groceries, housing, medical bills), then the positive effects start to taper off.

“In spite of all their accomplishments and material possessions, [the super-rich] remain bored and deeply unfulfilled,” says Manfred Kets De Vries, a Professor at INSEAD business school. It even has a name: wealth fatigue syndrome.

So What Defines Happiness?

The Greek philosopher Aristotle explained that happiness is a combination of immediate pleasures and a life well-lived. In other words, doing a good job with whatever you choose to do, along with freedom from suffering.

In examining more than 4,000 millionaires, researchers Grant E. Donnelly and Michael Norton uncovered a fascinating insight. How much money people made didn’t determine how happy they were, but how they made the money affected the outcome. “Those who earned their wealth reported significantly greater happiness than those who primarily inherited or married into it,” Donnelly and Norton explain.

Happiness at workThis finding gives rise to a new hypothesis: happiness is associated with finding meaning at work instead of accruing significant amounts of wealth. Studies seem to indicate an association between the two conditions. About 90% of people would agree to work for less money if it meant that they would do something they consider to be personally rewarding.

How Can You Become Happy?

To give your work more meaning and satisfaction, here are six things you can start doing today.

1. Try something new.

At work, boredom and routine can cause unhappiness. If it feels like you’re stuck in a rut, it’s your job to break out of it. Ask if you can take on a new project, work in a different department, pick up a side job, or look for a new direction. Sometimes changing industries can help you find a career that makes you happy.

2. Learn new skills.

Learning new skills or expertise can also make your work more interesting. When you have the chance to use these new skills, it will increase your sense of self-worth—it might even inspire a sense of pride. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, says, “The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.”

If you continue to learn and advance your skills, there’s another benefit: It will also boost your earning potential.

3. Stop judging yourself by other people’s accomplishments.

Unsatisfied people look at how their work compares to how others performed. Needing external validation leads to a cycle of disappointment. Don’t try to outperform your colleagues; instead, focus on refining your process and becoming the best version of yourself. Don’t judge yourself too harshly, and give yourself the same patience and consideration that you extend to others.

4. Invest in relationships.

happiness at work

Work can be isolating, especially for top executives who might not have a sense of camaraderie with their peers.

About 70% of employees surveyed in 2018 reported that friends in the workplace are the single most crucial element of a happy working life. Healthy relationships serve our basic human need for a sense of belonging and purpose. It translates into confidence and satisfaction.

5. Focus on experiences and not things.

Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a Psychology Professor at Cornell University, explains, “We buy things to make us happy, and we succeed.” But that happiness fades. “New things are exciting at first,” he says. “But then we adapt to them.”

When we accumulate material belongings, this often leads to the expectation that we’ll continue to get even more stuff—or feel disappointed when we can’t afford to buy more. Your memories of an experience, however, don’t lose their luster. Experiences are enriching and make people feel happier.

6. Give back.

Research shows altruistic behavior is good for your emotional well-being and can enhance your peace of mind. Volunteering or supporting charitable functions can help you feel happier, as does mentoring, helping other people, and expressing gratitude.

Happiness Begins With You

In a 2018 Gallup survey, only 48% of workers said they were satisfied with their career; 43% said they were somewhat satisfied; and 8% were dissatisfied. If you don’t count yourself among the lucky top 48%, it’s time to take action. Happiness begins with your state of mind.


Want to become a mentor? Review Ivy Exec’s mentorship program and join a community of supportive, high-achieving professionals.


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