Why Happiness at Work Matters

Emiliana Simon-Thomas, PhD
Science Director, Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley

A prevailing theme among working adults today is work-life balance. “OMG, so busy” has eclipsed, “I’m great, how are you?” Being so busy, we look for something (or someone—look out bosses) to blame, and alienate the very people asking how we’re doing. How can we get everything done at work and at home and still find time to enjoy our relationships, creative endeavors, get enough rest and exercise? While we cannot change the number of hours in each day, research suggests that there are things we can do to bring more happiness into each of the hours we have, for the benefit of ourselves, our productivity, our communities, and the organizations we work in.

An underlying assumption of work-life balance is that some of what we do each day is fun, while the rest (e.g. work, household chores) is obligatory and tedious. The fun stuff makes us happy, and we trudge through the hours at our computers, serving clients and folding laundry to truly appreciate the pleasure of social outings, movie-watching, walks in nature, etc. In actuality, this association, work = bad/recreation = good, and the task of trying to balance them (are we just aiming for neutral?) is arbitrary, and actually gets in the way of happiness. Happiness doesn’t discriminate work from life.

One topic that highlights our potential for workplace happiness is Flow, the experience of fully immersing oneself in an activity so deeply that we lose track of time. Activities that foster flow are appropriately challenging, self-directed, promote gradually increasing success and effectiveness, can be individual or team-like, and are not typically motivated by monetary rewards. People find flow experiences to be very rewarding, even ecstatic, both during and after the fact, and people who report more flow are also happier. When is the last time you felt Flow at work?

One way to make workplace Flow more accessible is to eliminate what gets in the way. Feeling anxious, whether it’s about time, personal progress, being evaluated, navigating conflicts, or anything else, blocks Flow. Workplace cultures, however, often incite anxiety by celebrating over-commitment of time and self-sufficient individualism. Such norms, it turns out, put people on edge, ever-vigilant to potential losses in career-growth, earning and social status, and dis-incentivize collaboration and teamwork, e.g. “OMG, so busy.”

Workplaces can, however, create a sense of safety by fostering trust, social cohesion and mutual support. One approach is to explicitly name, track, and prioritize decisions based on pro-social values like civility, harmony, gratitude and compassion. Another is to offer easily accessible resources for handling and reconciling conflict. Workplaces can also offer training in the skills that foster Flow both individually and among teams.

Here at the Greater Good Science Center, we have been cataloguing activities, exercises, and practices that have been shown to boost pro-social states and behaviors during our inner, social, and work lives. Could a pro-social culture building initiative at your workplace ratchet up happiness?

Studies that examine well-being at work report that happier workers are more committed to their workplaces, escalate into positions of leadership more quickly, are more productive, and suffer fewer health problems (e.g. take fewer sick days.) People who work in happier workplaces struggle less with work-life balance, and don’t subscribe to the work = bad ideology. They feel fulfilled, effective, and have a greater sense of belonging and purpose, which makes working time well-spent. Satisfied workers also bring these sentiments home, fueling connected, strong ties with families and friends.

Prioritizing happiness at work is a way to shift the trajectory away from frazzle and burnout, and toward an integrated experience where work is a constructive ingredient of, rather than a weight against, our potential for a richly satisfying and meaningful life.


Guest Blogger Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas is the Science Director at the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at UC Berkeley. As keynote speaker at The Solutions Group Annual Wellness Event, “Making the Connection” in September, she will be presenting on “The Science of Happiness.”

Emiliana earned her doctorate at Berkeley, using behavioral and neuroscientific methods to examine how emotions influence thinking, and where pro-social states like compassion, awe and social affiliation come from. Emiliana's work at the GGSC focuses on catalyzing, supporting, and writing about scientific research and evidence-based programs that promise to foster a kinder, more compassionate world. In person and as the co-instructor of GG101x: The Science of Happiness, a massive open online course (MOOC) on the edX.org platform, she also studies and lectures widely about how human pro-sociality measurably benefits health, well-being, social life, and work.

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