Finding that Happy at Work

The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. —Steve Jobs

I bet you have struggled to find job satisfaction one time or another. I know, i have been there, many times. Finding long lasting happiness at work is indeed rare. The scary fact is that most people (80% according to a Deloitte’s Shift Index survey) are dissatisfied with their job.

Yet if we look at how many hours we will work in our lifetime and how many hours we will commute for work, we will realise that it is a lot time to be spending on some thing that we are not happy at.

While some unhappy employees may muster up the courage to change careers, others (in fact, most) will likely suffer with it for the sake of job security. So what has happened to us along our career paths? Why do so many of us struggle in finding happiness at work?

Ask any boys of girls about their ambitions, they will give you a variety of interesting answers. Fireman. Dancer. Football player. Astronaut. Anything is possible. We may discount them for being young and naive and that they don’t know the struggles of life. Can they really be a successful dancer, football player or even an astronaut? Do they even know the risks that come with being a fireman? Cringe as you may, but their answers are actually guided simply by what they thought would make then really happy. There were no limits.

Now take a look at ourselves, the adults. There may be a determined few who have never lost sight of their aspirations to do and be what they wanted to be. But I suspect for the rest of us, we have forgotten our ambitions and and allowed our dreams to be washed down over the years. We begin to settle for jobs and compromise for the wrong reasons. We accepted the notion that it is just not realistic to pursue our passions and still make a decent living. Many of us have started on this path of compromise and it doesn’t look like we will ever going to make it back. This is sad mainly because we are likely to be spending more than a third of our lives working. And this compromise will slowly eat us away.

So what can we do to find happiness in our work?

Frederick Herzberg published a breakthrough article in the Harvard Business Review on the topic of motivation theory, also known as the two-factor theory. He pointed that the common assumption that job satisfaction is one big continuous scale – from very happy at one end to totally miserable on the other extreme, is flawed. Instead, happy and miserable at our jobs are separate and independent measures. That means it is actually possible to love your job and hate it at the same time. Hmmm…

Herzberg’s theory identified two different types of factors when it comes to finding satisfaction or happiness at the work place – Environmental Factors and Motivation Factors.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors are things like compensation, status, job security and work conditions. It matters that we receive fair compensation based on the market rate, given a certain status or title to operate in your role in a company that is generally thriving. It would even be better if our office setup is conducive and our supervisors do not treat us badly. Bad environmental factors can cause dissatisfaction. We have to actually address and fix the environmental factors in order just not to be dissatisfied or unhappy with our work.

Interestingly according to Herzberg’s research, even if we work hard at improving the environmental factors of our job, we are not going to suddenly love it or be truly happy with it. At best, we just won’t be unhappy or hate it anymore. You see, the opposite of job dissatisfaction is not job satisfaction. It is merely the absence of job dissatisfaction. The absence of job dissatisfaction is not the same thing as job satisfaction or happiness at work. 

It is very important to address the environmental factors, but these alone are not going to get you very far when it comes to finding that happy, that job satisfaction that we seek.

Motivation Factors

How then can we truly be happy and satisfied with our jobs? This is where Herzberg provided insights on another set of factors that are more important in helping us achieve the satisfaction we seek. He calls them “motivators” or motivation factors. The intangibles such as challenging work, recognition, responsibility and personal growth are examples of motivators.

Motivation factors are less about what we see in the outside, but much more about how it impacts us in the inside. Think about being in a job that emphasises on work that is meaningful, that is challenging yet interesting, that provides opportunities to increase our responsibilities and that allows us to grow professionally. These are the factors that will motivate us, to cause us to love what we are doing, to make us truly happy at work.

You can read more abour Herzberg’s research published in an article in the Harvard Business Review here.

It is easy for us to be mistaken that the tangible trappings of career success will always make us happy. Higher salary, more prestigious work title, bigger office or company car. After all isn’t these what our family and friends see as signs that we have “made it”?

However, as soon as we are drawn by these tangible aspect of our jobs, we risk getting enslaved with what pays rather that what makes us happy. We start to chase a job satisfaction or happiness mirage. The next pay rise, promotion, we think, will be the thing that will finally make us happy.

You see, beyond a certain point, environmental factors such as compensation, status and job security are actually by-products of being happy with a job, rather than the cause of it. Realising this can free us to focus on things that really matter.

Again, Herzberg’s theory of motivation suggests that we need to look at our careers from a different angle, asking ourselves totally different sets of questions.

  • Is this work meaningful for me?
  • Am I entrusted with increasing important responsibilities?
  • Am I learning new things or skills?
  • Is this job helping me to develop professionally?
  • Will I be recognised for my achievements?

These are the things that will truly motivate us. When we get this right, our focus on the tangible trappings will start to fade in importance. We are then on our way to finding happiness in our work. And when that happens, we will never work a day again in our lives. Yipeee!

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