Three Things You Think Will Make You Happier at Work (But Won’t)
The Guardian, Charlotte Seager
March 28, 2016

For many of us, work’s not working out. Mundane tasks, too much to do and the nagging feeling that your job may be, well, meaningless – mean that 47% of people in the UK want to change jobs. And for millennials like me it’s even higher, with 66% of us wanting to quit. We all know what will make us happy – more money, longer holidays, a promotion – yet when we get them, we’re still miserable.

So what common myths do we believe about happiness? And, more importantly, what will actually make us happy at work?

Myth: more money will make me happier

“Our perceptions of pay are relative to what other people are making,” says research psychologist Dr Ronald Riggio. “So even if you are paid a lot – think professional athlete – if you find out a similar other, say another athlete, is making more than you, it can lead to dissatisfaction and unhappiness regardless of the amount you are making.”

However, research on salary and happiness suggests that satisfaction with life does increase with salary, but only up to around £50,000 a year. After that, more money doesn’t make you happier. “The reason it works up to a point is that a salary of £50,000 allows you to cover all your needs and expenses and probably keeps you from stress and worry,” Riggio adds.

Myth: more holidays will make me happier

More time off will only help if being at work makes you miserable. “If you really love your work, offering less time at work obviously won’t make you happy. If you don’t like your job, then it might,” says Riggio.

However, even then this happiness will be short-lived. “People ‘habituate’ and get used to more time off, so it doesn’t improve overall happiness. And if someone doesn’t like their job, they then become even more unhappy when they return to work.”

Myth: changing job or getting a promotion will make me happier

According to research, simply changing jobs won’t make you happier. Psychologists tracked high-level managers for five years and measured their work satisfaction before and after changing job or being promoted.

Surprisingly, although these managers experienced a burst of satisfaction immediately after the job change, their satisfaction plummeted within a year. In other words, they experienced a sort of happiness hangover. Whereas managers who chose not to change jobs experienced little change in their overall level of satisfaction.

Truth: striving towards goals will make you happy

So if a higher salary, longer holidays or a new job won’t make us happier – sigh, even writing that is making me miserable – what will? The answer, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, psychologist and author of The How of Happiness, is striving towards specific career goals, rather than material objectives like more money. It’s the struggling, stretching your skills and working towards something achievable that makes us happy – not the accomplishment.

Why? Well, because striving towards a specific goal gives structure and meaning to our day-to-day work. “It creates obligations, deadlines and timetables, as well as opportunities for mastering new skills and interacting with others,” writes Lyubomirsky. “It helps us attain a sense of purpose, feelings of efficacy over our progress and mastery over our time. All these things make people happy.”

Having friends at work is also the biggest predictor of long-term job happiness, according to Michelle Gielan, founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research and author of Broadcasting Happiness. “And you don’t need a ton of friends and close work colleagues; just a handful of meaningful relationships to reap the benefits.” So fostering friendships at work is a key way to boost your mood.

Finally, happy employees also feel as though their work is meaningful. “No work is meaningful unless the brain says it is,” says Shawn Achor, psychologist and author of The Happiness Advantage. “And you can imbue any job with meaning if you focus on building relationships at work, or on growing, or providing for your family.”

So don’t believe the myths – to be content at work, you need to work steadily towards a specific goal, make friends and find meaning in what you do. More money, holidays and promotions won’t lead to lasting happiness.