Happiness takes you higher
Do you want to be successful in your career? Of course, your answer is yes. But consider that success can be defined in at least two ways: objective success can be quantified in terms of pay rises and number of promotions; subjective success measures the extent to which people are happy with their careers.
Most people expect objective success to lead to subjective success – achieving greater income and status will make them happy. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that the direction of causality is actually the reverse of this: happiness is a bigger factor in determining objective career success than the other way around.
Broaden and build
You have no doubt heard of the idea that fear and other negative emotions can put people into the so-called fight-or-flight mode. What is less commonly known is that positive emotions such as joy and contentment put people into a broaden-and-build mode, in which they seek to broaden their skills and build new relationships.
In other words, being happy at work makes people more likely to seek out novel challenges and interact with others. This in turn likely contributes to the results they get and therefore their greater objective success in terms of pay and promotions.
Consider a famous series of studies written up in the Journal of Labor Economics. Economists led by the University of Warwick’s Andrew Oswald found that experimentally inducing happiness in randomly selected individuals led to an approximately 12% increase in their pay-related productivity as compared with other individuals who were allowed to remain in their pre-existing mood state.
Some people think of emotions such as joy and contentment as ephemeral and therefore inconsequential. However, data collected in countries as varied as the UK, the US and Japan strongly suggest that even something as seemingly trivial as watching a humorous video can measurably boost people’s performance.
Making good choices
A major implication of the research is that happiness and job satisfaction are not mere consequences of earning more money. Instead, it’s important to be happy and satisfied in your work so that you can be productive, perform well and ultimately earn more and get promoted.
In practical terms, then, look for work that will keep you mentally engaged. If you find your work interesting and the working environment enjoyable, you’re more likely to be able to concentrate on getting good results.
In contrast, avoid taking a high-paying job if you suspect the work will be a chore. If you feel bored, how likely is it that you will be able to work productively? If you do not enjoy your work, it is more likely you will procrastinate or allow yourself to be sidetracked by distractions.
One notable study led by researcher Brent Roberts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that 18-year-olds who were happy were more likely to be working in prestigious jobs and to feel financially secure eight years later aged 26. Their subjective success (ie happiness) was a significant factor in determining their objective success (ie job prestige and wealth).
However, the 26-year-olds who acquired higher-status jobs also became happier and more self-confident, suggesting that their objective success contributed to higher levels of subjective success.
In other words, subjective and objective success likely affect each other reciprocally – each helps the other in a virtuous upward spiral. But the point remains that happiness is still highly important in enabling objective success: people are more likely to make progress in their careers when they feel engaged and fulfilled in their work.
The realities of work
Over the months and years of your career, being mostly happy in your work will likely improve your chances of career progression and earnings growth. However, you cannot expect to love every minute of your work. You will sometimes be required to do tasks you do not enjoy, and encounter irrational or unfair constraints that you must accept.
You cannot expect to be happy 100% of the time. Successful employees show their respect for senior folks, make concessions, and adapt to problems and challenges (see the ‘Navigating the modern workplace’ panel above). However, remember as you move from role to role and organisation to organisation that feeling engaged and mostly enjoying your work will maximise your chances of progressing in your career, too.
Navigating the modern workplace
- Accept that senior people expect to be treated with respect. Even if you have what seems like a good idea, people with more experience than you may not like having their ideas challenged. So if the great idea you suggest is ignored, remember your position in the hierarchy and that no one has to listen to you until you have done good work and won the right for your views to be taken seriously.
- When speaking up with your ideas, make suggestions about how you can help your organisation rather than about what you want. Employees who talk about what they want end up irritating their line managers, whereas employees who make sensible recommendations about how things in the workplace can be improved for the benefit of the team or wider organisation get identified as candidates for promotion.
- Get to know how your line manager likes work to be done. All human beings have their quirks and foibles. So make an effort to understand what annoys or pleases your line manager as well as other senior individuals and change the ways that you work to show that you are adaptable and responsive to their needs.
Author: Dr Rob Yeung is a psychologist and coach at consulting firm Talentspace
Watch Dr Rob Yeung’s video on understanding your personality
This article was first published in Accounting and Business magazine June 2021