It’s a Million-Dollar Question: Can People Ever Really Be Happy at Work?

Article main image
Nov 12, 2015

Can we be happy at work?

The best people to answer this question might be our friends in the Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway and Sweden) as they are consistently ranked as the happiest countries on Earth. In fact, they are the only people on the planet that actually have a word for happiness at work — arbejdsglæde.

How do we capture the same sentiment in the U.S. so we can move up in the happiness rankings from No. 15 (source: World Happiness Report 2015)?

What is happiness?

In the world of work, happiness does not necessarily equate to never-ending bliss, nor does it mean the absence of stress or discontent.

Take professional sports, for example. We complain that professional athletes make obscene amounts of money for doing nothing more than “playing a game.” But when you analyze the incredible sacrifices they make (demanding workouts, limited diets, physical pain), and then compare them with the amount of time they are actually “playing their game,” you recognize that most of their time is actually spent preparing to play the game – not doing what actually makes them happy.

Few of us would find their activities preparing for their games enjoyable.

So, if happiness at work isn’t walking around all day with a huge smile on your face, what is it? The short answer is — it depends on you. But there are some fundamental elements that contribute to it.

For some of us, happiness at work is equivalent to being passionate about what we do. In fact, passion is arguably the element most frequently cited by successful people as the main contributor to their success. But this also needs to be rooted in reality. You may be incredibly passionate about football, but the likelihood of playing in the NFL is pretty slim.

Passion is a great start, but it may not be the key to happiness for everyone.

When a job becomes a calling

For others, the most important contributor to whether or not we are happy at work hinges on whether or not we feel like the work we are doing has significant meaning. We see this often in non-profits, religious organizations and health care.

Nursing in particular is a good example. Being a nurse is not a glamourous role when you consider their (many) unpleasant responsibilities and the immense stress of having someone else’s life in your hands – hence the high burnout rate associated with this profession. But there are few roles that have more intrinsic meaning, and if you ask nurses and others who have dedicated their lives to professions in health care, they will tell you that they don’t see it is a job, or even a career – it is a calling.

This happiness relies on individuals feeling as though they personally can (and do) contribute to a larger mission – without this connection, you might lose confidence in the effect of working for a meaningful organization.

Many individuals find happiness less in the work itself, and more in being challenged and achieving results. They are the “Type A” personalities that love to work on something that others have deemed impossible. They literally blossom in adversity and receive their reward when a seemingly unattainable goal has been reached.

We also see this play out in what has frequently been referred to as gamification– specifically the use of “progress mechanics.” It is a basic psychological precept that we respond well to regular visibility to progress and improvement we make. This takes the form of points, badges and leader boards in addictive games like Candy Crush.

Corporate America is starting to take notice by implementing comparable point platforms, similar to those we have used in the hotel and airline industry for many years. The ability to grow and develop new skills and abilities is also innately rewarding for these types of people.

Finding meaning in work relationships

And then there are those who also find meaning outside of the work itself, or rather, their happiness is rooted in the relationships that they form and maintain.

These individuals could be happy sitting in a jail cell as long as there are people around to interact with. They tend to be in professions that intrinsically require constant communication and collaboration with others, and they extract meaning and happiness from these interactions.

For individuals in “people-oriented” professions like social work, the people are the work – and therefore happiness at work is inextricably linked to their personal interactions. They even have a strategy (and name) for this at online retailer – they encourage their employees to find a PEC (personal emotional connection) with each customer.

Whatever contributes to your happiness at work, a good litmus test to determine if you are in the right role is to answer this simple question – how often do you experience “flow”?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who coined this term, believed that:

People are happiest when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter, and is characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill — and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.”

I can honestly say that I experience this “flow” daily, although certainly not all day as any job has frustrations, but most organizational psychologists will tell you that this “flow” is very important when it comes to happiness at work.

One size does not fit all

So how can we be happy at work? What do we need to do to be happy?

The bottom line is that the path to happiness at work is different for each and every one of us. Some people prefer to spend the majority of their lives following strict accounting rules and guidelines. They take comfort in the guardrails that define their work and ensure a predictable outcome.

Others prefer to spend their time helping people with their emotional problems, a field that requires a completely different temperament and far fewer delineated results. Thank goodness we have people interested in both.

To be happy at work, we must align our personal triggers to available jobs and careers. Some of us may need help with this… the book What Color is Your Parachute has been used for many years to help people determine (in a nutshell):

  • a) What are you passionate about?;
  • b) What are you good at?; and,
  • c) What professions exist that would give you the ability to incorporate both “a” and “b?”

Life is too short to be unhappy

There are newly available assessments and tools available to help you determine your “behavioral fit” to various jobs and professions. I find it interesting that we allow sites like to pick a spouse for us but we have yet to allow big data and complex algorithms to do the same for our professions.

Life is way too short to spend our time doing something we don’t enjoy. Tony Hsieh, CEO of, has been quoted as saying, “While there’s been a lot of talk over the years about work life separation or work life balance, our whole thing is about work life integration … because it’s just life.” And similarly, Richard Branson provided his perspective when he said, “I don’t think of work as work and play as play. It’s all living.”

Does your life begin at the end of your work day, or when you wake up in the morning? If we can be happy at work, maybe the blurring of our personal and professional lives isn’t such a bad thing after all.