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Jul 23, 2014

If I asked you to describe your attitude towards your work in one word, what would it be?

Setting aside for a moment your feelings for work, the English language admittedly makes this difficult.

German, for example, is a fascinating language in that new or changing concepts can be described by stringing words together to create a new one (e.g., freundschaftsbezeigungenwhich means “demonstrations of friendship”).

Defining “happiness at work”

I’m prompted to ask this question by Alexander Kjerulf, the Happiness CEO, who wrote in a recent Fast Company article:

While the English and Danish languages have strong common roots, there are of course many words that exist only in one language and not in the other. And here’s a word that exists only in Danish and not in English: arbejdsglædeArbejde means work and glæde means happiness, so arbejdsglæde is “happiness at work.” This word also exists in the other Nordic languages (Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish and Icelandic) but is not in common use in any other language on the planet.

For instance, where we Scandinavians have arbejdsglæde, the Japanese instead have karoshi, which means “Death from overwork.” And this is no coincidence; there is a word for it in Danish because Danish workplaces have a long-standing tradition of wanting to make their employees happy. To most Danes, a job isn’t just a way to get paid; we fully expect to enjoy ourselves at work.

The U.S. attitude towards work is often quite different. A few years ago I gave a speech in Chicago, and an audience member told me that “Of course I hate my job, that’s why they pay me to do it!” Many Americans hate their jobs and consider this to be perfectly normal. Similarly, many U.S. workplaces do little or nothing to create happiness among employees, sticking to the philosophy that “If you’re enjoying yourself, you’re not working hard enough.”

Yes, work CAN be fulfilling and engaging

And that’s a key challenge in goals to increase employee engagement – our own understanding that work must be hard, difficult, terrible and something we naturally hate, or it wouldn’t be “work.”

Even generously, people who enjoy their work might say they “live to work.” But this phrase is, itself, a challenge because of the implication of a lack of work/life balance or even addiction to work.

The antithetical phrase – “work to live” – is also challenging because it, too, implies the person only engages in work in order to do what they really like when away from their jobs.

For many of us, we find our work to be fulfilling, enjoyable, meaningful, purposeful, and – yes – something that can contribute to our feeling of happiness. Often this can be a matter of changing our own perspective (like the janitor at the hospital who defines his job as “saving lives”), but of course is also influenced by the environment in which we work and the people we get to work with every day. (Here’s a great article that makes it clear that much of being happier at work is, indeed, in our own control.)

I like the Dutch word arbejdsglaede because of its breadth. I like to think of it as encompassing the sense of my own fulfillment at work as well as my decision to also help others find happiness at work, too.

Time for a new world for being happy at work

But what would the English word be? Is it engagement? Perhaps, as that implies both my decision to involve myself more deeply as well as the company’s decision to give me an environment and work that’s worth engaging in.

Or perhaps we take the German (and Dutch) approach and make a new word. What words would we combine? Is it as simple as Workhappiness?

What’s your word?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on the Recognize This! blog.