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Happiness should be compulsory

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Aristotle thought people would be happier if they didn’t work. They should enjoy the higher pleasures of the arts, music and philosophy, but not work. Even many centuries later, every piece of technological advancement brought with it the promise that we would be able to work fewer hours, says Bulent Gogdun, head of practice group for technology industries at ESMT. He explains the theory further…

Caring is now essential

Today, however, work has become a significant part of our lives. And not only time-wise. “Caring about our work has become a weird status symbol,” according to management writer Lucy Kellaway, who wrote in a recent article that “thanks to [Steve Jobs], caring is now compulsory.” No wonder many people approach their work with great expectations and want to see it as a source of happiness.
According to Amy Wrzesniewski*, most people approach their work in one of three ways: as a job, a career, or a calling. For those of us who see their work as a job, work is a means that allow us to acquire the resources needed to enjoy time away from job. If we see the work as a career, we not only seek monetary gain but also advancement within the hierarchical structure, higher social status and increased power. Finally, the work can be a calling if it offers us fulfillment, meaning, and gratification.

The most striking part of her research is that people within the same occupation can see their work in different ways. Hospital janitors, for instance, can regard their work simply as a cleaning job or they might consider themselves as members of the healing team taking on responsibility for the patients’ well-being and thus expanding the meaning of their work.

Are you a job crafter?

This phenomenon, called job crafting, supports very much the findings of happiness-research. It is not so much the circumstances we face that influence our happiness (despite the fact that we put so much effort in improving the external aspects our lives) but the way we look at our life. For our professional selves this means that our approach is much more important than what we do, where we work or how much we earn (as long as certain standards are met, of course). So the question is: What makes us happier – job, career, or calling?

In my view, we need all three approaches, or at least, we should be able to switch between these three perspectives. Let’s consider George, a 42 year old R&D manager working for a premium car manufacturer. He loves to design and build cars. It is his passion. But when the plan for the next career step dissolves in disappointment (as his boss gets replaced by another top manager who brings in his people - blocking Georg’s way to the top), he loses all his enthusiasm. “I was running after the carrot – now the carrot is gone and I don’t know what to do.” Well, he could have emphasized the passion he was feeling for his work as he was still designing and building beautiful cars. Or he could have appreciated the comfortable life his work was offering him and his family. But he became so focused on his promotion that the career crowded out both the calling and the job.

So, all three approaches fulfill different needs. The job helps us to earn money and gives us the feeling of competence. Approaching our work as a career gives the opportunity to advance and assure our future. It provides us recognition and power. And to find meaning in what we do gives us the feeling of fulfilment. And the great thing about this fulfillment is that it lays in our own hands. In contrast to career, for which we are dependent on others, nobody has to offer us this fulfillment - but we can produce it ourselves. Furthermore, this means we can expand the boundaries of our work and overcome routines. If, for instance, an executive can recognize that management offers – almost like no other occupation – so many ways to help others learn, grow, and develop self-esteem then this can provide sustainable motivation far beyond achieving business goals and making the numbers.

Managing expectations

Finally, I also want to suggest managing our own expectations carefully. At the end, business is a game for adults. It is great to have career ambitions and meaningful goals. We can work hard but we shouldn’t take things and particularly ourselves too seriously. Several experiments have shown that people perform much better if they see their tasks as an exercise offering learning opportunities rather than an irrevocable diagnosis of their capabilities. We don’t need to be someone special or work in a ‘special’ place to be happy. We can experience a lot of happiness on the way if we are able to approach work in a playful way.

*Professor of organizational behavior, Yale school of management 

Bulent Gogdun

By Bulent Gogdun

Bulent Gogdun is the director of open enrollment and head of practice group technology-based industries at ESMT

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