As business writer Jo Confino recently argued, having a meaningful job doesn’t automatically translate into personal happiness. In fact, the truth often works the other way around: it’s our personal happiness and fulfillment that gives work its sense of purpose.
Confino recalls meeting senior execs with exciting and energizing jobs that we’d typically assume would bring them great joy; but those same folks turned out to be narcissistic and mean-spirited, and could only see their success in relation to the failure of others.
Then on the opposite end of the spectrum, Confino regularly encounters workers who seem to have relatively boring or repetitive jobs – and yet they do that work “with an extraordinary generosity of spirit.”
As Confino reflects: “This gives credence to the Buddhist saying that there is no way to happiness; happiness is the way.” Fine. But easier said than done. How do we actually cultivate that perspective?
One answer, Confino argues, is to look beyond our individual egos and see ourselves as being in service to others. He’s actually learned this in his own life. When he feels the most unsatisfied, the quickest way to uplift himself is to reach out and support someone else in need.
Maybe this seems like a philosophy only for folks who work in nonprofits, but the power of generosity has made significant inroads into the world of business, where the standard notion of profits being more important than anything is starting to be called into question.
In fact, Matthieu Ricard, a distinguished biologist turned Tibetan monk, believes humans are hard-wired to care for each other – and insight that might bring some humanity back into our professional lives. We might want to take his word for it. Ricard, dubbed “the happiest man on earth” after a scan of his brain showed the highest-yet recorded activity in areas associated with positive emotions, recently blogged that our culture is already starting to change: While businessmen and investors may continue to say it is not their job to bring compassion into the workplace, Ricard writes that “it has become almost impossible to say, ‘I don’t care about future generations,’ ‘I don’t care about poverty in the midst of plenty’ and ‘I don’t care if there are 200 million climate refugees in 2030.’”
He argues that altruism can no longer be “relegated to the realm of noble utopian thinking maintained by a few big-hearted, naïve people. On the contrary, it is a determining factor of the quality of our existence, now and to come. We must have the insight to recognize this and the audacity to proclaim it. The altruism revolution is on its way. Let us all be part of it.”
Jody Aked, Director of Happiness Works, an organization that helps businesses understand happiness and the dividends it brings, points out that is particularly important when work is repetitive and dull. As she explains: “any environment where people are provided a realistic challenge and an opportunity to solve it, their interest levels usually peak, and so does overall happiness.” She has the data to prove this. Her organization conducted research in the Chinese garment industry to demonstrate that there are always techniques for making peoples’ jobs more interesting, such as creating volunteer opportunities, skills training and job rotation.
“There are so many opportunities to involve staff more in how businesses evolve,” she said. “When strategies are rolled out from the center, they miss the insights people, non-white-collar workers especially, bring.”
Aked also explained that workers are happier when they feel a sense of connection to the person buying the products they make.
“We have this discussion all the time with businesses who say things like ‘We just sell shoes, how can we be meaningful?'” she noted in an interview. “I think these businesses forget that people are socially motivated. Just by knowing that something they helped to create was gratefully received and enjoyed by another human being is intrinsically rewarding and meaningful. So why doesn’t customer feedback permeate all levels of the business?”
“Human relationships and work cultures are sources of happiness, and in many cases great unhappiness, whatever the job. When the work is dull, relationships may take on even more importance.”