Research Articles

Being Happy at Work

Being Happy at Work sounds a little counter-intuitive, usually, when you ask someone where he or she is most happy you won’t hear “at work.”  More likely you will hear “on vacation, the weekend, playing golf, walking my dog.”

Most see work as the price to pay in order to eventually be happy. It’s the sacrifice we make now for our future. Even sin and disobedience are factored into the reasons for work; almost every culture has a “fall” story, an Adam and Eve type banishment from a garden paradise resulting in a life of toil and suffering.

The paradox is that we spend a large portion of our lives at work – next to sleeping, it is the biggest consumer of our limited time so if work equals unhappiness, that’s a problem Houston.

There are many studies of happiness at work and you’ve probably heard of the “Job, Career, Calling” model. It basically says there are three categories of people at work, those with a Job, those with a Career and those with a Calling.


Ask people in this category about their work and you are likely to hear the following: “it pays the bills, it’s what I have to do, it is what it is, whatever, I work for three reasons – breakfast, lunch and dinner” and the list goes on; hardly words and sentiments that make for happiness.

These people feel stuck, short-changed and victimized; having cashed in their dreams for this “reality” and the consequences for them, those they work with and the organizations they work for, are not positive.

A friend joked “I now believe in the resurrection of the dead, I see it everyday in my office at five o’clock.”

Now these are not bad people, they’re just in a bad situation for them. Recently Amazon, recognizing this, agreed to pay their unhappy workers $5,000 to help them find different work. After all, you can’t be the “world’s most customer-centric company” with unhappy employees.


Ask people in this category and you are likely to hear, with a lift in their voice, the following: “my work is interesting and challenging, I’m learning all the time, I have goals I want to achieve, the work makes me think, I’m proud to be part of this organization.”

These people find work fulfilling, stimulating and look forward to greater responsibility. They are optimistic, fun to be around, seldom complain (and when they do, they have an idea of how to make things better), goal oriented and self-starters.

The opposite of feeling stuck, they feel they are in a good place with better places ahead and when they occasionally get down, they quickly bounce back – resilience is their hallmark, contributing is their passion, development is their goal.


Ask people in this category and you are likely to hear, with an excitement in their voice, the following: “I was made to do this, I can’t believe they pay me for this, I can’t think of doing anything else, I look forward to work.”

Beyond interest, beyond challenge, beyond passion, these people are at a different level and that’s why the phrase “calling” is usually reserved for those who are in the artistic or spiritual vocations.

In business, you find these people to be creative, inspiring and they make a deep and lasting impression on you – one that you always remember and tell others about; they are the stuff of stories and the true leaders regardless of organizational rank or level.


By now, you’ve probably guessed who the happiest are at work and it is also likely that you have identified where you are in the model.

Most of us experience all three of these categories in any given day. Some of the work we do is really a Job “Damn, another spreadsheet to review, another of those reports to fill out.” Other work, Career “I’m on a really interesting project, it will be a challenge but I’ll be working with a new team and learning so much.” And finally, Calling “they’re sending me to India to open a new line of business, I’ve always wanted to succeed in a new culture and this will be amazing.”

Remember, we’re all different, and work that is appealing to one person may not be appealing to another – it’s the Platinum (treat others as they would like to be treated), not the Golden Rule.

The question, then, of our overall happiness comes down to percentages; what percentage of your work for you is Job/Career/Calling? If 70% is Job and 20% Career and only 10% Calling, you’re not very likely to be happy. So how do you shift the percentages?

For managers, begin by asking your team members (1/1) what they like/dislike about their work and what they would like to do more/less of – knowing full well, and most people realize this too, that you can’t always get what you want – no, I’m not going full throttle into the Stones; for that, check iTunes – but you can change the mix, and doing more of what one enjoys makes doing the less enjoyable work more bearable – here, what drains your energy isn’t as great as what charges your energy so you’re more net positive – happy.

You can also take the lead on this as well, by discussing with your manager these very things – taking charge of your happiness is critical.

There’s been a renewed interest in what makes people happy – from the popularity of Pharrell’s song “Happy” (bringing to mind Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 classic “Don’t Worry, be Happy”) to the recently aired documentary “Happy.”

We’ve always intuitively known that happy employees make a bottom line impact to organizations and enhance morale and customer service. They make all those key competencies come alive in dramatic fashion.

Happiness is also a universal longing since it brings, to full measure, the joy of life – of doing, creating, caring, contributing – all the things that make for personal fulfillment and organizational success

So, can you be happy at work? – definitely!

Written by Frank Ferrante