Column: Happiness, not endless sacrifice, drives success at work

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People worked in the lobby of the Airbnb office headquarters in the SOMA district of San Francisco, California, U.S., August 2, 2016. REUTERS/Gabrielle Lurie - RC185895A7E0

People seen working in the lobby of the Airbnb office headquarters in the SOMA district of San Francisco, California. File photo by REUTERS/Gabrielle Lurie

Editor’s note: Dr. Annie McKee is an author and Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches and directs the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program. The following is an excerpt from her new, bestselling book, “How to be Happy at Work: the Power of Purpose, Hope and Friendships” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017).


“I’m working harder than ever before… and I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore.” Hearing these words from my friend “Ari” worried me a lot. As senior vice president of sales at a well-respected company, Ari is smart, emotionally intelligent, and wise — just the kind of person we want leading a company.

The business is doing well. No crises are on the horizon, other than the routine demand to squeeze more profit out of the business. So why is Ari so unhappy that he’s thinking of quitting? What’s causing him to question his entire career and even his worth as a human being? The constant pressure, stress, and never-ending change initiatives are part of it, he told me. He’s most definitely sick of the rat race and the politics on the senior team. And he’s just learned he’s going to have to lay off more people, again.

Ari doesn’t see the point anymore. He is demoralized, disillusioned, and burned out. He has lost sight of what he used to find exciting and meaningful at work. He’s given up hope that things will get better. He shows up every day and tries to play the game, but it’s getting harder and harder to keep up the charade. He feels he has lost his edge as a leader, and that others would agree.

Ari’s not alone. Many people are sick to death of their jobs: Gallup consistently finds that about two thirds of us “neutral” — meaning we don’t care, or we are actively disengaged. This is unacceptable. Most of us work more than eight hours a day. That means that if we are unhappy at work, we are miserable for a third of our lives. Time away from work is affected, too, and our and friends suffer when we are disengaged, dissatisfied, and unfulfilled. Even worse, slow-burning stress, anger, and other negative emotions can literally kill us. We can’t possibly be effective at work (or anywhere else) when we feel this way, and neither can our organizations.

And the other side of the coin? Companies with happy and engaged employees outperform their competition by 20 percent and research shows that we are personally more successful when we are engaged, fulfilled and excited about our work. How, then, can we move from discontent to happiness on the job?

The road to happiness at work

To be happy at work, we need to start by believing that people — and our human needs, desires and dreams — truly matter. But, dispelling the myth that work has to grueling can be a bit of an uphill battle. We are told we should settle for that paycheck or that next promotion and not ask for more. We aren’t supposed to complain when our managers treat us as recalcitrant children rather than smart, responsible adults who can make decisions and do a good job on our own. When we’re not trusted to think, however, we are insulted. When we are expected to pursue goals that don’t jive with our values or our hopes for the future, we lose interest. When relationships are merely instrumental, and we have to accept being treated as a “doer”, not a person, we get mad. And, when we treat others that way, we can find ourselves feeling ashamed. Working like this feels empty, meaningless, and fails to call out our best.

I have had very personal experiences in my own life that taught me that the myth that work is supposed to be miserable and that people don’t matter is nothing but destructive. This, combined with the growing body of knowledge in positive psychology, led me to look to my own work in organizations for what we can actually do to be happier at work. I went back to studies that I and my team had done for companies and governments around the world. We’d interviewed dozens — sometimes hundreds — of people in these consulting projects, seeking clues about leadership practices and organizational values that helped, or hindered, organizational values. Results were pretty consistent: emotional intelligence and organizational cultures that value diversity, inclusion, learning, and human rights support success. Organizations that condone dissonance and mistreatment of people have problems.

When people were asked what they needed in order to be effective, personally, it didn’t matter if they worked in a remote government office, a start-up or a large corporate giant. It didn’t matter if they were young or old, male or female, brown, black or white. They said the same thing: “I need and want to be happy at work. I am more productive, creative and successful when I am. And to be happy, I need to feel that my work is meaningful, that I am making a difference. My work needs to be linked to my personal dreams, not just the company’s vision. And I need friends at work.”

The power of purpose

Seeing our work as an expression of cherished values and as a way to make a contribution is the foundation of well-being, happiness, and our ongoing success. Passion for a cause fuels energy, intelligence, and creativity. And, when we see that the results of our labor will benefit ourselves and others, we want to “fight the good fight” together. This is in part because of brain chemistry: the positive emotions that accompany purposeful, meaningful engagement in our activities enable us to be smarter, more innovative, and more adaptable.

Having a sound, clear, and compelling purpose helps you to be stronger, more resourceful, and better able to tap into your knowledge and talents. As you discover which aspects of your job are truly fulfilling, and which are soul destroying, you will be in a better position to make good choices about how you spend your time and what you pursue in your career.

Hope’s contribution to workplace happiness

Like meaning and purpose, hope is an essential part of our human experience. This is as true at work as in any corner of our lives. Hope, optimism, and a vision of a future that is better than today help us rise above trials and deal with setbacks. Hope makes it possible to navigate complexity, deal with pressure, prioritize, and make sense of our crazy organizations and work lives. And hope inspires us to reach our potential — something virtually everyone wants for themselves.

To be truly happy at work, we need to see how our workplace responsibilities and learning opportunities fit with a personal vision of our future. When we see our jobs through a positive lens, and when a personal vision is front and center in our minds, we are more likely to learn from challenges and even failures, rather than be destroyed by them. With hope, optimism, and a personal vision, we can actively choose a path toward happiness — a path away from disengagement, cynicism and despair.

Yes, you do need friends at work

Resonant relationships are at the heart of collective success in our companies. That’s because strong, trusting, authentic relationships form the basis for great collaboration and collective success. But, I’ve found, we need more than this to get us through good times and bad. We need to feel that people care about us and we want to care for them in return. This, too, is part of our human makeup. We want to feel as if we are accepted for who we are, and that we work in a group, team, or organization that makes us feel proud and inspires us to give our best effort.

Adding it all up, the kind of relationships we want and need look a lot like friendships. Yet, one of the most pernicious myths in today’s organizations is that you don’t have to be friends with your coworkers. Common sense and my decades of work with people and companies show the exact opposite. Love and a sense of belonging at work are as necessary as the air we breathe.

Purpose, hope, and friendships don’t just appear magically. You need to work for them, as my friend Ari did. He started by deciding he had a right to be happy at work, then, he focused on recapturing what was most important to him in life and learning how to bring it back to work. Over time, he rediscovered what he loved about his job — what made it feel meaningful and important. He rebuilt bridges and reconnected with people he used to like and trust at work. He also began to see what he wanted next. He surprised himself with this discovery: what he wanted, it turned out, wasn’t that CEO job. He wanted to lead the new, innovative division that just might keep the company at the forefront of the industry as technology redefined the business. Ultimately, he rediscovered what it means to be happy at work. You can, too.

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