By Sonja Lyubomirsky
As an experimental social psychologist who has been studying happiness for almost 20 years, I am often asked, “What makes people happy?” Until recently, my answer typically reflected the
common wisdom and empirical findings in my field – namely, relationships. Our interpersonal connections – the strength of our friendships, familial bonds, and intimate ties – show the highest correlations with happiness.
Imagine my surprise then, after two colleagues and I conducted a meta-analysis (a “study of studies”) of 225 studies of well-being. I fully expected to discover that social relationships were both causes and consequences of being happy. However, what I observed was something totally different. One factor towered over relationships in its connection with happiness. That factor was work.
The evidence, for example, demonstrates that people who have jobs characterized by autonomy, meaning and variety – and who show superior performance, creativity, and productivity – are significantly happier than those who don’t. Supervisors are happier than those lower on the totem pole, and leaders who receive high ratings from their customers are happier than those with poor ratings. And, of course, the income that a job provides is also associated with happiness, though money has more of an impact when we have less of it.
Why does our work make us happy? Because it offers a sense of identity, structure to our days, and significant and meaningful life goals to pursue. It supplies us with close colleagues, friends and even marriage partners.
The story doesn’t end there, however. Studies reveal that the causal arrow between happiness and work runs both ways. Not only do productivity and creativity at the office make people happy, but happier people have been found to be more productive and creative. They are better citizens in the organization, better negotiators, and are less likely to take sick days or suffer burnout.
The most persuasive data regarding the effects of happiness on desirable work outcomes (as opposed to vice versa) come from longitudinal studies, or studies conducted on the same participants over a long period of time. For example, people who rate themselves as happy at age 18 achieve greater financial independence, higher occupational attainment and greater work autonomy by age 26. Furthermore, the happier a person is, the more likely he will get a job offer, retain his job, and get a new job if he ever loses it. Finally, one fascinating study showed that people who show more positive emotions on the job receive more favorable evaluations from their supervisors 3.5 years later.
The same point applies to income. Not only does greater wealth make people happy, but happy people appear more likely to accrue greater wealth in life. For example, research has demonstrated that the happier a person is at one period in her life, the higher income she will earn at a later period. In one of my favorite studies, researchers showed that those who were happy as college freshmen had higher salaries 16 years later, when in their mid-30s.
But before we find yet another reason to be envious of very happy people (not only do they get to feel good, but they get to have good jobs and make more money as well!), consider what the research on happiness and work suggests. It suggests that, when it comes to work life, we can create our own so-called “upward spirals.” The more successful we are at our jobs and the better work environment we have, the happier we will be. This increased happiness will foster greater success, more money, and an improved work environment, which will further enhance happiness, and so on and so on.