Arthur Brooks has a happiness formula — and he doesn't think young people hear it enough.
Brooks teaches Harvard students (or, as he put it, "hundreds of anxious young people") how to be happy, is the author of 12 books on the topic and writes The Atlantic's "How to Build a Life" column. He delivered the keynote speech at the Catholic University of America's 2023 commencement on Saturday.
Brooks warned new graduates against two common but "terrible" pieces of advice: 1) "Go find a job that you love, and you'll never work a day in your life" and 2) "Go save the world."
To the first, he said, "Good luck with that. It's a great way to ruin your life." He explained that expecting a job to be fun all the time will set you up to hate any job — when the work inevitably becomes difficult and not fun.
Brooks scoffed at the second: "No pressure." To expect your day job to solve the world's myriad problems is another recipe for disappointment, he said.
Some may guess that the actual ingredients for job satisfaction are money, prestige, power and admiration: "No, no, no," Brooks said.
Here are his two answers to finding happiness at work:
The first key to work happiness, according to Brooks is what he calls "earned success": producing something valuable in your own life and in the lives of others.
For Brooks, happiness at work is not determined by your job title or perks but rather the investment you put into your day.
Put simply, "You don't cut corners," Brooks said.
Perhaps this sounds like the spin of some corporate higher-up trying to convince overworked employees that indeed, working even harder will make them happier. Of course, studies show that mentality is really just a fast-track to burnout.
But Brooks' advice does not depend on output, corporate approval or any other traditional metric of workplace productivity. He believes that doing your job without taking shortcuts is an expression of commitment to yourself and others — it's not just a tactic to climb a career ladder.
"Maybe you'll work in your major — probably not. Maybe you'll land your dream job — probably not, especially if you don't know what your dream job is," Brooks told the graduates. "None of this matters, as long as at the end of the day, you can say, on most days at least, 'I did my work with love and with excellence.'"
Experts agree that positive relationships at work are a necessary ingredient for job satisfaction. Brooks' second answer to finding joy at work is in line with that finding: do your job in a way that serves others, not just yourself.
He told graduates that for ultimate happiness, it does not matter if their job is fun all the time or whether it "singlehandedly" fixes the world.
Instead, deeper satisfaction comes from work that can make a difference in the lives of some. And serving others comes from how you do your job, not what your job is. He believes that you can serve others whether you work in a bank, put roofs on houses or raise children.
"Let's be honest: There are very few institutions and parts of our lives where people really care," said Brooks.
It is then up to individuals to care for each other, and Brooks believes that can be done in the way you carry out your daily work: "Service to others is loving everybody with your ordinary, sanctified work."
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