The pursuit of happiness is propagated as the ultimate goal in life. Over time, this has permeated the world of work too.
The cliche ‘what gets measured gets done’ couldn’t be further from the truth. We have been measuring workplace satisfaction for decades. Yet, only 15 per cent of employees worldwide feel ‘engaged’ at work. The more worrisome fact is that 67 per cent feel ‘actively disengaged’.
It is becoming increasingly clear that solely focusing on happiness in your career can be misguided. Let's consider the three distinct places in our lives: home, work, and the ‘third place’.
Throughout history, cultures have embraced social hangouts such as cafes, sheesha lounges, pubs, and tapas bars, often referred to as the ‘third place’. Home represents our deep relationships with loved ones, while work pertains to our pursuit of economic security. The third place acts as a socializing place between home and work.
Understanding this distinction highlights the purposes behind these places.
Not designed for work
Humans were not designed to sit for long periods, nor undertake physically strenuous work. We are not designed to be constantly bombarded with information. Nor do we thrive in environments where we need to be constantly connected with others.
The chances you will find happiness in such an environment are faint and such expectations can only create stress. Career burnouts are caused by this pursuit of happiness at work. Some of the contributing factors are – work overload with little time, the feeling of lack of control over your work, and not knowing what is expected of you at work.
We should aim to set clear expectations from ourselves no matter what work we do. The measures are - ‘how well we do it’ and ‘what standards we deliver in our output’. Even what we get compensated should be directly attributable to these.
Our workplace relationships, our behaviour, and our competence should serve the purpose of helping us do better on these two measures. No other measure matters.
Love vs work
The Harvard Study of Adult Development is a longitudinal study that has been following two groups of men over the last 84 years. The study has uncovered the single factor that leads to a happy and fulfilling life - Being engaged in activities you care about with people you care about.
The more you are pulled away from a fulfilling life you give rise to stress and risk career burnout. One of the key questions the Harvard study asked the participants was ‘Who could you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or scared?’.
The correlation between the answers and life fulfilment indicates that we all need two or three people like that in our lives. A network of good relationships will help us weather the storms and make us more likely to be happy.
Maintaining relationships takes sustained effort and time. We make an effort for those we care about as relationships are fragile and wither away with neglect.
Our relationship with our loved ones is like a lighthouse – helping us find refuge in the storms of our lives. We won’t be happy all the time. There will be setbacks and challenges.
Having these strong bonds of loving relationships will help us bounce back to happiness.
Beyond family are our friendships and social network. We all need to maintain a vibrant network supported by small actions of connecting, talking, sharing and reciprocating. Research shows that a strong, not necessarily large, social network also fuels a fulfilled life.
Unlike the widespread negativity related to social media, it is very effective to connect with each other and interact, supporting our well-being.
Even virtual connections can help us weather storms. The documentary ‘We Met in Virtual Reality’ explores the social relations developed by the users of VRChat during the pandemic, and how time on the platform helped them connect, express and find community.
Happiness has its place in our lives and is supported by focusing on deep relationships that we care about. The pursuit of our careers should not keep us away from the time and effort it takes to nurture these relationships.
Instead, the focus of our career should be to create the economic security we need in order to sustain the relationships that matter to us.