Your Career and the Harvard Study on Happiness

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Your Career and the Harvard Study on Happiness

Do you believe there is any relevance at work to the Harvard Study on Happiness – the longest study on happiness ever done?  Many people don’t.  But if you’re one of those people you just might be missing a sure-fire way to get more out of employees or to enjoy your career more yourself.

The study’s formal name is The Harvard Study of Adult Development; and it is one of the longest and most complete studies of adult life ever conducted. The study followed two cohorts of white men for 75 years, starting in 1938.  The researchers surveyed the men about their lives (including the quality of their marriages, job satisfaction, and social activities) every two years and monitored their physical health (including chest X-rays, blood tests, urine tests, and echocardiograms) every five years.

The study’s current director, George Vaillant, has said that the study’s most important finding is that the only thing that matters in life is relationships. A man could have a successful career, money and good physical health, but without supportive, loving relationships, he wouldn’t be happy (“Happiness is only the cart; love is the horse.”).  In a TED talk, he shared three important lessons learned from the study as well as some practical, old-as-the-hills wisdom on how to build a fulfilling, long life.

So, what does the Happiness Study tell us?  From the TED talk transcript:

  1. People who are more socially connected are happier.
  2. Quality of relationships matters more than quantity.
  3. Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains.

Do these apply at home but not at work?  Let’s see how they might apply to your career, and then look at some mini case studies.

  1. People who are more socially connected are happier

No matter how great the company, you have to have work relationships.  Why?  Because you can’t be happy without them; and you can’t be productive and successful in your career without being happy.  This is counter-intuitive for some people, but studies have shown success doesn’t drive happiness.  Happiness drives success.

Home office is a way of life for many workers now.  Where it used to be resisted by management, it’s now often a strategy for controlling cost and so embraced.  Elaine worked from home for many years; and loved it. Except for one job.  She thought she didn’t like the company.  Or had outgrown the job.  Finally, she realized why:  she wasn’t interacting with people.  The division she was in was not successful so there were few client meetings or even calls.  There was no local office.  Elaine was isolated at work and transferred that unhappiness to the job itself.  Once she realized the cause of my unhappiness, Elaine made some very basic changes.  She started a program of visiting current clients to learn how they used the company’s products and to offer help where needed.  She also requested and received permission to join teams working on the outskirts of what would be considered her job. Elaine discovered she liked her job just fine!

We often can and must take responsibility for our own unhappiness at work. We know how important relationships are, so one great way to increase happiness at work
is to find ways to regularly interact with people at work.  While quality is even more important than quantity, some people contact is critical to happiness at work. 
And as we know, happiness leads to success and productivity.

2. Quality of Relationships matters more than Quantity

It’s not enough to interact with a lot of people in our work.  The fit with your co-workers and clients matters even more.  So, as a career coach, I help a client examine the quality of relationships.  But what happens when you have to work with someone you just don’t like?  That’s a tough one.  There are lots of articles written on how to work with someone you don’t like.  I like the work of Byron Katie:  Loving What Is.  It’s not easy, but it has worked wonders for many people in tough situations.

Karen had come to Canada from the UK to work for a small company based in London.  She’d loved the job when she worked in the London office.  But in the Canadian office she ran into a couple of problems.  One named Luc, the other named John. They didn’t believe they should collaborate with Karen.  They had their jobs and had no intention of wasting time “doing hers”.  Karen’s enjoyment of her job plummeted.  She was thinking of leaving the company and returning home, even though the cost of moving to Canada had been high.  Her new Canadian bosses could see her declining satisfaction but were at a loss as to how to hold on to her.  Then Karen found a friend at work.  Jim was collaborative and fun to be with.  He helped out when needed and gave her the guidance any new person needs.  She bounced back to her normal state of loving her job, and continued to work in Canada, much to the relief of her bosses.

Quality of work relationships is more important than quantity.  Yes, two co-workers were making Karen’s life difficult; but having one good friend who was also a great colleague totally balanced out the negativity of John and Luc.

Don’t let the negativity of some people totally overwhelm you.  If we can find a work buddy, a good quality relationship can turn a bad situation completely around.
Work on those tough relationships, too.  Byron Katie’s methods in her book “Loving What Is” can help.  But a strong relationship can give you the strength to keep going!

  1. Good relationships don’t just protect our Bodies; they protect our Brains.

If we aren’t happy enough at work our brains aren’t going to do all we need them to do.  And we may end up missing too much time to be optimally productive.  It can hurt to be unhappy.

Claire worked in Edmonton for a Toronto-based company.  In part because she didn’t feel part of a team, she had performance problems that resulted in a Performance Improvement Plan.  One hint her manager may have had that she felt lonely at work was the fact she took her family with her on sales trips.  No doubt unhappiness had something to do with the poor performance; and being on a PIP definitely made her unhappy.  She began having small accidents – a sprained ankle, a broken finger.  She also suffered from several bouts of the flu and cold.  In a coaching session with her manager, she said she realized her unhappiness was probably causing the physical problems.  And she decided she’d be better off in a work environment where she was able to be happy.  For her, she needed to be with people she felt she had more in common with.  So, she left the job that she had been desperate to hold on to.  And has been very successful in her career elsewhere in a different industry, working with people who share her business interests.

Sometimes you just can’t be happy in a job and the answer is to leave.  There is no job or company that works for everyone, no matter how much many others love it.
And if one company doesn’t work out for you, another one surely can.  If you find yourself exhausted, getting a lot of colds, or just with a lot of aches and pains,
stop to wonder if your job, or your coworkers, is making you sick.

Can you think of times when you had a strong relationship with someone at work?  And can you remember how that helped?  If you have some good examples, please comment.

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