Happiness isn’t about the amount in your paycheck, but the values that define your purpose.
In this episode, Jordan and Jason explore the science behind happiness and its correlation to employee productivity and workplace wellbeing.
They discuss the importance of humility in the workplace and why more money is not the key to achieving happiness. They also examine why 100% happiness in the workplace should not be the ultimate goal and what should be instead.
Nothing is miserable unless you think it so; Nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it. — Boethius — Jason
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Malarkey 24:01 AND 24:18
How many hours and years of our lives do we spend on work for nearly all of us, we spend 30 plus years and one third of our days in our vocation, more time perhaps than we spend at rest or at play. But this isn’t a problem. Why? Because work is good. Work needs to be integrated deeply into our lives and must be in line with our most important goals and values. And if it is, we have a far more complete and fulfilling life experience. Welcome to the How People Work podcast, where we explore the intersection of how humans think and act and how they apply themselves to their work. When you understand both of these things, you’ll be equipped to be insightful, compassionate, and compelling leaders.
Welcome back to How People Work. This is Jordan Peace sitting here with Jason Murray. Today we’re going to talk about happiness, and Jason has been, as I like to use the expression, nerding out on a study that was done by MIT about this very topic of happiness. And I’m going to kick it to Jason to frame up what this study was, when it happened, why it happened, what the results were, at least some of those results. And then we’ll just kind of spitball on our take.
Well, I think there’s a bunch of ideas that come out of that. You and I have talked about a little bit in the past already, and we’ll talk about a little bit more on this episode. Yeah. And I believe it was February of last year. So this is 2023. That would’ve been 2022. A study came out and it was sort of published by MIT’s Sloan School of Business. And I couldn’t believe it at first when I came across it because it was literally about happiness and the impact. Yeah, well, it was real science about happiness. And I was like, oh my gosh, I wish we had known this in 2018 when we started Fringe, because it’s like nobody was talking about that kind of stuff.
Well, that is easy too, in a business setting to be Mr. Tough guy and be like, happiness is for my 10 year old daughter, and how her love of unicorns. That has nothing to do with adults and work, much less soldiers, which is what you’re about to talk about.
So I think that the crazy thing is if you want to say, where would it be most unlikely that you think you would study something like happiness, you might say the military, but it is probably one of the best proxies for what does this mean in the workplace or business, right? Because it is literally the most merit driven institution that exists because of the nature of what they do. And so this study, what they did was they followed about a million US Army soldiers over the course of about five years, and -
Which is a huge number, by the way. Your typical survey that you would publish something like Forbes and say, we interviewed 500 people and — And then you’d say a result that everyone is supposed to read and buy and believe based on 500 survey results, which in all honesty is not so bad. 1 million is wild. That is a great cross section of society. If you got a million people, inevitably you got a solid cross section of -
Right, and so they were looking at it from a lens of how did people self-report feelings of happiness? So they literally just asked them on a subjective basis, which is really how psychological researchers do this stuff. So measures of happiness or wellbeing are measured by this subjectivity scale, but it’s just people assessing you. Just a sense of it, right? Yeah. But they found that it’s still a reliable way of assessing somebody’s overall affect in that way. And so it was really fascinating because individuals that self-reported greater levels of happiness were four times as likely to be top performers as their peers. So in terms of awards received, promotions, anything kind of merit-based thing, those that reported higher levels of happiness literally were better performers in the organization.
For math people, that’s 400% more. Or I think it is. Oh man, somebody’s going to call me on that. That’s wild. I mean, if you would’ve said every line that you just said, except for that number, I would’ve guessed like 50%, like ish at best. 4x? Wow
Yeah, it’s substantial. And so this was a really interesting piece of it too. So when you have a study like this, you can start slicing the data and saying, well, what are the factors that need to be taken into account? Are there impacts when you slice things based on demographics and so forth? Basically to look at what is the most substantial predictor of this outcome? So was it this self-reported happiness or was it family background? Was it race or ethnicity? Any of these kinds of things, right? Years of experience or something. And despite all of these other demographic factors, when they were all taken into consideration, happiness was still the greatest predictor of this merit-based award attainment. And so there’s just something really compelling, I think, to the idea that what might be considered subjective, and actually I think it’d be great to talk about a little bit more, is it actually as subjective as maybe we’re inclined to believe is this a significant predictor of performance in the workplace?
Yeah. Yeah, it’s really interesting. And I mean it also brings up questions about, well, how are we defining happiness and how are the people answering the question thinking about happiness and how much is happiness potentially a bit of a choice, right? A bit of an added perspective of maybe gratitude and kind of focusing on what’s good in one’s life as opposed to focusing on the hardship or the negatives. It brings up a whole host of questions.
Well, actually to that point, there’s a really interesting quote I came about in a book that I read a little while ago called The Happiness Hypothesis, and I’d never heard of this person, but it was a ancient Roman scholar in Greek philosophy, and he said, “Nothing is miserable unless you think it’s so, nothing brings happiness unless you’re content with it.” And so it actually aligns perfectly with what you were just describing and how sometimes we think about it.
Yeah, I mean, I was just theorizing, but he sounds smarter than me.
Yeah, well, his name was Boethius, so I mean, he’s got something on you there.
That’s solid when you have an ‑ethius in your name, you’re set.
Yeah. Well, I think there’s something too to this idea. Could certain people be more predisposed to being happy, for example? And that actually is true. So as researchers have gone and looked at these subjective measures, they do find that when they assess different personality traits and so forth, that there are some people that just do have a higher baseline, sort of a set point, if you will, of happiness. And so it’s not substantial. It’s not by a wide margin, but it is true that some people are slightly more predisposed to be happy. But the study from MIT actually dug into that a little bit. So they looked at what they called these heritability factors. So that’s what you might consider something that’s maybe more just biologically intrinsic. So you’re predisposed to, well, how much does that predisposition impact the actual sort of felt reality of how you report your feelings of happiness? And so when they looked at this, again, I thought this was super fascinating, they found that the heritability aspect of happiness only accounted for 20% of workplace happiness or job satisfaction, which means that the other 80% was influenced by factors within the workplace itself, or maybe more external factors. And so it actually brings you to a place where sort of the necessity is, well, you gotta design good workplaces and good work experiences because it’s such a huge contributing factor to what somebody’s actually felt experiencing happiness.
Right, you can’t just go out and find the happy people. You can’t just go out and — That old 20% push and it’s just like, oh, well this person, we could treat ‘em like crap, we could pay ‘em terribly, and they’re just happy. That’s informative even when you find somebody that maybe is a little bit predisposed to put a good spin on things and smile a little bit more often or whatever, that is a small percentage of the work that needs to be done in the workplace to actually generate that job satisfaction. I mean, I think that’s observably true. I mean, not to say researchers and actual science isn’t valuable, and of course it’s valuable, but it’s also observably true. Obviously companies where people feel kind of appreciated, seen, heard, dignified, respected, they’re going to be happier in that workplace in a place where they feel like a cog in a wheel. And I know in our own experience, I’ve just heard — well, we don’t do it anymore, but I used to be able to do the final interview for every single person that came into Fringe. And the stories about their old job was never, I mean, and maybe it’s just my interview style, and I’m very personal, and I really don’t care about your resume or experience, I just want to know your story. But the story is always about the feeling of what it was like to work there wherever there was, or even two or three or four jobs ago that great experience that they had. And they ended up parting ways for some reason, or the company didn’t make it or whatever. But it was always about words. I loved it there. I was so happy there. I had a great relationship with my manager there, or I was miserable there. It’s always this word that is associated with the happiness scale.
So that’s a great example that I think we could maybe try and unpack a little bit, because when I hear that, I think, well, how accurate is somebody’s assessment of that? Is it actually a reasonable judgment of happiness because… is it just truly as subjective as I felt a certain way? Or are there ways that we might be able to create a more consistent framework for understanding happiness maybe a little bit more broadly?
Yeah, I mean, I think you can set up a framework that gives people a lot higher chance of being satisfied in their job. There are people, in my observation, again, this is not coming from science or research, but in my observation, there are people that are determined to be miserable. Like you could set up everything in the way in which it kind of ought to lead to satisfaction, but they’re just not willing to accept that. And typically it’s something in their past, some experience that they’ve had, some wound that it’s, they haven’t overcome. That hasn’t been figured out. And so we can’t produce happiness 100% of the time in our workplaces. That’s not, shouldn’t be the goal, right? I think the goal ought to be to provide an environment in which people can thrive, that we can see this human flourishing and that we’re not in the way of that human flourishing, that we’re both promoting it and not being a stumbling block to it.
Yeah. Well, maybe one way we could come at this, because I, I haven’t thought through the answer to this question, so I’m curious what you’ll say is what causes somebody to be unhappy at work?
I think there could be a number of things. The thing that’s, let’s be honest, you never know what I’m going to say. Human beings always look outside of themselves for their source of unha, whatever the word is, dissatisfaction, right? Disappointment, whatever. They always are looking outside of themselves. So I think in your surveying, and when you ask people, why are you unhappy? The answer almost always is going to be that person, that situation, that I wasn’t equipped because of, right? There’s kind of always finger-pointing with when I’m not happy, when I am happy, it seems to be more balanced, right? It’s like, well, I’m satisfied because I felt like I did good work and I was proud of myself and it’s balanced with, but I also had a great coach and a mentor, and it’s balanced with, well, I really love my leaders. And it seems to be more clear and honest and well rounded in that answer.
Well, because this is a tough thing, and this maybe ties into the quote from Boethius a little bit here, is at what point as an individual, do I actually have a valid claim or an invalid claim on being unhappy? So if maybe my unhappiness is largely a result of circumstances around me and I’m kind of pointing the finger elsewhere, can I not as an individual, take some responsibility to maybe perceive the situation differently? Or is that just kind of positive thinking bull crap?
No, no, I don’t think so. I mean, think what you’re describing is one good definition of what maturity is, being able to clearly see who’s responsible for what. Especially what you are responsible for. And humili, I think part of what humility is when you are happy to recognize that you aren’t the one that got yourself there, not fully, that there are a lot of people that poured into your life and your situation and your work and whatever it is to help you. And when you’re unhappy, the maturity is, I took part in this, my attitude, my lack of effort, my lack of forgiveness for those that have wronged me, whatever the case may be. So I think the claim that I’m not happy is valid because we’re talking about an emotion, and I can’t tell you, yes, you are happy, you feel what you feel and that the feeling is valid. But I think there is a need to challenge whoever in our lives, whether we work with them or they’re our friends or they’re our wives. We’re talking about our wives on the way here, very positively, all praises. But there, there’s a need if people care about each other to kind of call out some BS and to kind of say, well, yeah, I know you’re miserable, but some of that’s on you, and let me walk you through maybe some of the steps you’ve taken. And that’s tough love, and that’s hard, and that’s awkward to do that, and especially in the workplace to do that. But I think that’s kind of the level of relationship on a peer-to-peer level or maybe manager to peer level that breeds a healthy culture in an organization or a healthy family to have the ability to have those conversations.
Yeah. Well, there’s something to that maturity. I think. I’m not going to remember the name of the book, so maybe we’ll find it for the show notes afterwards, but the premise of this book was a guy went and lived with the lepers in Calcutta in India for a year. And he basically went to just study how they lived and what their life was like. And what he described in the book was some of the happiest people you would ever meet, and you would think, how could they possibly be the happiest people that you would ever meet? Because circumstantially, there’s nothing about their life that we would look at, especially where we live in the first world, in the west, and say, oh, man, I can totally imagine why they must be so happy with everything they got going on. Sounds great. I mean, it sounds miserable. It sounds horrible. And so it speaks to the fact that what, I guess what lies behind true happiness, even our subjective feeling of it, has to go deeper than those external circumstances.
It does. I mean, that will take me down a deep rabbit hole to talk about that, right? I mean, really, how many times have you heard people say, statistically the happiest people are those just above the poverty line? So that’s just a financial reality that breeds happiness. In this situation, these people are dying. How many stories have you heard of people that are, how many songs have you heard? We were just laughing about country songs, and we don’t enjoy the twang necessarily, but the storytelling can be really good. This story, we’re sitting here drinking tequila and this song about tequila, which I won’t share any lyrics of right now, but there’s a song, right? I hope you get the chance to live. You were dying. And it’s all in this country, I can’t remember who it is. I apologize, I can’t remember who the singer is, but what he would do if he found out he was dying, and it’s not like, well, I would just sit around and mope. It was like, I’d go skydiving and I’d go mountain climbing. I’d do this and that and the other thing, because your appreciation of every moment is so much sweeter when you see the timeline, right? So yeah, it’s not wealth that brings happiness. It’s not even stability that brings happiness. It’s a viewpoint of what I have, and I ought to be appreciative of what I have because it’s limited.
Well, it’s an orientation. So I think what you’re talking about, and we were talking about this this morning, is like you can’t experience true happiness unless you actually know what you’re aiming for. And so what happens when you know, get that death sentence essentially because you’re mortally ill, all of a sudden, it brings into focus what actually matters most. And most of us just kind of stumble through life without ever thinking about these things. And so we just kind of wake up and we’re like, what are we doing today? I don’t know. I’m just going to go do some stuff and maybe it’s good. Maybe I have no idea because I’m not actually thinking about what’s most important.
Because I don’t have to think. For centuries, on centuries and millennia, your chief goal was to survive, right? You had to make the food, find the food, cook the food, eat the food. Stay alive, have shelter. Like medicine wasn’t even a thought for many thousands of years until it was, and then there was some concern about that, and that was part of the staying alive narrative and goal and focus. But it has become, for most of us, I should say, not to, there are unique situations, but for most of us in the West, it has become too easy to survive. Right? And so if survival’s not the goal anymore, then we fail to make goals sometimes where it’s like, oh, okay, well yeah, I just kind of coast, I guess. I’ll just go from one thing to the next relationship to the next job, to the next whatever, kind of wherever life leads me. And yet we have the highest anxiety rates, depression rates in all of human history, suicide rates in all of human history, and we’re the wealthiest we’ve ever been, right? It’s so much easier to survive than it’s ever been. We’ve got more medicine, we live longer, and yet we’re less happy. Right? That should rock us to to think about that. Why is that, right? Isn’t that the whole point? Live longer, have more, relax more, work less, right? Isn’t that the whole thing?
Yeah. Well, I mean, that kind of goes back to even what we talked about last week when we got on to all the weird definitions of different types of happiness and whatnot. But a lot of those things that you’re just describing would kind of fall into that bucket of hedonic happiness, which is basically just things that I get to have very short term oriented kind of pleasure experiences. And what happens with all of those things, say food -
For those of us that aren’t as smart as Jason, that’s based on the word hedonism as in pleasure-seeking. So just that definition for everybody.
So if you take food, for example, like food satiates, so it brings a great deal of pleasure for a very short period of time. And when the experience is over, you feel full, you actually can’t enjoy anymore without it becoming a horrible experience. Right? And then the same’s true of some of these other things. So when we talk about wealth or earning income and things like that. There’s what’s called the adaptation principle, so this is again a psychological term. I can’t take credit for it, but it just means that once you have something, you adjust to a new set point of that experience.
When we were in financial planning, we used to call that lifestyle creep.
Yes, exactly right? And so it correlates exactly to these studies that have been done around happiness.
Whatever I had yesterday is my new demand on life. I must have that every day from here forward, right?
So I think this is why the research around that kind of looks at the correlations between income and happiness, it all breaks down over a certain threshold. Because over a certain threshold, it’s just the adaptation principle at work. You have a new set point, it’s not going to sustain a level of happiness because it’s not actually tapped into that goal orientation. So you really have to step back then and say, well, fundamentally, that longer term sustained happiness is based upon something deeper and more meaningful and purposeful. Yes.
Yeah. I mean, you look at the super wealthy in the world, and for most of their life, they generate wealth, generate wealth, generate wealth, and some of ‘em never really changed from that, or they die young or whatever happens. But you see a lot of people get into their sixties, seventies, and all of a sudden, like a Bill Gates, Bill and Melinda Gates, for example, good example, just a switch flipped. And they were like, we need to give back. We need to seek purpose. You could just tell that that is the mission in their house. Well, I don’t think they have a household anymore, but you know what I mean. You could just see that change. All of a sudden Bill Gates was Microsoft and then all of a sudden Bill Gates was a foundation and it was all about that. And you just wonder, did it take him until that point in life and did his set point change so many times that he finally realized, oh, this is just a limitless pursuit of limitless wealth that will never satisfy me. This is malarkey, for lack of a better word. Yeah. So you keep bringing up goals. So I think it’s a good transition of what do we want in life? What is it that matters to us? And I think another thing that’s malarkey, to use the word twice, is that we assume that it’s money that is the predominant tool that will get us the thing that we want. And that might be the case. You might sit down and set goals, and the thing for you that just taps into the heart of hearts for you is a yacht. Maybe that’s the thing. Don’t, I’m not going to try to judge that push on that if that’s the thing. Right? I know you would. I would too, but I’m being a little bit playful here, but I’m not trying to say money’s unimportant or it’s not something to pursue for certain means. Your goal might be to give away a billion dollars in your life. You’re not going to be able to do that unless you have a billion dollars. So it’s not that money, in and of itself is the bad thing. It’s just the assumption that that is the chief tool needed to accomplish the goal is falsehood.
Well, it’s a means. It is a means. Yeah. It’s one means to an end, which the end is the goal. But then you have to say, let’s say, let’s take the yacht example. See, you couldn’t let it go, then you can’t let it go. Well, I think it’s a good one. Yeah. Well, cause I take myself and say, I’ve been dreaming about this vacation house that we don’t have right now, but I’d love to have something like that for our family. But you know, look at something like that. It’s like, well, you need certain resources and you have to get a down payment. All these things got to come together in order to make something like that happen. But if I really step back and say, why do I want that? Yeah. Well, it’s not exactly, because I just want a place to get away. It’s that I imagine all of the experiences that I’ll have with my family there and all the other people from my family and friends that I’ll bring there and the experiences that we’ll share together. And so all of a sudden the value that’s behind just like, Hey, it’s not actually about having a vacation house, right, in and of itself. It’s actually about these experiences. And so then you start kind of unpacking that and it’s like, why does that matter? It’s like, well, because those relationships in my life are the most important thing to me. And so all of a sudden you’re building this value hierarchy that you can orient yourself towards in the day-to-day things that you do. And so now all of a sudden the happiness isn’t like, well, do I have more money or not? Because that’s not really the ultimate end anyways. Yeah. The ultimate end is what’s at the top of that value hierarchy that I actually care most about? What is that thing, and am I making progress towards it? Do I feel that I’m making progress towards it?
Right. I am shocked by how long we’ve been talking. It feels like it’s been five minutes and it has not been five minutes. If you’re good with it, I would love to just pick this up next week. Continue down this very same track because I think it’s a ton more to say on happiness and I think some personal stories. We can share our own goals, how you go about setting goals, how you go about setting goals if you have people in your life like a spouse or a life partner or somebody important to you that you need to coset those goals with. I think there’s a ton to discuss. Is that good? All right. Cool. I know we have another topic planned, but I think would be fun just to continue. So let me wrap it up. Yes. And we’ll jump back on next week.
And I got to give you the word of the day For this week, which is symbiosis.
I’m going to have to look that one up too. Is it like symbiotics symbiosis? Okay. I know my root words. Yes. I know my prefixes pretty well. Yeah. Oh, okay. All right. I’m with you. Well, great. Really enjoyed this discussion. I hope you all enjoyed listening to our discussion and happiness. We’re going to pick this up next week. We’re planning on talking about having a positive vision of work, and so I think we almost could even blend the two happiness, positivity at work. They do kind of go together, but we’re going to pick this up. Really enjoyed it. Thank you, Jason, for the time. Really enjoy the discussion and we will catch you all next week on how people work. Bye-Bye. Bye.