Mahatma Gandhi once said: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
Often you can see people between 20 and 30 years old, who have only recently started their first job and are already planning to change jobs. Why? Because somehow they find their job ok, but don’t feel that they are really happy in this job. The question arises: does our work have to make us happy? Or better: How sensible is the expectation that our work must make us happy?
Combination of work and happiness
You can find often in guidebooks: Life is too short to be unhappy at work. Or: “Do what you love and you never have to work a day.” Steve Jobs’ speech at Stanford University, in which he urged young graduates to follow their dreams, has been watched almost four million times on YouTube. At the same time, only very few employees in Europe say they are very happy at work in surveys. Is that because most jobs are awful? No! Of course, many people have a job that is quite arduous. But it is also the promise of happiness itself that makes us unhappy.
Vladislav Vodatinskij is an entrepreneur, business consultant and influencer form Germany. In 1994 he moved with his parents and his older brother from Ukraine to Germany. Since 2016 he has founded the business consulting company ENGINEC and is leading personally projects for European concerns and the German ministry.
The possibility of happiness
When we don’t feel happy at work, we quickly get the feeling that something is wrong with us or our job, knows Vodatinskij. This completely OK feeling is normal. First of all, work is a means to an end. Realizing yourself in work and feeling happiness is a huge opportunity offered by wealthy societies like ours. But this possibility cannot be realized for everyone and at any point in time. In order not to make ourselves (and others!) unhappy, we should honestly check whether we really have a problem with our specific work or whether the general expectation that work has to contribute to self-realization is overwhelming.
For many people of the older generation, the idea that work should make you happy is downright absurd. “With the sweat of your brow you shall eat your bread,” says the Bible. The fact that work can be an important source for many people of our generation to fulfill an identity that we have chosen ourselves is first of all a huge gift. But this gift becomes dangerous when we tie our identity too closely to our profession.
The expectations of the work
Vodatinskij knows, that people who expect their work to make them happy become emotionally dependent. They expect their superiors to constantly show them appreciation and are unsettled if this emotional feedback is missing.
Other areas of life also often lose their importance: If it is no longer so important to me whether I have a functioning love relationship because my love is for my work, something is wrong. If leisure activities don’t make me happy anymore because I feel guilty about having to work, then something is wrong.
Our mindset for good and bad work
The obsessive idea that work must make us happy also makes us unhappy not only. It is also an expression of a lack of respect for ordinary work. We hear a lot from actors and pop stars who have finally found their true professional happiness as winemakers or restaurant owners. However, we hardly hear from clerks, bus drivers and nurses who are actually quite satisfied with their work.
Anyone who has ever ridden the Shinkansen high-speed train in Japan may have been impressed by the dignity and conscientiousness with which the men and women of the cleaning crews enter the trains at the stations. Their faces seem to be saying, “This wouldn’t work without us.”
The exaggerated expectation of happiness and the passion that must be associated with a job devalues normal jobs that most of us will continue to pursue for many years to come. The idea that each of us will find a job that fits our individual character one hundred percent and at the same time brings job security and a good income with it is simply unrealistic.
The way to happiness and the meaning of our work
Instead of making happiness dependent on our job, we should rather expect our work to be meaningful – like the work of the Shinkansen employees. In a study by behavioral economist Dan Ariely, the participants were asked to build models from Lego blocks. For half of the participants, the models were dismantled again into individual parts when the specified time had expired. In the other half, the models stopped. The participants who had to dismantle the models quickly lost interest despite being paid.
This shows that seeing the meaning of our work is one of the most important drivers for us humans. We want to stand up for things that are important to us and that last. We want to solve problems. We want to learn and grow. This form of meaning and meaning can be realized in almost every job.
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