How Work Makes Us Happier (Seriously!)

When we look at ways to be happier, we usually don’t look to work.

Instead, we tend to see work as a necessary source of unhappiness. We work because we need money.

One of the premises of the financial independence movement is that we’ll be happier once we don’t have to go to our jobs anymore.

If you’re discounting work as a source of happiness, however, you’re missing out on quite a bit.

Not only do we tend to be happier than we think at work, there is much more happiness to be mined in this arena.

Work vs. Home

Studies have been done where individuals were given devices that beeped at set intervals during the day. When the alarm went off, the people wrote down a number of things about what they were doing and how they were feeling at that exact moment.

The studies found that people were actually happier when they were at work than when they were at home.

When asked after the fact whether they were happier at work or at home, these same people said they were happier at home.

They thought they were happier at home than at work. They were wrong.

Getting Paid for Nothing

Work is more than a paycheck, regardless of how we may feel about it at the end of the day.

To illustrate this point, let’s look to another study.

In this one, psychologists paid college students to do nothing. Literally.

They were paid more than they would make from a normal student job, but they were forbidden from doing any work while they were on their shift.

Within the first 4-8 hours of working this job, the students became unhappy. Most quickly chose to quit in order to pursue more difficult work that paid less.

Lack of work makes us unhappy. This is one of the reasons that you’ll see stories from time to time on elevated rates of depression among retirees.

They miss work, even though they spent their whole career looking forward to retiring.

But why?

Introducing Flow

One reason is flow.

You know that feeling when you’re totally absorbed in what you’re doing? You lose track of time. You don’t notice hunger or exhaustion. You just keep plowing forward, excited about your progress and new challenges.

Psychologists call that feeling flow. And it is a major source of happiness.

The average person is more likely to experience flow at work than at home. Flow requires interesting problems to be solved and new challenges to be conquered. Whether we want to admit it or not, we’re more likely to get that at work than from watching television on the couch.

With that in mind, it makes a lot of sense that we would be happier at work than at home.

Finding Flow

To hit a flow state, you need to find just the right balance between skill and challenge.

If the problem your trying to solve is too difficult, then you’ll get frustrated. If it is too easy, you’ll get bored. Either way, you won’t hit that sweet spot.

When you hit that perfect middle ground that is pushing just beyond your current skill level, then you’ve got fertile ground for flow to take root.

Once you hit this state, you get happiness on a number of different fronts.

First, you’ll get joy out of whatever it is you are doing. Overcoming obstacles and conquering challenges feels good. No matter what is on our plate, we feel better when we are solving challenging problems.

Next, you build self-confidence. You are expanding the boundaries of your capabilities. You are hitting new milestones. You are leaping new hurdles. This will make you feel better about yourself and improve your general outlook on life.

Finally, you are completely engrossed in the present. When you are in the flow state, your mind is focused entirely on the task at hand. There is no past. There is no future. There is just this problem in front of you. This leads to many of the benefits of meditation that we explored last week.

Bring Your Flow Home

Once we understand flow, we can build more of it into our workday so that we can enjoy our job more.

But we don’t have to limit flow to our job.

People were happier at work than at home because they stumbled upon flow at work and didn’t at home. If we take a more conscious approach, we can build flow into any area of our lives.

We already learned that we need to find a task that challenges us, but without overwhelming us. What else do we need to do to build flow?

Never Stop Learning

Always be learning.

Every topic or skill or activity that you come to as a beginner is one with lots of space for you to grow. It’s easy to push your limits when you suck.

And you won’t suck for long! It will feel good to become adept at something new and to solve new problems.

For this reason, we need to always be trying new things. Find something you know nothing about and start building a new skill.

Use your work time and your free time to challenge yourself. We’ve been conditioned to view work as bad, and so challenging ourselves seems like the opposite of what we want to do with our free time.

The research is clear, though. If you want to be happier, keep challenging yourself and keep growing.

Building the Right Environment

Another important point for fostering flow is to minimize distractions.

Because flow is complete absorption in a task, anything that takes your attention away pulls you out of your flow state. You can’t get in the zone if you keep interrupting yourself to check your phone.

It’s important, then, to control your environment. Get rid of anything that could pull you away from your task.

Close your browser tabs. Silence and put away your phone. Turn off notification. Make email hard to access for a period of time. Stay away from Twitter (my recent weakness).

Those things will all be waiting for you when you’re done. Don’t let the need for instant gratification cost you happiness.

Join the Conversation!

You are probably happier at work than you realize. But you can be happier still! And you can bring that happiness home!

Finding ways to introduce more flow into your life can boost your happiness immensely.

Where have you experienced flow? Do you find yourself happier working? Do you have hobbies that get you into the flow state? Let us know in the comments!

8 thoughts on “How Work Makes Us Happier (Seriously!)”

  1. Another great post, Matt.

    The study of the kids being paid not to work is fascinating. I can totally relate to the conclusion. I’m happiest when I accomplish stuff. A perfect day for me would include using my brain to solve a problem, using my body to reach a goal and relaxing with friends and family. Sitting on my hands and doing nothing would be torture.
    Jason@WinningPersonalFinance recently posted…How I Used Travel Rewards to Save $2,809 on My Dream Ski VacationMy Profile

  2. Excellent article!
    That’s why those who want to “retire from” something are more likely to fail on the psychological side compared to those who want to “retire to” something.

    If it’s just your job that you hate, go finding another job.
    If you have projects that are waiting for your time to get a chance, you may plan to Retire Early 🙂
    Mr RIP recently posted…I will invest when the market dropsMy Profile

    1. Definitely! I think a lot of people jump on the FIRE train because they see it as an exit plan from their job. That’s fine as far as it goes, but you need something waiting for you on the other side or you’ll just be retiring to more unhappiness.

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Matt recently posted…Looking on the Bright SideMy Profile

    1. For sure. I sometimes wonder if it used to be easier to be happy back when there was less advanced technology. Technology can be great and has opened a ton of doors and saved a lot of lives, but it does seem to make any sort of focus difficult to achieve.

      Thanks, Mark!
      Matt recently posted…Looking on the Bright SideMy Profile

  3. One of the things that the start-up company that I’m working for is to motivate us to experiment to never stop learning which I definitely to that point. Overall, great points and thank you for sharing this.

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