Being Happy In Your Work

March 15, 2002

Mary Ann Travis
Phone: 865-5714

If you're happy at work, chances are, you'll be content with your life away from work. Work especially plays a central role in determining the happiness of Americans because our success-focused culture strongly emphasizes individual achievement, says Carl Thoresen, assistant professor of psychology.

In his office, Thoresen has installed a curving bookshelf precariously holding books. The shelf's jaunty slant and the books' gravity-defying perch are clues to Thoresen's own sense of fun in the workplace. He says he has always been interested in the relationship between people's perceptions of their working lives and their overall levels of happiness, contentment and well-being.

Now Thoresen's taking that interest further by turning to Tulane faculty and staff to help him explore the interface between job satisfaction and happiness. In the past few months, like a salesman making "cold" calls, unannounced byand unaffiliated withanyone in the Tulane administration, Thoresen has been asking faculty and staff in two separate studies to complete surveys about their attitudes toward their work and life outside of work.

"These responses are confidential," says Thoresen, adding that that fact cannot be emphasized too much. No one at Tulane other than Thoresen and his research assistant, graduate student Seth Kaplan, knows who responded to the surveys. And eventually the names will be removed from the surveys.

Thoresen says he's using Tulane employees as a matter of convenience and because each groupfaculty and staffoffers distinct research-data advantages. Staff members provide a representative sample of the general workforce with all levels of education and skills and a diverse cross-section of jobs. And because Tulane is a research university, the criteria for success and productivity for faculty members mainly, publication of articles in peer-reviewed academic journals are "clear, well-articulated and understood," Thoresen says.

In the faculty study, Thoresen has found that professors who are more productive have a higher sense of accomplishment and, consequently, they are happier. Approximately 150 Tulane faculty members representing a range of disciplines, ranks and experience responded to the survey and enclosed their vita, which allowed Thoresen to compare objectively the respondents' rate of research productivity to their self-reported levels of happiness. So, achievers are happier, while the less productive feel overloaded and stressed.

"It's common sense in one sense," says Thoresen. "Achieving things feels good." In the staff survey, to which approximately 250 people responded in the first round, Thoresen says he's looking at the question of achievement and individual happiness in a different way than has been done before in job or work settings. He's delving into the work-related goals people set for themselves and the motives they report for setting these goals.
The central question for Thoresen in this study is to discover the extent to which people feel that the goals that they select at work are self-determined. "In other words," Thoresen says, "are you doing what you're doing because it's meaningful to you or because it's something you're told to do?"

If people set goals that are intrinsically meaningful to them, Thoresen expects that they will feel more commitment to their work and experience more job satisfaction. The need to feel autonomous and self-directed is a universal human need, Thoresen says. All people want to control their own destiny, and autonomy is a key ingredient for happiness. How the need for autonomy is expressed, however, differs between individuals.

Some people have security-oriented, concrete goals, such as earning more money; others have goals that are abstract and difficult to achieve, such as managing their time better, being more organized or acting less hostile to co-workers. Thoresen says most of the responses appear candid and honest.

"People are quite happy to tell you how unhappy they are," he says. But, while the majority of people report that they experience stress at work a few times a month, burnout or emotional exhaustion is less common. "Being burnt out, the way we view it," Thoresen says, "is a long-term consequence of cumulative stress over time."

Burnt-out people feel as if "they are drained of their energy and haven't accomplished anything of significance," he says. Cynicism and stifling boredom creep in. But people who achieve something from start to finish, thinking they did it on their own, no matter how routine the work, are happier, Thoresen says.

He wants to draw attention to the intrinsic satisfaction associated with setting your own work goals and ultimately make recommendations about how to structure the work environment to accommodate individual goal setting. "We know goal setting is related to performance," he says. "But we'd like to demonstrate that it's consistent with making people happier, too."

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