Why Can’t We Be Happy?

In the past two months, I have done a disturbing amount of introspection. I’ve gotten to know myself better than I ever wanted to. Through this process, I was attempting to find the core of what made me tick with the hope that I could answer a very simple yet extremely important question:
Why can’t I be happy at work?
To be fair, I’ve always enjoyed work to a degree. I like the challenges I encounter each day and I enjoy the satisfaction that comes with solving problems and impacting the lives of others. However, this time around, I didn’t just want simple pleasures here and there, I wanted a workplace that I had to be physically removed from the office at the end of each day. I wanted to find a job that I could enjoy doing more than my hobbies.  I wanted to love my job.
This led me to think about some of the typical responses to happiness at work. Was it fame? Given the wake of countless athletes who have taken their own lives and when considering celebrities such as, Ms. Houston, who drowned in spirals of depression, it is difficult to highlight fame as a big selling point. What about fortune? Getting a bit less anecdotal and a bit more statistical, if one looks at the extreme ends of the global suicide rates, the positive effect of money is quickly brought into question:
  • Haiti – 0.001% ($673 GDP/cap)
  • Pakistan – 0.002% ($1,197 GDP/cap)
  • Philippines – 0.0021% ($2,255 GDP/cap)
  • Finland – 0.0193% ($44, 488 GDP/cap)
  • Japan – 0.0238% ($45,774 GDP/cap)
  • South Korea – 0.0312% ($23,749 GDP/cap)
From this quick exercise, one could almost conclude that the people in some of the richer nations are actually less happy… or at least, are certainly killing themselves more.
*I’m using suicide as an indicator for unhappiness here, which may be a poor choice, however, certainly gets the point across about the effect of some variables
The concept of ‘fit’ gets thrown around a lot. While this term is a bit ambiguous, it tends to refer to the way that an individual meshes into an organization’s culture. I, for example, should never in my life choose to work for an accounting firm or say… the military. Fit is definitely an important factor, but is it the be-all-end-all?
I would argue that all of these things – fame, fortune, fit – are prerequisites for happiness to some degree, however, they are just that: prerequisites. You need to be paid enough not to have to worry about salary. You need to get enough recognition to satiate your ego. Your organizational surroundings need to align with your beliefs, not perfectly, but enough that you can find common ground. However, beyond this, I believe that the onus is on the individual.
Our minds are disturbingly powerful tools, yet we so often neglect that power. How is it that a rice paddy farmer in mainland China can be exponentially happier than an iBanker working on Wall Street? The answer is simple: perspective. Recent work by Shawn Achor in the field of positive psychology talks about a misconception in many of the developed nations. We believe that success will bring us happiness, when in fact all of Achor’s work points to the exact opposite: happiness brings success. In short, simply by taking a positive approach to your life and work, you will be more likely to succeed and said positivity and happiness will simply perpetuate upon its self.
Perhaps even more interesting is that our happiness and positivity does not necessarily have to be sourced from the outside world or “natural.” Work by Dan Gilbert has shown that we can simulate happiness and that it provides the same physiological impact on our well-being. Happiness does not need to be found – through success, love, fame or fortune – we have the ability in our own minds to synthesise happiness. All we need to do is approach our lives and our work with the right state of mind.
So to answer my original question, why can’t I be happy at work? Maybe because I’m just not thinking about it the right way.