Work and Happiness: What Really Makes You Happier?

Work and Happiness


Work is that thing most of us spend more time doing than anything else, and yet, we often shrug it off as if it doesn’t impact our life satisfaction or as if what we’ve signed up for is “good enough.” 

What really drives our satisfaction at work, and as a result, impact the other facets of our lives as well? It breaks down into a few categories.


The Work Itself

First and foremost, the work itself drives your motivation and satisfaction. According to the job characteristics model (Hackman & Oldham, 1976), there are five characteristics of work that do this. These are: 

  1. Job autonomy, or the freedom to decide what to do and how and when to do it; 
  2. Skill variety, or the opportunity to perform different types of tasks and use your different capabilities; 
  3. Task significance, or the chance to perform work that is personally meaningful and contributes to important outcomes; 
  4. Task identity, or the opportunity to create discrete products that you have ownership over; and 
  5. Feedback, or information about how you’re doing that comes directly from the job itself rather than from someone else such as a supervisor.

It’s clear from the research that enriching these job characteristics are associated with more positive levels of job satisfaction, which likely results in more positive levels of life satisfaction.


The Work Context – Leadership and Social Support from Others at Work

A strong determinant of your job satisfaction and well-being at work is your social support.

Social support at work refers to instrumental (e.g., receiving help with work tasks) and emotional (e.g., having someone to talk with about personal or professional problems). It’s the support you receive from others and your organization, as well as the fairness and respect with which you perceive you are treated, and qualities of leadership in your organization.

As we saw with the five job characteristics, social support at work isn’t just a predictor of job satisfaction, but also your life satisfaction (Viswesvaran, Sanchez, & Fisher, 1999). 

How you interact with your boss in particular makes a big difference (Judge, Piccolo, & Ilies, 2004; Montano, Reeske, Franke, & Huffmeier, 2017).

  • Relational behaviors, basically your boss showing concern for your well-being, are predictors of your job satisfaction, well-being, and negative affective states.
  • Task-oriented behaviors, basically being provided clear instructions and guidance, are also positively, but not as strongly, related to job satisfaction and show small but significant negative relationships with negative affective states .


The Work Context – Fairness, Civility, and Mistreatment

When it comes to the role of fairness at work being a predictor of your job satisfaction, there are three dimensions which all have been found to be strong correlates: (Cohen-Charash & Spector, 2001; Colquitt, Conlon, Wesson, Porter, & Ng, 2001).

  1. Distributive Justice – The fairness of pay and other valued outcomes.
  2. Procedural Justice – The fairness of the procedures by which decisions in the organization are made. It incorporates factors such as the control that workers have over decision-making processes, the consistency, lack of bias, and ethics in decision-making processes, and the opportunity to correct inappropriate decisions (Leventhal, 1980; Thibaut & Walker, 1975).
  3. Interactional Justice – The disclosure of information and explanations to workers about decision-making processes as well as the treatment of employees with respect and dignity (Bies & Moag, 1986).


The Work Context – The Organization

Finally, the organization overall plays a role as well. Human resources practices that are relevant for employee well-being include: 

  • Training adequacy
  • Compensation level
  • Grievance processes
  • Performance appraisal systems
  • Reward and incentive systems
  • Participation in decision-making
  • Employment security
  • The sharing of information with employees 
  • (Combs, Liu, Hall, & Ketchen, 2006)

Other research has focused on organizational or group climate, which refers to shared perceptions of the organization’s policies, practices, and priorities (Schneider, Ehrhart, & Macey, 2013). 

These perceptions can emerge as a function of HR practices, shared experiences, leader behavior, and interactions among workers (Gonzalez-Roma, Peiro, & Tordera, 2002; Rogg, Schmidt, Shull, & Schmitt, 2001; Zohar, 2000).



So how can you get satisfaction out of your work? You don’t necessarily have to be in this utopian scenario where you’re delivering your life’s greatest passion or expressing some overt heroism on a daily basis like working for Green Peace or something. 

It can boil down to getting a simple set of mechanics right, like:

  • The basic job characteristics, like autonomy, skill variety, task significance, task identity, and feedback loops;
  • Social support at work, like feeling that you have both instrumental and emotional support, and feeling like your boss provides clear direction and shows concern for your well-being;
  • Feeling a sense of fairness at work, including distributive, procedural and interactional justice; and 
  • The organization itself supports the right environment, such as through training, compensation, grievance process, performance appraisal, rewards and incentives, participation in decision-making, security, and the sharing of information.



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