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Whether we’re conscious of it or not, there are certain characteristics that we typically prioritize when we’re looking for our ideal job. These often include a good salary, generous perks and benefits, a position at a well-respected company, and perhaps even a prestigious role or title.
But as it turns out, these priorities can lead us down an inauspicious path. New research shows that pursuing extrinsic goals —or goals that have to do with acquiring things and looking good as opposed to developing ourselves and bettering the world around us — is actually associated with decreased happiness and well-being over time.
Does this mean that good pay, free food at work, and beautiful office spaces are bad for us? Not at all. But it does mean that focusing too strongly on these factors in the hope that they’ll make us happy can actually have the opposite effect – and make it harder for us to achieve professional success in the long-term.
So what should we seek in an ideal job if we want to enjoy lasting happiness and well-being?
To start, we would be wise to seek jobs that promote eudaimonic happiness, which stems from the meaning and satisfaction we get from our lives and our sense of connection to the world and those around us. While hedonic happiness is fleeting at best (and can actually lead to declining happiness over time), activities associated with eudaimonic happiness have been shown to lead to greater happiness and well-being over time.
One key to eudaimonic happiness is finding work that we find personally meaningful. Most of us would agree that this is important, but regardless, we’re often pressured to pursue paths devoid of what we’re most passionate about. Doing work that is personally meaningful might mean giving back or bettering the lives of others; or it might simply mean doing work that you personally believe to be important and impactful. What’s most crucial is that the sense of meaning stems from your own values rather than someone else’s.
Another key is being in environments that encourage personal growth, helping us to learn not only from good experiences but also tough setbacks, failures, and losses. To achieve this type of growth, seek out workplaces with managers that reward smart risk-taking, growth, and learning — not just outcomes. It’s also helpful for leaders to make a habit of speaking openly about failures and mistakes. This willingness to be vulnerable creates norms around openness, leading to greater authenticity and personal growth in the workplace as a whole.
Another important factor in workplace happiness is having opportunities to build trusting, meaningful relationships with your colleagues—relationships that are deep enough to bring you joy or sustenance or a new perspective on situations in and out of work. Companies can contribute to this goal by encouraging mindfulness, which has been shown to build empathy and make us less subject to bias—helping us become better managers, colleagues, and friends. To start, look for workplaces that make mindfulness an explicit company value, offer yoga and meditation classes on-site, or at least create a dedicated space for these activities.
In addition to thinking about meaning, mindfulness, and relationships, we might also do well to consider how our next job will impact that way we take care of our bodies and our health. We all know that our health is important for its own sake, but new research is proving what many of us have suspected intuitively all along – that when we don’t take care of our bodies, our minds can’t function well either. For instance, when we don’t get enough sleep, our brains begin to tune out positive events and happy stimuli in favor of negative ones, and we also encode a disproportionate number of negative events into our long-term memory bank. Lack of exercise is similarly detrimental. When we don’t get enough exercise, our physiological stress response doesn’t function as well, meaning we get stressed out more easily and stay stressed for longer—which can wreck havoc on our bodies. Furthermore, when we’re not getting enough exercise, our capacity to grow new neurons to fuel learning, and memory is curtailed. In essence, when we’re not taking care of our bodies, our brains can’t function as well, and as a result, we’re worse at thinking, learning, and living.
How does this relate to your next job? Think about how actively potential workplaces promote good physical and mental health. Is there good work-life balance? Are people expected to work so hard that they don’t have time to sleep or exercise? Are there fitness classes or workout spaces on site? Or if not, does the company encourage employees to organize exercise groups? Does your workplace serve healthy food or encourage healthy eating habits? Does the company offer workshops or courses designed to relieve stress?
We might think of healthy food, work-life balance, and fitness norms as affecting us only when we’re at work, but when we stop to think about it, these norms actually creep into our home lives as well. If we eat healthily and meditate at work, we’ll have fewer cravings for junk food and feel less stressed and more present on the weekends—and our loved ones most likely will as well.
There’s nothing wrong with jobs that provide money, prestige, luxury, and fun. But let’s not forget that they’re not the whole story when it comes to being happy at work. When we’re looking for our dream job, let’s remember the value of work that creates meaning and kindles our imagination, work that promotes lifelong healthy behaviors, encourages connection and authenticity, and fosters learning and growth. These are the things that help us become happier.