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Jobs and Happiness

Peter Warr
University of Sheffield

Why are some people at work happier or unhappier than others?  Recent decades have seen great progress in answering that question, but the rate of development seems now to have slowed.  It could be said that most of us have become rather blinkered within restricted conventional perspectives.

For example, many investigators have settled for narrow indicators of job satisfaction, and models of job content have conventionally excluded important variables.  Possible nonlinear associations between job characteristics and employee experiences have been largely ignored, as have mental processes that give rise to differences between people.  As pointed out by poet William Cowper in 1782,

Happiness depends, as Nature shows,
Less on exterior things than most suppose.

Happiness is very significant to us personally, and there is a strong moral case as well as scientific need for psychologists to learn more about its operation in organizations.  In practical terms, there is now considerable evidence that variations in happiness have a causal impact on a range of day-to-day activities—high or low job performance, staff turnover, absenteeism, citizenship behavior, and perhaps creativity.  Research has been excessively based on cross-sectional designs, but findings are increasingly persuasive; to enhance organizational effectiveness, it is important to consider the experience of employees as well as operational and technological questions.

Among the issues facing us in this field are the following.  The six themes outlined here deserve more attention from more members of the profession than they have received to date.

1. Happiness requires multidimensional study.  Rather than envisaging a single indicator, it is essential to think in terms of multiple aspects of happiness.  A principal axis runs from feeling bad to feeling good (sometimes assessed in terms of dissatisfaction or satisfaction), and two others (distinguished in terms of degree of activation as well as pleasure) extend from negative feelings of anxiety to happiness as tranquil contentment and from depression to happiness as energized pleasure.

Although themselves intercorrelated, these different axes are differently related to several variables of interest.  For example, high job demands are more closely associated with unhappiness of the anxious sort than with depressed unhappiness; people in more senior jobs relative to junior employees are more happy in terms of less depression but less happy in terms of raised anxiety; and women tend to be less happy than men in terms of anxiety and depression but in many recent studies are on average more happy in their job satisfaction.  Differences in links with behavior are also expected; for example, activated pleasure may more strongly predict employee proactivity than do positive feelings of a low-arousal kind.

It is also essential to look separately at different levels of scope.  “Context-free” happiness has a general reference, whereas that which is “domain-specific” (e.g., job satisfaction) covers only domain-related feelings (e.g., in a job).  At a third level, “facet-specific” happiness is about particular aspects of a domain, such as your pay or your boss.  That much is obvious, but a surprisingly large number of articles are based on the unstated assumption that causes and consequences are the same at each level of scope.  They are not.

In examining the notion of happiness, it is sometimes important to explore aspects quite distinct from those introduced so far.  Some philosophers have emphasized that happiness can arise from actions that are somehow more fitting or appropriate than others, whether or not those are associated with pleasure.  This second form of happiness (let’s call it “self-validation”) invokes reference standards of some kind, perhaps some realization of personal potential, rather than merely the satisfaction of desires.  Happiness of that kind has almost never been considered by I-O psychologists, although it is increasingly addressed by other branches of the discipline.

2. A broad view of environmental sources is needed.  Job-related accounts have overwhelmingly focused on elements of demand, control, and social support, but happiness depends on a much wider range of environmental features.  If you talk to people about their jobs, it becomes clear that traditional models of job design leave aside many of their concerns.

Any categorization is in part arbitrary, and we have to balance conceptual richness against practical convenience.  One useful framework of job environments contains the following 12 characteristics.

1. Opportunity for personal control, covering variables conventionally labeled as discretion, decision latitude, participation, and so on
2. Opportunity for skill use and acquisition
3. Externally generated goals, ranging across job demands, underload and overload, task identity, role conflict, required emotional labor, and work-home conflict
4. Variety in job content and location
5. Environmental clarity, which takes in role clarity, task feedback, and low future ambiguity
6. Contact with others, in terms of both quantity (amount of contact) and quality (illustrated negatively and positively as conflict or social support)
7. Availability of money
8. Physical security—this has different forms in different roles; in job settings, it concerns working conditions, degree of hazard, and similar themes
9. Valued social position, in terms of the significance of a task or role
10. Supportive supervision
11. Career outlook, either as job security or as opportunity for advancement or for a shift to other roles
12. Equity, as justice both within one’s organization and in that organization’s relations with society

A “good” job scores well across those 12 features.  Note that other settings can also be viewed in these terms; sources of happiness or unhappiness are broadly the same in any domain.  For example, unemployment may be “good” or “bad” in these respects; and “good” forms of unemployment might be psychologically better than a “bad” job.

As implied by the several elements introduced throughout the list, we might be interested in subcategories within each of the 12 features.  To what extent and through what mechanisms does each one influence happiness or unhappiness of different kids?

3. Associations with job features can be nonlinear.  There is evidence, and a strong logical argument, that some of these desirable job features become undesirable at high levels.  That inverted-U pattern is most noticeable in respect of environmental demands (3 above), which are troublesome at both very low and very high levels.  In general, some leveling off is expected; happiness does not continue to increase at the same rate with more and more of a job feature.

One possibility is to view the impact of job features on happiness as analogous to the effect of vitamins on physical condition.  Vitamins are important for health up to but not beyond a certain level.  A deficiency of vitamins gives rise to physiological impairment, but after a moderate level of intake there is no benefit from additional quantities, and some of them instead cause harm.  That may also be the case for environmental features and their impact on happiness.

Stabilization of impact after moderate quantities has frequently been examined in respect of income; a standard increment in income has a smaller benefit to happiness in its higher range.  Within a broad “vitamin” analogy, we might expect slightly different nonlinear patterns for different aspects of happiness identified within the first theme above.  Possibilities of this kind deserve more consideration than they have received.

4. A person’s own judgments are crucial.  Another issue arises from the fact that researchers have so far paid most attention to happiness sources in the environment, preferring not to study between-person variation.  This focus on the environment is helpful, in that by addressing aspects of job content or organizational practice we might improve employees’ experiences by changing their work settings.  However, person-centered approaches are also essential; happiness derives strongly from individuals themselves.

Relevant mental processes can be explored in terms of the judgments made when appraising a situation.  The framework below brings together 10 themes that have been examined primarily in nonorganizational research.

J1. Comparisons with other people:  “How does my situation compare with that of another individual or of the average person?”  It is regularly found that “downward” social comparisons (judgments made relative to people who are worse-off in the relevant respect) enhance a person’s own happiness; job holders presumably illustrate that general pattern.

J2. Comparisons with other situations can be of two kinds:

J2A. Expected situations:  “How does my situation compare with the situation I expected?”  Nonemployment studies have confirmed that positive or negative events that are unexpected have a greater impact on happiness or unhappiness than those that were expected; employees are likely to be similarly affected.

J2B. Counterfactual situations:  “How might the situation have developed in other ways?”  As with J1 (social comparisons), downward and upward comparisons with other possible events have corresponding effects on a person’s happiness.

J3. Comparisons with other times may be retrospective or prospective:

J3A. Previous trend: “Up to now, has the situation deteriorated, improved, or remained unchanged?”  For example, progress towards a goal is pleasing, but movement away (or even remaining static) can be unpleasant.

J3B. Likely future trend:  “From now on, is the situation likely to deteriorate, improve, or stay the same?” This kind of judgment is influential through, for instance, perceptions of the probability of success or of the possibility of improvement.

J4. Assessments of personal salience are of widespread importance in happiness or unhappiness.  They extend across three levels:

J4A. Rated importance of role membership:  “Do I want to be in this role?”  This kind of appraisal (for example, in terms of “employment commitment”) has been shown in separate lines of research to bear upon unemployed people’s unhappiness, the happiness of nonworking women, and that of employed individuals in general.

J4B. Rated importance of a role characteristic:  “Do I value this feature?”  Evidence in several different areas has indicated that happiness is more strongly correlated with a particular environmental feature if that feature is viewed as more personally significant.

Differences in J4B judgments are also important in comparisons between groups or between individuals with different dispositional characteristics.  For example, a substantial difference in the average salience of a job feature between men and women or between high and low scorers on Extraversion is likely to be accompanied by a between-group difference in the association between that feature and happiness.

J4C. Rated attractiveness of core tasks in the role:  “Do I like the things I have to do?”  This kind of judgment is almost completely ignored in the job design literature, although it is central to vocational counseling and everyday life.  Over and above specific environmental features illustrated within the second theme, people differ in their liked and disliked task activities, with major implications for their happiness in particular settings.

J5. Assessments of situation-related self-efficacy:  “Was/is my performance effective in this situation?”  Happiness experiences can depend on judging that one has or has not coped well in the situation and that one is or is not likely to be effective in the future.

J6. Assessment of novelty or familiarity:  “Is the situation unusual or is it routine?”  Affective responses to a novel situation tend to be greater than when that situation is familiar.  People adapt to continuing inputs from the environment, negative as well as positive, such that environmental influences can be short-lived or become less strong over time.  These processes have only rarely been studied in organizations.

The general point here is that judgments of this kind need to be explored in I-O research.  Relevant information can easily be obtained from employees when investigating job characteristics.  The influence of those characteristics (apart from at extreme levels) is strongly dependent on how they are interpreted in the terms suggested above.

5. People have their own baseline of happiness.  It has long been established that people are consistent in their behaviors and mental processes across time and settings.  Traditional investigations have concentrated on personality traits, cognitive ability, and similar attributes, but it is also clear that stable differences are present in respect of happiness or unhappiness.  Furthermore, those baselines may be largely inherited, and people might return to their own baseline soon after environmental disruption (negative or positive) to their happiness.

Such within-person stability is of course troublesome if we wish to modify happiness by altering aspects of the environment.  Will changes in, say, job content make any lasting difference to people’s happiness?  Or what about self-help exercises to enhance one’s own happiness?  Can they have an extended impact, or will people soon return to baseline?  Questions of that kind clearly deserve the attention of industrial-organizational psychologists.

We also need better understanding of differences linked to demographic or cultural characteristics.  For example, women in much recent research tend to report greater overall job satisfaction than do men, despite the fact that they have on average lower pay and other benefits.  Older employees also report more job satisfaction than younger ones, and temporary workers are not as unhappy as some have expected.  In respect of cultural patterns, differences between Euro-American and east-Asian conceptions of happiness have recently emerged in nonemployment research;  are those important in jobs?

6. Unhappiness is essential to happiness.  Much thinking by psychologists derives from the assumption that happiness is always to be desired and unhappiness is to be avoided.  Removal of unhappiness thus becomes the goal of what is widely seen as a caring profession.  Yet in many settings people can only experience happiness in relation to its converse; one is dependent on the other.

Working towards personal goals can require substantial effort and prevent a person from enjoying other activities.  Negative episodes in many personal projects involve failure, boredom, discouragement, or pain.  Of course, patterns of each state’s relative intensity and relative extensiveness are important here, but most people have to struggle through difficult work activities of some kind to meet their needs and to sustain happiness.  This has two major implications for I-O psychologists.

First, we need to obtain a much better understanding of the sources and nature of ambivalence.  Employees can be both happy and unhappy, perhaps at different times and in different ways, and to understand experiences at work we must learn more about multifaceted processes.  What forms of ambivalence occur in work settings, how do they arise, and how are they handled?  What are the causal relationships between a person’s happiness and his or her unhappiness?

Second, it is unrealistic to divorce experiences of happiness from task-oriented activities in a role.  Psychologists have almost always examined (for instance) job satisfaction separately from job performance, but each of those can derive from a compromise with the other.  We regulate our engagement in effortful job activities in part by responding to feelings and expected feelings.  Working less hard in a difficult job can thus sometimes reduce unhappiness, and a commitment to good performance can in some cases lead onto negative feelings.  We need to learn more about this effort–affect trade-off, its causes, and its consequences.  Rather than restricting attention to either happiness or performance, the two should be studied simultaneously.

Not Quite an Overview.  A brief summary does not seem possible at this point.  Much excellent research has been published in the area, and this has been reviewed within a framework of the kind outlined here in Work, Happiness, and Unhappiness by Peter Warr (Mahwah, NJ:  Erlbaum, February 2007).  As usual, “more research is needed”, but please move beyond the conventional questions.

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