Of all the things you could pursue in this world, you probably don't need a business case to convince you to chase happiness. But if you do, a solid one exists. Happy employees are ten percent more productive than unhappy ones, according to research, and happiness helps your brain work better, increasing your chances of success at everything you do.

But while it's easy to see that happiness at work is desirable, it can be much less clear how to achieve it. What matters most -- work-life balance, status, autonomy, perks, culture, a company's vision, or some complex combination of these and other factors?

According to the University of Pennsylvania's Annie McKee, author of a new book with the straightforward title, How to Be Happy at Work, the formula for happiness at work isn't that complicated after all. McKee has studied what sets satisfied, engaged employees apart from grumpy, disengaged ones for decades, and, as she explains in a wide-ranging interview with Knowledge@Wharton, she's discovered that workplace joy really has only three key ingredients.

  1. Impact. "People feel that they need to have impact on something that is important to them, whether it's people or a cause or the bottom line. They need to feel that their work is purposeful," claims McKee.

  2. A personal vision. Helping out your company is essential, but it's not enough. You also have to see how your work helps you. "We need to feel optimistic that our work is tied to a personal vision of the future. The organization's vision isn't enough," McKee also says.

  3. Work friends. "We've learned over the course of our lives you shouldn't be friends with people at work, that it's dangerous somehow, that it will cloud your judgment. I don't agree. I think we need to feel that we are with our tribe in the workplace, that we belong, that we're with people that we respect and who respect us in return. We need warmth, we need caring, and we need to feel supported," McKee insists.

You might note that high status and high pay appear nowhere on this list. That's not an oversight. And yet these are the things many of us strive for while simultaneously claiming to also be chasing happiness. No wonder, she notes, so many of us end up in jobs we're ill-suited for that make us miserable. 

"A lot of us are susceptible to what I call happiness traps. We end up doing what we think we should do. We take that job with that fancy consulting firm or that wonderful organization not because we love it and not because it's a fit, but because we think we should. Frankly, some of us have ambition that goes into overdrive. Ambition is a great thing, until it's not," she comments.

So next time you're considering a new gig or thinking hard about how to be happier in the career you have, you now have a research-backed road map to follow. Forget mindlessly jockeying for the next rung on the ladder and instead try to ask a colleague to join you for lunch and talk about anything but work, ponder the impact of your efforts at the office on the world beyond it, or spend some time daydreaming about your personal vision of the future and how your work can help you achieve it.

Published on: Oct 23, 2017