“Work is much more fun than fun!” exclaimed actor-writer Noel Coward.

Happy work is better work. Happy workers get better evaluations, more promotions, make more money. Happy work offers more than money. The workplace is a great place to meet people, establish important relationships. One in four meet our spouses at work. Happy work is emotionally and intellectually stimulating, fulfils our need to feel useful to others, creates meaning in our lives. After all, we work the greater part of our waking hours.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihayli (pronounced “chicks sent me high”) says we can become so absorbed in happy work that time stands still for us, a timeless experience he calls “flow”. Ah, but isn’t work a curse? Isn’t work our congenital punishment for Adam’s and Eve’s apple-eating in the Garden of Eden? Aren’t we supposed to be unhappy at work? If work is fun for us, isn’t “flow” somehow sinful?

A client of mine is a third generation funeral director. He experiences “flow” as he restores a face in preparation for the family’s last viewing. Surgeons report “flow” while performing operations. Surgery is intellectually stimulating; to help healing is emotionally satisfying. Less dramatic work, no less dignified, can generate “flow”-- the caring hearse driver, the gentle nurse’s aid.

Time was when back pain was the main cause for employee absenteeism. Today it’s depression and anxiety caused largely by unhappy work: long hours, fierce deadlines, office politics, harassing or bullying managers. Job satisfaction is a strong indicator of how satisfied we are with ourselves.

We are increasingly defined by the work we do. If my work is miserable, am I not a miserable person as well?

So why continue a miserable job? Lots say we endure unhappy work for the money, or status, or to pursue a calling. But if you’re in unhappy work, ask yourself: Do I want the job I have? Do I know what job I really want? Does my job reflect who I really am?  If your answer indicates a change, then next time find a new job that matches your skills, that’s worthwhile, that gives you some control over your work. See a really good career counselor before your next job change. And keep your perspective: the unhappiest people of all are the unemployed.

Next to adequate pay and acceptable working conditions, two intangible factors contribute most to happy work: a sense of accomplishment and being recognized for what we accomplish. Smart managers praise good work publicly, and make it fun! As I mediate disputes about family wealth and family business, I get to watch hugely successful entrepreneurs lead their employees. Entrepreneurs are high energy, hard workers, demanding bosses. Most are both feared and beloved by their employees. They are tough but sensitive. They inspire fierce loyalty and demand grim devotion. Yet entrepreneurs generate a contagious excitement. They’re having fun and it’s fun to work for them -- if you can stand the pace.

The saddest cases I see are people who feel locked into high-paying but unhappy work by “golden handcuffs”. They have children in college, high house payments, an expensive upwards spiraling lifestyle. Some are physicians, lawyers, stockbrokers, corporate executives. Some are entrepreneurs’ children who feel stuck in the family business. The fun is long gone, the drudgery is ever present, the responsibility is unrelenting.

A confession: happy work fascinates me because I worked unhappily for so many years before the fun began. I viewed my unhappy work -- a miscast lawyer -- as a macho inheritance from Adam and Eve. Work wasn’t supposed to be fun; work was to be endured. How sad. How sad it was to counsel contentious families through the dismal swamps of litigation. But now, as a mediator, my job is to help them bypass the courthouse. Peacemaking is fun!

For this recovering lawyer, happy work is too good to be true.
[1] This column borrows from Hoggard, “How to Be Happy” (BBC Books 2005) written to accompany a four-part TV series “Making Slough Happy” broadcast in November and December 2005. See Chapter 6, Happy at Work?. The book is available from

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