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Job happiness is so overrated

Purpose and mastery are main drivers of human motivation


IF you are one of those people craning their necks all week for Friday to roll around, it looks like you are not alone. Singapore ranked right at the bottom of's regional Job Happiness Index last month, coming in the last of seven countries.

This comes as a surprise to, well, nobody exactly.

But that isn't the main point. One detail that stood out in particular was the three key factors underpinning job happiness for workers in the region. According to the report, they are: a convenient work location, having good colleagues, and company reputation. While the above elements are certainly nice to have, it is somewhat alarming to note that they ranked above career development, training and leadership - ingredients vital for an employee to grow.

This throws out some interesting questions: What does job happiness really mean? Is it a goal we should aim for? And perhaps more significantly, how important is it in the grand scheme of things? BT attempts to decode the elusive butterfly that is job happiness and why pursuing it may be problematic.

The problem with happiness

We undoubtedly live in a society that advocates personal fulfilment and happiness. "Do what makes you happy." "Find a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life." We have all heard these motivational exhortations to seek jobs that would satisfy us and the importance of being happy at work.

Even the late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, said: "You've got to find what you love . . . Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.

"And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle."

Oh, boy. As well-meaning as all this advice is, it gives us the impression that this pursuit of happiness, of finding the right job, the right role, the right workplace, to be a worthy one.

But the problem with the concept of job happiness is that it's a very abstract idea, says Leong Chee Tung, CEO of HR tech startup EngageRocket. "It's something that people say it's very important to them. People are searching for it, but they don't know what they are looking for."

Formerly a regional director of Gallup South-east Asia, Mr Leong observes that job happiness has been popularised by startup culture to mean ping-pong tables, free food and even Happy Hour in the office.

But he points out that these external trappings have little to do with the fundamental values and their culture that makes places like Google such a great place to work.

We have been conditioned to expect ourselves to find contentment in our jobs, so much so that anything less becomes a disappointment. And then we start to look elsewhere for a better "fit", and when it doesn't bring us the satisfaction we expect, the vicious cycle starts again.

While work should certainly not be miserable or a process to be simply tolerated, chasing happiness as a goal may be as misguided or illusory as chasing after the wind.

Believe it or not, being happy has little to do with actual performance or growth. In fact, it could even result in workers becoming too comfortable or complacent. Kulshaan Singh, Singapore managing director, Mercer, explains: "The concept of job happiness is neither a stable nor lasting concept. Happiness is momentary. For example, if you get an easier task to do, you will be happy because you get more relaxation time."

Sure, you could be happy, but you could also just be cruising by and not adding as much value as you could have.

Growing up is hard to do

So, if the pursuit of job happiness misses the point, what should we work towards instead? Specialists that we spoke to say that the two main drivers of engagement or human motivation are purpose and mastery.

Mr Leong says: "People want to know that they are working for something more than themselves. We also want to work at what we are best at, and that those strengths are valued and we can develop in that space."

Instead of seeking a comfortable job or role, look for one that gives you opportunities to grow instead. Building valuable skills involves pressure, hard work, delayed gratification and discomfort. Many successful people, including start-up founders, would describe the process as more pain than pleasure, even if they are deeply passionate about the work they do.

Mr Singh adds that employee development happens when workers are pulled out of their comfort zone.

"When your manager gives you feedback about areas that you are weak in, you may feel unhappy knowing that you have not done well. But the moment you start to improve on those areas, you will become more engaged in your job. It produces a more positive impact in the long run," he points out.

While good management and career opportunities can definitely make a big difference, it is up to employees to look beyond their immediate "happiness" to do the hard work of improving their skillsets to become more proficient in what they do. Instead of going for the low-hanging fruit that will make life easier at present, it is perhaps more worthwhile to discipline ourselves to sow seeds that are more likely to reap a sweeter and more bountiful harvest in time to come.

Sums up Mr Singh: "Your employer's job is not to make you happy. If they left you happy, what good is it? You have not improved. Your chances of getting promoted are low. It will not bring you lasting happiness as you will not grow."