What makes us happy at work

It’s a new year, and I’ve just started a new job. Since joining the team at RescueTime I’ve been researching and writing about how people work and how we can work more effectively.

This has all got me thinking about the inherent joy some people find at work, and the lack of it so many people feel these days.

What is it that makes us happy at work? And how can we make sure it happens more often?

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Making progress in meaningful work

According to researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

Amabile and Kramer have spent nearly 15 years looking into what affects people’s moods, motivation, and happiness at work. In all their work they found one particular element that made the biggest difference on how employees feel about their work (and in general): whether or not they feel like they made progress in meaningful work.

They call this the progress principle.

And the more often employees experience that feeling of progress, Amabile and Kramer have found, the more productive they’ll be in the long term.

The progress principle hinges on two main findings: firstly that a central driver of productivity in creative work is the employee’s inner work life—that is, the emotions, motivations and perceptions they experience throughout the workday. The second finding is that making progress in work we care about affects all three parts of our inner work life positively.

Amabile’s and Kramer’s research showed employees who made progress were happier, more intrinsically motivated, reported more positive interactions with colleagues, and perceived more positive challenges in their work.

Those who experienced setbacks, on the other hand, felt more frustration, fear, and sadness. They felt less intrinsically motivated, but also responded less to recognition from peers as extrinsic motivation, and perceived their colleagues as less supportive. They were also more likely to feel that they lacked the freedom and resources needed to succeed in their work.

Inner work life doesn’t just affect how much work you get done today, either. It can affect your work performance the following day, too. But if your inner work life is good, you’re not only more likely to be productive—you’ll be more committed to work and more collegial to others, too.

The good news is you don’t have to make huge strides for the progress principle to take effect. Amabile and Kramer say even small wins can boost your inner work life, so long as they’re part of meaningful work. In fact, 28% of incidents reported in their research had a minor impact on the related project, but a major impact on how the reporting employee felt. We tend to have outsized reactions to small events, say Amabile and Kramer.

Which means focusing on making small gains in our most important work every day is a solid approach to improving our happiness, commitment, and productivity at work.

Feeling good about our company’s mission

According to Robert H. Frank, an economics professor at Cornell University, one of the most important parts of job satisfaction is simply how an employee feels about the company’s mission. This may relate to the progress principle, as mentioned above, since caring about our company’s mission likely makes us feel like our work has meaning, and the progress principle only holds for meaningful work—making progress on work we perceive as menial doesn’t make us feel good.

In a survey of Cornell senior students about to enter the job market, two hypothetical jobs were on offer. Both jobs had identical pay and working conditions. One was helping to discourage smoking at the American Cancer Society. The other was working with the tobacco industry to encourage smoking.

With all else being equal, 90% of the survey respondents chose the American Cancer Society job. That makes sense, right? If you’re not losing anything, why not take the job that gives you warm fuzzies as well?

But even more than choosing that job, when asked how much higher the tobacco industry job salary would have to be to encourage them to change their answer, the average response was: 80% higher.

Gratitude

A much smaller, simpler aspect of our happiness at work is simply how appreciated we feel. Saying “thank you” to your employees might seem like a small thing, but it can have big effects. One study found people who were explicitly thanked for their work were 50% more productive afterwards—even if the gratitude came from a distant supervisor rather than their manager.

In a survey of 2,000 American workers, the results showed this isn’t subconscious, either. We seem to know that gratitude makes us feel better, and desire more of it.

81% of the survey’s respondents said they’d be willing to work harder for an appreciative boss, and 70% said a thankful boss would make them feel better about themselves and their work.

Sadly, only 10% of the survey respondents said they regularly show gratitude to their colleagues.

The good news is, it’s easy to start showing gratitude to your employees or colleagues. And the effect should last longer than other rewards, according to Wharton professor Adam Grant:

Extrinsic motivators can stop having much meaning—your raise in pay feels like your just due, your bonus gets spent, your new title doesn’t sound so important once you have it. But the sense that other people appreciate what you do sticks with you.

Not only will that feeling last, but it can affect that person’s behavior into the future. An experiment that showed this effect had students send cover letters to people who were paid to offer feedback. After receiving feedback on their letters, some students replied with a simple email to acknowledge receipt of the feedback. The rest of the students sent very appreciative emails in response to the feedback they received.

The researchers had students send out a second cover letter and request for feedback later, and found that people who’d been thanked in the first round were twice as likely to help with the second round of letters.

But here’s the best part: they weren’t just twice as likely to help the same student. They were twice as likely to ask any student who asked for their feedback.

So while thanking someone could improve their productivity at work and how they feel, it could also increase the likelihood of them being helpful again in the future—and not just to you. Thanking people, then, is an easy way to make your entire office a better place for everyone.

Feeling good about our position in life

Sometimes, when you’re trying to figure out what works, it helps to look at what doesn’t work, too. In terms of happiness at work, this translates to looking at what makes people quit their jobs. Knowing when and why people leave can help us figure out how to improve the workplace so people won’t quit.

Brian Kropp works for CEB, a best-practice insight and technology company that researches why employees leave their jobs. But the why isn’t the most interesting part of Kropp’s work. The why is fairly obvious, since the same reasons have held steady for years: not liking your boss, not perceiving any opportunities for growth, or being offered a better job or higher salary elsewhere are all common reasons to quit.

What’s really interesting about Kropp’s work is not the why but the when:

We’ve learned that what really affects people is their sense of how they’re doing compared with other people in their peer group, or with where they thought they would be at a certain point in life.

So it’s not always the job itself that triggers an employee to think about quitting—it’s how they feel about their life as a whole.

Kropp says particular types of events trigger this kind of evaluative thinking in employees. Job hunting jumps 6%, for instance, after anniversaries of joining the company, and 9% after anniversaries of moving roles. Birthdays bring on the evaluations even stronger, with a 12% jump in job hunting just before birthday. And after class reunions we tend to job hunt 16% more.

The most important lesson from Kropp’s work is that what happens at work isn’t the only input into an employee’s happiness with their career. How our jobs fit into our lives as a whole is a big concern when it comes to being ready to move on, which bad bosses or offers of more money giving us the final reason to take the leap.


Whether you’re a manager responsible for other employees or not, it’s useful to understand the underlying reasons we find meaning in our work (or not). Knowing that particular anniversaries or birthdays can trigger an evaluation of our circumstances and that simply saying thank you more often can make people feel better about their work can help us avoid surprise resignations—from our staff or ourselves.

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.