What makes us happy at work

computer on desk

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?

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.


A lack of nature in the office could be decreasing your productivity

nature

Whenever I think about increasing my productivity I focus on things like what tools I’m using, my processes and systems, and how many tasks I’m checking off each day.

But productivity is more than just how much work we do.

Our health, our mood, our motivation and engagement in our work all affect our productivity. You can’t do your best work if you’re unwell, unhappy, and checked-out of your job.

Humans are animals

We don’t spend much time thinking about ourselves as animals these days. But we are. As advanced as we’ve made our societies, we haven’t stopped being animals with biological needs. Evolution progresses far more slowly than we do, which is why we end up with chronic stress from our natural fight-or-flight mode being activated all the time from daily work stressors, which aren’t really life-or-death situations at all.

As Yale social ecologist Stephen Kellert says, “The measure of progress in our civilization is not embracing nature, but moving away from nature and transcending nature and becoming independent of our biology.”

Writer Laura Smith suggests that we’re still struggling to design a modern workspace that makes us happy, healthy, and productive all at once because “we don’t understand our primal biology.” The outdoors was our original workspace, says Smith, and while our world has evolved beyond the savannah, our biology hasn’t caught up yet.

Kellert makes an analogy that gets to the heart of what we’re doing wrong with office design. Zoos, he says, are ironic. We find it inhumane to keep animals in sterile, concrete spaces that don’t resemble their natural habitats. And yet, this is exactly what we’re doing to ourselves when we spend the majority of our time inside cubicles and offices with unnatural lighting and away from the environment we crave—nature.

Biologist E.O. Wilson says we’re drawn to nature because “beauty is our word for the qualities that have contributed most to human survival.” Flowers, for instance, represent fertile land. We find them beautiful, but there’s a reason we’re drawn to the beauty in nature; it’s good for us.

And yet, as Kellert says, we’re moving further away from it. More and more of us are living in dense cities with little access to natural environments and their benefits.

nature-trees

Nature makes us healthy

City dwellers might have more business and social opportunities, but living far from nature is damaging for our health. Various studies have found those who live in urban environments with little access to green spaces like parks are more likely to have psychological problems than people who live nearby green areas. But even with parks nearby, city dwellers in general have shown to have higher risk of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses when compared to people living outside urban areas.

It’s not just parks and major green spaces that can improve our health, though. Trees alone seem to make a big difference. A study in Toronto examined the health of the city’s residents and the number of trees planted on each block. The study found that ten extra trees on a block correlated to a one percent increase in how healthy residents said they felt. This is the equivalent, say the researchers, of each household receiving a $10,000 bonus, or every resident being seven years younger.

What’s interesting is that the most beneficial trees seemed to be those planted in front yards or streets—places where the public could enjoy them simply by walking past. Trees planted in parks or in backyards, on the other hand, had little effect on the health of residents. The researchers suggest this may be because simply seeing trees around you makes you feel healthier.

The benefits of trees on health has also been shown when trees disappear. The U.S. Forest Service did an analysis on trees that succumbed to the emerald ash borer, a pest that’s highly destructive to ash trees. The emerald ash borer has killed 100 million trees across North America, which sadly gave the U.S. Forest Service some great data to examine how removing trees affects public health.

The results weren’t good.

The Forest Service concluded that both cardiovascular and respiratory disease incidents increased where the borer had killed trees. Between 1990 and 2007 the analysis found an extra 20,000 deaths could be attributed to the borer killing trees.

If nothing else, the research shows that we’ll be healthier if we’re surrounded by nature. But bringing nature into your workspace won’t just make you and your teammates healthier—it can make you more productive, too.

How to bring nature into your workspace

Nikil Saval, author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace says redesigning our office spaces won’t make us healthier and happier on its own. The problem is more fundamental, he says: we spend all day stuck in the same place. Shorter, more flexible workdays will allow employees to spend more free time doing outdoor activities, says Saval.

We are moving closer to this solution, with more companies hiring remote workers, increasing flexibility in employee hours, and even shortening the workweek. But in the meantime most of us are still spending the majority of our time in a single place—whether that’s a cubicle in a high-rise office building or a personalized home workspace.

While we wait for the short, flexible workweek to arrive and give us all more time to spend outside, we can add a little nature into our current workdays.

Get outside for a walk

nature-walk

I’m going to look at how to bring nature into your workspace, but I have to start with the research on how beneficial walking in natural spaces can be. It’s easy for many of us to incorporate a walk through a park or leafy area into our lunch break, and the benefits are enormous.

Plenty of studies have looked at the benefits of walking in leafy areas. Most have found that this simple activity can improve your mood and your ability to focus—giving you a boost at work after your walk.

One study at Stanford asking participants to either walk through a lush, green area of the Stanford campus or alongside heavy traffic for the same period of time. Those who walked in the green area were both more attentive and happier afterwards.

Another Stanford study tested how walking among nature can affect our tendency to brood. Brooding, which is essentially dwelling on negative experiences or thoughts, can be a precursor to depression, and tends to be more common among city dwellers.

This study again tested walking next to a busy highway or through a park-like area of the Stanford campus. Brain scans and questionnaires before and after participants went walking found a slight decrease in brooding among those who walked in the green space.

Japanese studies have also found walking in forest areas can reduce stress, hostility, and depression, while improving sleep and vigor.

The best news is you don’t even have to like walking in nature to get the benefits. One study sent participants on a 50-minute walk through either city streets or an arboretum before testing their performance on a cognitive assessment. Those who walked through nature performed around twenty percent better on memory and attention tests, and they were in better moods after the walk.

But here’s the cool part: the researchers repeated this study in the middle of winter when walking outside was quite unpleasant. In the winter version, test scores jumped just as much as they had for the nature walkers during the warmer season.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the benefits of walking through nature tend to be highest when your attention and energy is already depleted. So walking through a park early in the morning, for instance, may not do much, since you’re probably already fresh. But at lunchtime or in the afternoon when you’re facing a slump in energy and struggling to focus, a walk through nature could be just what you need to get through the rest of your workday.

Stay inside and look at nature

Now let’s look at some ways to bring nature indoors and improve your health and productivity in-between your daily nature walk.

I mentioned earlier that the researchers who studied the health benefits of publicly-visible trees in Toronto suggested we might only need to look at trees to get the benefits of having them around us.

Other studies have taken this further, testing how simply looking at a photo of trees can affect us. One study run by researchers at the University of Melbourne gave participants a menial task that required them to concentrate. After five minutes on the task, participants were given a 40-second break to look at a picture of a rooftop. The rooftop was either plain concrete or covered in a flowering meadow.

After the break participants returned to their task and the researchers tested how their accuracy and attention was affected by the pictures they’d seen. For those who looked at a plain concrete roof, their concentration fell by eight percent and their performance was inconsistent. Those who looked at the meadow, however, made fewer errors and their concentration rose by six percent.

Kate Lee, one of the study’s researchers, says this points to “attention restoration theory”:

The theory is that because nature is effortlessly fascinating, it captures your attention without you having to consciously focus on it. It doesn’t draw on your attention control, which you use for all these daily tasks that require you to focus. So gazing at natural environments provides you with an opportunity to replenish your stores of attention control.

The great thing about this effect is how easy it is to achieve. You could simply change your desktop wallpaper to a picture of nature, or add some photos or posters of natural environments to your office areas. If you’re lucky enough to work near a window, having a view of trees could do the same thing.

So long as you take some time every now and then to relax and enjoy a view of nature, you should get a small boost in your ability to concentrate.

Add plants to your office

plant on window

Another easy approach is to add pot plants to your office area. They’re small, easy to care for, and can have a big boost on performance.

Unfortunately, more office designers seem to be focusing on a “lean” approach these days—clean, minimal offices that avoid clutter. It might be nice to have a neat workspace, but research shows the trade-off of adding plants is worth it.

A study from Cardiff University examined what happened when plants were added to a “lean” office. After plants were added, the researchers found an increase in workplace satisfaction among employees, self-reported concentration levels, and perceived air quality.

And here’s the kicker: productivity in the office went up by fifteen percent.

Lead researcher Marlon Nieuwenhuis says this study shows it’s worth adding a few plants to your office:

Our research suggests that investing in landscaping the office with plants will pay off through an increase in office workers’ quality of life and productivity.

Get more natural light

nature-light

Finally, one aspect of nature that’s easy to overlook: natural daylight. Natural light, in fact, has a huge impact on how we feel and how well we work.

A study from Northwestern University in Chicago concluded that there’s a strong relationship between the amount of daylight exposure in the workplace and office workers’ sleep quality and overall quality of life. Workers in offices with windows, for instance, sleep an average of 46 minutes more per night compared to those in windowless offices.

The study also found those without windows in their offices had more problems with overall sleep quality, sleep efficiency, sleep disturbances, and daytime disfunction.

Study co-author Ivy Cheung says, “the extent to which daylight exposure impacts office workers is remarkable.”

Natural light doesn’t only affect sleep, though. Other research has shown natural lighting in the workspace can improve employee health, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity, and reduce employee turnover. It can also decrease headaches and eyestrain, which is reportedly the top health problem among office workers.

In fact, the benefits of natural lighting are so good that many European countries require workers to be within 27 feet of a window.

In the early 90s West Bend Mutual Insurance was able to test the benefits of adding more windows when the company moved to a new office building. The number of staff with a window view went from 30 percent in the old building to 96 percent after the move. Coincidentally, the company also found a 16 percent increase in productivity in the new building.

And workers seem to know instinctively that windows are beneficial. A 1975 survey of office workers found 35 percent immediately responded that lack of windows was their biggest concern with their workspace. And further research has found employees value any window they can access, regardless of the size, even more than they value office privacy.


Whether or not you agree with Laura Smith that we’re struggling to design successful office building because we’re ignoring our primal biology, you can’t ignore the proven health benefits of surrounding ourselves with nature.

Luckily, it’s quite easy to improve your workspace by adding small plants, moving closer to a window, and hanging photos or posters of nature. But don’t forget to get out of the office when you can, too, and take a walk in a leafy area. Your health and your productivity will thank you for it.


The case for sharing your to-do list

collaborating

As more of us are working remotely these days, more digital task managers are offering collaborative features like sharing specific tasks, commenting on tasks, and making shared to-do lists within your team.

I’ve taken these features for granted as they’ve become more popular, but never really wondered how useful it is to share your to-do list. Sometimes it’s simply necessary to do so, so your colleagues can see what you’re working on or communicate around a shared project.

But what about when you have the option of keeping your to-do list private or making it public? Why would you want to share your tasks if you don’t have to?

Sharing your tasks lets others help you get them done

Xander Schultz believes so strongly in the benefits of sharing tasks that he created an entire app around the idea of public to-do lists. The app, Complete, sadly shut down xx date, but Schultz made a solid argument for sharing your tasks, even if you can’t use his app to do so.

Schultz says “a to-do list, in reality, is a to-do-later list.” Our to-do lists tend to be full of things we’re not ready to do yet, but hope to get to someday. This is where a public to-do list really shines, according to Schultz, because others can see what you’re planning to do sometime in the future and offer support and advice before you need it.

While sites like Yelp, Quora, and Amazon reviews are useful for gathering advice, we tend to browse these sites only when we’re ready to take action—and then get stuck for hours comparing reviews and debating what to do. Schultz says making your tasks public before you’re ready to act on them works better:

A public task allows the opportunity for people to push you the advice and motivation you need before you have to search for a solution.

Say you need to purchase a new set of headphones, for instance. That task might languish on your to-do list for months without you making any effort to get it done. When you do finally decide it’s time to get it done, you could spend hours researching different brands and models and comparing reviews.

With a public to-do list, according to Schultz, you could get recommendations from friends and followers about their favourite headphones well before you’re thinking about making the effort to find some for yourself. What could have been an hour-long task (or longer) that you put off could end up being a ten-minute task based on advice and suggestions from trusted friends.

A public to-do list can be beneficial for longer-term goals, too, says Schultz. He set a weight-loss goal that he struggled to reach by his due date, but with each new update he added about his progress, friends and followers offered support and helpful advice. Schultz says it doesn’t matter that he didn’t reach that goal, because sharing his progress along the way and receiving help to keep going was worth having a public goal that he didn’t complete.

writing

Making your to-do list public will make it better for you

When software developer Joe Reddington made his to-do list public, he thought it would be a small, simple step towards personal transparency. He’s committed to being transparent and wanted to take a further step to prove that commitment.

He had no idea how big an impact that decision would make on his productivity.

Making your to-do list public, says Reddington, forces you to write a better to-do list than you would have otherwise:

… when you write a to-do item for someone else to read, you tell them what actually has to happen, but when you write it for yourself, you leave yourself a cryptic note.

As soon as he made his to-do list public, Reddington noticed several issues with it: duplicate tasks, tasks written as questions, and tasks that were simply poorly-written. Reddington took some time to clean up his list and rewrite most of his tasks so they made sense to anyone reading the list. Doing so made each task easier to get started and easier to finish, so Reddington is now more productive simply because his to-do list is written more carefully.

I can honestly say that it’s been the most effective change in my productivity in at least two, possibly five years.

Reddington says it doesn’t matter who looks at his public list, or even if anyone looks at it. Simply making it public does the trick:

… the number of people looking at it makes very little difference—all that I need to know is that someone might and that’s enough for me.

Sharing your goals makes you more likely to achieve them

Finally, something we can all agree on: whether you’re sharing simple tasks or long-term goals, you probably want to get them done. That’s the whole reason for putting them on your to-do list in the first place, right?

Well, here’s the good news: sharing big tasks and goals makes you more likely to accomplish them.

In a study of 267 people, participants were split into groups, each given different instructions for approaching a goal they wanted to achieve. Some simply kept their goal to themselves and worked towards it privately. Others wrote down a commitment to take action on that goal and shared their commitment with a friend. A final group shared their commitment with a friend but also sent that friend weekly progress updates.

Of the 149 participants who completed the full study, 70% in the weekly updates group either completed their goal or made it further than halfway to completion. 65% of those who shared just an action commitment with a friend also made it past the halfway mark or completed their goal by the study’s end.

But of those who kept their goals private, only 35% were able to get past the halfway mark.

This isn’t the only study to show this effect, either. A 2016 review of 138 different studies found that we tend to do more of what we’ve planned when others can track our progress.

There is a caveat to this effect, though. It works best for action goals, where the focus is completing a task or doing something. For identity-based goals, where the focus is on changing the kind of person you are, or being different, sharing your goals can backfire.

When we tell a friend about a goal we have to be different—for instance, to be a better friend—we tend to feel like we’ve made progress towards our goal simply by talking about it. Which, unfortunately, makes us less likely to take real action towards that goal.

So double-check what type of goals you have before discussing them, but if you have an action-based goal or a big task to complete, sharing your progress can help you get it done.


You may not be ready to share your entire to-do list with the world as Joe Reddington did, but simply sharing a goal or task with a friend can be just as beneficial.

Sharing your to-do list makes you rethink how it’s written, and gives you some accountability for your progress. It also opens up the possibility for others to share their advice and experiences with you to help you accomplish what you’ve planned.