Why You Aren’t Happy, and How to Make Things Better


March 23, 2011

by Marshall Goldsmith and Kelly Goldsmith

Perhaps it’s no surprise to you that survey after survey finds many people are dissatisfied with their jobs. A Conference Board survey last year reported that only 49% were satisfied with their jobs, the lowest level in 22 years since they began their survey.

But let’s think about that 49%: what made this group satisfied? How do people attain contentment at work?

As we noted in a previous post, we’ve undertaken a survey to find the answer to this question. The way we’ve tackled it is by asking people what gives them short-term gratification (happiness) and long-term benefits (meaning)–at work, and at home. Our respondents–some 3000 of them– are highly educated professionals, with 60% having graduate degrees. (You can look at our survey here.)

We are still analyzing the data, but among our preliminary findings:

Compartmentalizing doesn’t work. People who are dissatisfied with their work also tend to be unhappy at home, and vice versa. There is a very high correlation between people’s happiness and meaning at work and at home.

The company you keep matters. Spending time with people we love, both at work and at home, is highly correlated with overall satisfaction.

What gives people fun and meaning is highly variable. There is nothing inherently satisfying in an activity. Some people see gardening as a sacrifice that brings them some long-term benefit; others think it is light fun–but essentially meaningless. So if you’re dissatisfied with your job, the reasons have as much to do with you as they do with the actual responsibilities.

You can’t achieve overall life satisfaction by being a sacrificing workhorse, or by being “fun loving.” Just being engaged in stimulating activities doesn’t make people satisfied. Likewise, sacrificing to achieve meaning also doesn’t make people content. Those who were satisfied felt both short-term gratification and deep meaning from their work and home lives.

Nobody can define happiness for you. Every company has a plaque on a wall, which eloquently expresses the corporate values. This finding is based on the ground-breaking research by Jim Kouzes. It simply doesn’t matter if individual employees believe in the company’s corporate values. What matters is if their work in the company reflects their own values. You must feel you are living your own values.

But what about all those people who toil long hours? Doesn’t overwork lead to unhappiness? No, we didn’t find the hours spent working correlated to happiness or meaning, or lack thereof. Nor did we find more hours spent outside of work in “fun” activities produced higher levels of satisfaction.

In other words, if you want to discover how to be more satisfied with work and home life, look nowhere else than within. You are the key to your own happiness and meaning, no one else.