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Work Satisfaction vs. Happiness

It’s more than half a century since Mick Jagger complained about his lack of satisfaction… and in the intervening years we’ve seen a burgeoning area of statistical research, creating measures of quality of life, wellbeing and real job happiness.

After 25 years of experimentation in different policy arenas, workplaces and across many languages and cultures, I settled on happiness as the ultimate measure of human flourishing. I’ve spent the last 15 years focusing on happiness and I’m often asked why I favor it over satisfaction.

The question goes to the heart of a long-standing debate about measurement in wellbeing and job happiness research.  Some prefer creating an account of people’s emotional experience – which uses experience sampling to ask people how they are feeling right now. Others prefer to ask people for their evaluations of their experiences, with “job satisfaction” being a very typical way of framing these assessments. The Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has suggested that the two approaches differentiate between the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self.

The core of my interest in happiness is its energy. Few people get as animated as Mick Jagger about satisfaction, whereas happiness creates masses of positive energy within us and between us. This energy can be a force for positive change.

For the Happy Planet Index, we used measures of happiness to connect what everyone strives for in life to their use of the world’s natural resources, showing that good lives don’t have to cost the earth. It got a lot of press and attention because we framed environmental concerns in a way that really resonated with people.

In the workplace, job happiness resonates with everyone – and so unites the interests of the senior executive with the individual employee. This alignment brings the greatest opportunity for sustaining and improving work culture. The focus on feelings (happiness) rather than thoughts (satisfaction) creates a different quality of conversation – which builds emotional intelligence and performance. For example, the naming and exploration of feelings is a key skill for giving and receiving feedback at work. The way a score for happiness tunes people into positive feelings is important for an individual’s wellbeing and it can also improve team performance – especially their ability to solve problems creatively.

The thing that’s easy to forget about measurement is its influence on people. Ask people about work satisfaction and they’ll try to provide you with an answer, but they won’t get excited about your people and culture initiatives. Ask people about happiness and you get to the core of what motivates them straight away. Put a number on something as human as happiness and you encourage connection and empathy between people – and even between people and the environment! In all my years, I haven’t found a better starting place to engage people in the biggest challenges of our time.