Happiness at wok - an interview with prof. Raj Raghunathan - Happiness Academy
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Happiness at wok - an interview with prof. Raj Raghunathan

Happiness at wok - an interview with prof. Raj Raghunathan
30 May, 2022
You are an university professor and you have decided to investigate and teach the topic of happiness at work, why you have decided to do so?

Yes, I'm in the business school, actually. And when I first started teaching happiness, it wasn't even happiness at work. And you would think that happiness at work is at least connected to business.  I was initially only talking about happiness in your personal life. And it was because I was interested in the topic, and the school allowed me to offer this course. But over the years now, I've been teaching this for about 10-12 years now, over the years, a lot of research has come out showing that happiness is not just a feel good emotion, it is also useful to be happy. Happier, people are more productive at work, happier organisations make more profits. And so that is a big reason why I teach happiness in the business school. But really, the original reason was because I was passionate about the topic.

While preparing your happiness at work course, you have done some research. Can you share with us your major findings?

Yeah, sure. So, this is not necessarily based off of my own research, but also based on the other people's research. So, I'm going to give you three very, very important findings that have come out in the happiness area that I think are very useful to remember. One of them I've already alluded to, which is that happier people are more productive at work. And what this means really is that happiness is not just a feel good emotion, it's not something that we seek only because it is nice to be happy. But also because you enjoy, and you have a higher chance of enjoying more productive and positive outcomes in your life. If you're a happier person, you're more healthy, you're more collegial, you get along better with other people, plus, you're more creative, more objective, etc. So that's one thing I wanted to share. The second thing I want to share is that happiness can actually be something that you can improve. You can increase your own happiness in your life. It's a goal that can be achieved. It's not something that is set in stone, that you're genetically born happy or unhappy, and you can't do anything about it. It's not like that. It is like intelligence, it is like skills, it is like being healthy, you can actually improve on happiness to just like these other goals. But of course, just like it is the case with the other goals, you have to be motivated. And you have to be diligent, and you have to plan and be smart about it. But if you do all of these things, you can improve. And the final thing that I want to say is that pursuing happiness and prioritising happiness is not a selfish goal. It might look like it's a selfish goal. Because you know, if you're happy, then you know you're happy. What does it mean for other people? But the reason why it's not selfish as a goal is because when you're happy, you also make other people happy, you're also more likely to be generous, you're also more likely to behave in an ethical fashion, you're also more likely to be productive, which is good for organisations, and for your co-workers. So, these are the three big findings that I want to share with you from the scientific researches.

So when we speak about personal happiness, it's clear that personnel makes it dependent on us. But when we speak about happiness at work, here comes an interesting question. It depends on the employee, or on the manager, on whom depends happiness at work, our happiness at work.  

So hopefully, I'll get to talking about something called the BAMBA model later in the interview, it is on the determinants, the five determinants of happiness, BAMBA, and I like to say that just like the there is a saying, it takes two to tango, I like to say, takes two to BAMBA. What it means is that the happiness of an employee in an organisation depends not only on the employee himself or herself, it also depends on the organisation, it also depends on the leader or the manager of the organisation. But I also like to say that you are the lead dancer in the BAMBA dance, meaning that you are more important for your own happiness, and you can do more for your own happiness than other people. And this makes sense, right? To begin with, unless you yourself want to improve your happiness, you're not going to improve and happiness. And in this sense, it's very similar to other goals. Unless you want to lose weight, you're going to lose weight, unless you want to improve in mathematics or software programming, you're not going to improve. So in that sense, it is true. It's just like other goals that you need to be motivated. You need to want to be more happy. But I think it's also important to remember that it's not just the motivational angle that makes it very clear that you are more capable of increasing your own happiness. It's also because you understand your own life circumstances better than other people do, you know you have more insight into the inner workings of your mind and so on. And this will become a little bit clearer when I talk about the BAMBA model. So for this reason to, you have a bigger impact on your own happiness and you are the lead dancer in this BAMBA dance. So just to summarise, both parties are important, but you are the more important part for your own happiness.

So let's talk about BAMBA model – which are the main ingredients of happiness at work.  

Yeah, so the BAMBA model has five letters B, A, M, B, A, and each of these five letters represent the five different things that are very important for happiness at work. And the first one is Basic needs. You're not going to be happy unless you earn a sufficiently high salary to feed yourself, feed your family, feed your children, and also have enough money left over for other things like you know, medical attention, or to maybe travel and have a little bit of a vacation every year, or pay your rent, and so on and so forth. So that's basically it's not only about money, it's also about emotions, it's also about your physical comfort, etc. But, you know, we're talking about really basic needs here. And I think that most of the people listening to the interview are going to be having jobs that pay them enough to meet basic needs, and also have sufficiently comfortable offices and there's sufficient levels of safety etc. Now, one thing that might not be there for a lot of people is kind of mental basic needs, I call them so some level of transparency, some level of communication in the organisation and trust in the organisation, some level of role clarity, what am I doing in this organisation, etc, which also I put under basic needs. Okay, that's one. The A represents Autonomy. So having some sense of freedom to do as you think is the right thing to do to achieve your goals in the organisation. But it goes beyond that. It also has to do with voice, do you feel like I have the safety, I feel safe enough to voice my true opinions in the organisation? Even if my opinions are different from other people's opinions? Right? In a meeting, for example, can I feel safe to raise my hand and say, hey, you know, I think differently about this. And also, you know, whether you're micromanaged or not by your leader, so that's also under autonomy. So do you feel like when you're given a task, you're not being constantly kind of, you know, scrutinised, and people are not constantly looking over your shoulders to see how you're doing. We don't like that, as human beings, we like to be given freedom. So that has to do with autonomy. The M, the third determinant represents Mastery. So we all have, especially people who are in the workforce, a desire to become better at what we do. We want to be more competent; we want to achieve important goals in our lives, we want to be seen as efficacious, intelligent people. And so this desire for Mastery is reflective of that underlying motivation that we all have. And if you think about something that's very, very important in this context, which is that we spend about 80,000 hours of our life in our workplace. 80,000 hours! That turns out, surprisingly, to many people, it turns out, it's double the amount of time that we spend with our own friends and family. If you take out sleep time and take out time when we are doing things on our own. It's double the amount of time that we spend with our own friends and family. So we spend a lot of time at work. And work is one place in which we are actually incentivized to become better at what we do. So it would be a huge shame if we are not progressing toward Mastery at work if we are not doing things that are increasing our skills and making us more efficacious, more competent, human beings. Anyway, so that's Mastery. The fourth determinant, the second B in the model, is Belonging. Do we have a sense of connection? We are highly social as a species. But we sometimes erroneously think that this connection, this need for connection is only important in our personal life with our own friends and family? No, that's not true. It's also important in our work life, in fact, the top line finding of Gallup, which does these huge polls around the world, from 140 countries, they've been doing it for five decades. And the top finding is that people don't leave organisations when they quit, people leave people. So people are important even in organisations and there's other findings to which showcase this so for example, you're half as likely to quit your organisation in the next year, if your best friend works for the same organisation. So friendships are very, very important in organisations. And it's not only connection with people it's also connection with the values of the organisation in regards of the kinds things that the organisation does. You need to be proud of your organisation ideally, that's when you have the highest level of belonging and of course, if you have that sense of pride and you really get along well with your coworkers, you're going to be happy. And the final determinant, the last letter is A and that represents Abundance culture. So the culture of the organisation is very important. And I characterise organisations as being on a continuum from scarcity oriented culture to abundance oriented culture. In a scarcity oriented organisation, it's a bit of a dog eat dog world, everybody feels that for me to kind of advance and be successful, other people are going to have to fail. So you know, there's only a limited amount of good stuff here in the organisation. So for me to be promoted, somebody else needs to be stagnant or even demoted. In an abundance oriented organisation, you start to feel a sense of celebrating other people's achievements, you don't feel insecure that they are progressing and they are doing well. And this is actually the most difficult in some sense thing to pull off. Because most organisations are shaped like a pyramid, there's only one place at the top that fewer and fewer places as you go up the organisation. And so the structural constraints in most organisations make it a scarcity oriented. But if a leader can come up with ways in which you can kind of mitigate that scarcity structure are the constraint and instill a sense of abundance among people, then the organisation is going to be a very happy organisation.

So it takes two to BAMBA. But realistically, can you do something in order to become happy in a  workplace where you feel unhappy and miserable?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. You can do many, many things. Like I said, you know, even though it takes tWo to BAMBA, you're the lead dancer, and so you can definitely do a lot of things in order to make yourself happy. And one of the things that I would recommend is to look at each of the five different elements that contribute to happiness, your Basic needs, your Autonomy, and so on, and ask yourself, are there things that I can do in order to improve on each of these five dimensions. So for example,

In regards to the Basic needs - let's talk about money… If you're earning a certain amount of money, and yet, it seems like that money is not enough in your life, and you're struggling to pay your bills, then some level of financial management or financial prudence comes into play there. Or maybe you're suffering from health consequences, and you are not able to do your work. For example, I'm a teacher, and it involves standing in front of a large audience or classroom and talking for sometimes long hours. And you need to have a reasonably good physical health in order to be able to do it. If you have a back pain, and I used to have a back pain, it becomes very tough. And so that meant then that I need to go to the hospital or get a physical therapy like going to the gym or doing yoga, in order to improve my back. So there's many things that you can do on Basic needs, there are similarly many things you can do on Autonomy. So for you to be granted voice in the organisation, for you to feel safe to voice your true opinions, you need to be a good communicator. And so you need to learn communication skills well. And you can certainly improve on that by taking courses for example, or reading books that are relevant to the topic. Likewise, for the Mastery, figuring out what is the area in which you want to be known as a master, it calls for some level of introspection and self awareness, and then asking your bosses or your leaders to kind of move you into a position, it's called job crafting. If you're not happy at work, because you don't like the things that you're doing at work, then maybe you need to get a move, maybe you need to go from being a software programmer to being more front facing and a salesperson, perhaps, or  whatever it is, that is aligned with your intrinsic interests, etc. And you can certainly do a lot of those things like job crafting. Likewise Belonging - for you to be feeling “I like the people I work with”, you need to be likeable to begin with, right? I mean, it is a little bit of a give and take there. And so, you need to do things that make you likeable. And likewise, Abundance. I talked about abundance culture, and there's a bunch of things that the organizations certainly can do in order to instill a sense of abundance, but you can also adopt an abundance mindset, you can operate from a sense of that, I'm going to be the sort of person who's going to be really supportive of other people, and not care so much about whether I myself get good things or not. I'm just going to be a kind, compassionate, caring, supportive co-worker. And when you do that, then you're operating from an abundance mindset, and that's going to make you happy, and not just happy. Research shows that it also increases your chance of being successful in the long run. So there's definitely a lot of things that you can do if you're unhappy at work in order to improve your happiness.

You kind of started cancelling my next question with increasing motivation and mastery, but still, is there a formula we can use to calculate how exactly happy we can be at certain work? And to decide which work to take in order to feel happiest?

Actually, I realised that I touched on partly the answer to this question and the answer to the previous question, but I can see something new here, too. So, typically, and we actually have some research on this, typically when we choose which organisation to join, and this happens every year, of course, in the business school. I mean, my students, they're graduating and they're choosing jobs. And typically, majority of them have more than one option. So what we observe is that people tend to overweight what we're going to call extrinsic yardsticks or extrinsic criteria. So, for example, what is the pay? What is the prestige? What kind of a location is this organisation? And, and so on? Okay, so, is it going to showcase me in better light, if I choose this particular organisation, versus another organisation in the eyes of other people who are evaluating me and looking at me. So, those are extrinsic. And we tend to undervalue what I'm going to call intrinsic criteria or yardstick. So intrinsic would be what is the fit between my own values and the values of the organisation? What is the culture of the organisation, is it like a fun loving organisation, for example, if you're a fun loving person. It's so important to be surrounded by people who echoed those values. And if it's not a fun loving organisation, lots of not a fun loving industry, then you're probably not going to be happier there. So the big idea here is that for you to be happy in an organisation, you need a great deal of overlap and alignment in terms of intrinsic stuff. Things like your personality, your values, and so on. And less important is things like what is the amount of pay. Of course, pay is important, up to basic needs being met. We already talked about basic needs being important, but really beyond it, your increase in pay is not going to move your happiness needle as much as these values and intrinsic things like culture fit, are going to move the needle. And so, that is the big tip that I would give here is that really deeply examine the fit between who you are and what you want out of life at a very, very fundamental level, and whether the organisation is capable of fulfilling those goals, rather than worrying about the prestige or the pay associated with the organisation.

So if I tell you the statement we work to be happy, we are happy because we work? How would you finish it or comment on it?

So of course, work makes us happy. And we get into flow states and everything. And one thing that I would add to that sentence is that you have to remember that happiness at work is going to affect, in a sense kind of pollute, the happiness in life and vice versa. So we tend to think of our life as being compartmentalised into work life and personal life. But we are one being we have one body, and we have one mind, and it is the same body that is going to work or being at home, in our personal life. And so in terms of our emotional life, there is an overflow from one to the other. And so if you continue to be miserable at work, it is going to start affecting your personal life as well. You might come back from work and shout at your dog or be irritable with your husband or wife, or children. And likewise, if you have big problems in your personal life, it is going to start affecting your productivity and your happiness at work as well. And so it's very important to remember that there are a bunch of things that you can do outside of work in order to improve your happiness at work. And it might sound like a little bit of a paradox, but yes, you can do that. So for example, if you're not really progressing toward Mastery at work, and it's frustrating, and you really haven't figured out how to solve that problem, you can at least pursue Mastery outside of work. So you can get a hobby for example, at which you're becoming increasingly better, it might be solving Sudoku or playing a game of tennis or, you know, hiking, whatever it is you can pursue Mastery outside of work, and that will start to have a positive impact on your happiness at work.

So that's how I finished that sentence.

Is it possible our work to be our purpose? There are definitely people who make their work the purpose, but what happens with us when we do it?

There's the saying that “what you do for work can be a mere job, or it could be a career”. So the difference between these two is that when it's a mere job, you're just doing it to pay your bills. When it's a career, you can actually see that it's contributing to something larger for your life or long term, you’re becoming increasingly good at doing something and it's building towards an end goal for which you want to be known in the world – for example - as you’re a really good happiness researcher. Then it becomes a career. Or, ideally, there's a third way in which you could be working, and what could be for you, and that is a calling. They use the word calling, which means that it is the one thing for which you were put on earth for. And what is the difference between a job being a career and a calling? When it's a career in my reading of it is that it is really helping you build your skills, and you are progressing toward Mastery. But when it's a calling, it's also something that you are doing in work that is contributing to other people, not just for yourself, not just improving your skills, but it's also helping you contribute to the world. It is what you want to be known for, at the level of your values, or at the level of your kind of contribution to the world, not just from the personal level of improving in terms of your skills. And when you talk about work being purposeful, or work being a purpose, that is what I'm kind of thinking of that ideally, it is purposeful in the sense that it's not just serving the purpose of helping you improve, in terms of your Mastery and skills, but it's also serving the purpose of helping you contribute in a way that uplifts other people and enhances the well being of the whole world. And if you can kind of marry those two somehow, that is not just improving your skills, but also helping the world be a better place, because of the work you do. Then life really changes, then it is no longer the case that you're doing the work in order to pay the bills, or it's a chore and you're like, dreading Monday morning and you're saying thank goodness, it's Friday. It's more the case that you're like, energised, and you feel like so pumped up, to go to work and do the things that you do at work. You're no longer really worrying about happiness at work and job satisfaction, you're really thinking about flourishing at work and thriving at work. And it becomes amazing. And I think that everybody should really aspire to be in that position where they're not only improving their skills, but also contributing to the world in which they are in ways in which they want to contribute. And of course, if you take care of those two things, then chances are very, very high that you also get to enjoy work. And you also get to exercise your skills at work. And,  you get a good amount of money paid, because you obviously are going to improve a lot when it becomes your calling.

Do you believe that every type of job, every profession, can become our calling? Or only specific professions can serve as our calling?

I do think that jobs can vary in terms of the extent to which they can be a calling. So clearly, if your job involves doing something that's harmful, - It involves, for example, producing cigarettes, which we know after a lot of research is not very good for you, then it is going to be very difficult for a lot of people to see how they are contributing in a positive way to the universe. But even then, I think that you can kind of like build the story that look, I mean, cigarettes for those who smoke and those who are addicted to it. It provides some sense of pleasure, some sense of satisfaction, and maybe you can only focus on that, but it's going to be a little bit tougher on the on the kind of skills dimension. One thing that we know is that as we become better and better at doing something, when we get into these flow states, when we lose track of time, and there is some level of creativity involved in it, at least a minimum level of creativity and some level of thinking through, etc. So what that means is if it's a completely mechanical task, so just to take an extreme, imagine that you are somebody who's just pounding nails, right one after the other on a wooden block, and that is your job. It is going to be difficult after a while to see the purpose in it. So a, I think that jobs that involve some level of complexity, it's very important for that complexity to be there where you can kind of build up your skills over time. And the kind of Mastery lies at infinity rather than anywhere closer to zero, where after some time, you know how to pound a nail, you know how to do it. And that's it - you can't really become more creative at that task. So that I think is an important thing, too. But we live in a great world right now, I feel that a lot of these kind of mechanical menial tasks are being taken up by robots, or there is a prospect of that happening in the near future. In the next 20 years or so, I think a lot of these mechanical menial tasks are going to be taken up by robots. And so now what that means is the rest of the jobs that are left over for human beings are going to be more complex, more creative. So that's my answer to that question.

And here is our last question for you. If you have to give one advice to people how to pursue their happiness at work, what it will be?

It's a great question, but there's no obviously one piece of advice, there's many pieces of advice, suggestions, etc. The one thing that I'll focus on here is the importance of upskilling. I think that the days are gone where you got a degree, like an undergraduate degree or even a master's, and then after that you started work, and then you just continue to work until you retired. Nowadays, I think that there is a huge amount of emphasis on continuing education. So even as you go through your career, usually a career lasts about 30 to 40 years, you can upskill and learn. And that's becoming very, very important, because things are changing so fast. So what are the set of skills that you can acquire, it's going to depend on your job, as you progress toward the in your career. But I would say that, in general, I think it's useful to remember that most careers can be divided into two halves, the first half is around 15-20 years, the very important set of skills you need to learn are kind of what I would call - functional skills. So it's like programming skills, if you're a programmer, or accounting skills, if you're an accountant, branding skills, if you're a marketer, and so on.. But then the second half of your career, after the first 15 – 20 years of your work, until the end of your career, the soft skills become much more important, your leadership skills become much more important.

So that means, learning how to manage people, learning how to manage yourself and your own emotions. And, figuring out what motivates you and in what kind of circumstances you bring your best etc. And kind of managing that process doesn't mean that you start focusing on those softer skills only in the second half, I think that it's very important to start, even in the first half to build on those skills, because you can't suddenly one day switch and say, Okay, from now on, I'm going to be super kind, I will build mastery over and leadership skills, and so on. So you need to start it early. So what you can do is, in the first half of a career, hopefully, you already have acquired a lot of functional skills, and you learn a lot on the job, but you're also focusing on functional skills by upskilling, in terms of taking courses or going to workshops, etc, conferences on a specific thing that you're working on. But then, slowly transition into also kind of focusing on the softer skills, and you can ask your leaders for those kinds of feedback, so how am I doing in terms of my leadership skills? How am I doing in terms of the quality of my interactions with people and the kinds of things that I say in meetings, etc. Is there any way that I can improve my communication skills, for example, things like that. Certainly I would say that by the 10th year into your career, I think it should be very, very important that you focus on this, this soft side of your growth, and maybe even consider getting an MBA, if you haven't already gotten an MBA, or maybe even considered getting a second MBA, which focuses more on these kind of softer skills. Certainly, I think that you should be definitely taking courses on specific things that you can improve on, like mastery of your time, time management skills, or getting things done; negotiation skills or specific leadership skills, like for example, being an empathetic leader or a servant leader, building resilience, happiness, etc. Improving your own happiness. All those become very, very important. The second, but the big answer is: upskill yourself, think about a world in which there's no terminal degrees anymore, you got to kind of continue to get better and better at what you do. And there's lots of opportunities nowadays to do that. And these are very interesting opportunities to just don't think of it as a chore,”Oh, my goodness, I have to do this”. But think of it as a exciting thing, because they're very interesting. A lot of these courses that are available online.

You can watch the interview video recording here.
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