Work, Life and the Elusive Pursuit of Happiness
As we have waved goodbye to 2020, one of the most challenging years in recent memory for many of us, it’s only natural that we start to think about the future. While the world may not have returned to what we previously considered ‘normal’ – and maybe never will – we all have decisions to make.
Perhaps the biggest consideration of all is that of happiness and contentment, on personal and professional levels alike. This is a key area of interest of Jürgen Müller, a Partner at PwC in Switzerland – as well as a TEDx speaker and expert in happiness. If you’re a French speaker, you can watch Jürgen’s TEDx Talk here.
I have long been interested in Jürgen due to his resilience and compassion. Overcoming a challenging family situation in Germany, Jürgen has grown to become an insightful and authentic leader with a passion for listening to colleagues and asking thought-provoking questions that break down the barriers of conversation.
Jürgen achieved the role of partner at PwC in 2005, which for many would be the crowning achievement of a career. Jürgen is interested in more than mere status, however. He considers a corner office on the highest floor of a building meaningless without personal happiness. In his Tedx Talk, Jürgen refers to himself as a, “workplace zombie” at this point, dedicating his entire existence to his career with no respite from calls or emails.
As Jürgen values happiness and quality of life, he decided this was not sustainable. As a result, he made a conscious choice to rediscover the joy in his life and work. In Jürgen’s case, this involved finding a way to disconnect – for which he used the art of mindfulness.
This is not necessarily the solution for everybody, though. While some of us find solace in such spiritual activity, for others it feels impossible. That’s completely understandable. We all have our ways to achieve mental peace. What is important, though, is finding a way to disconnect from external overstimulation and give our brain a break to reconnect with who we are really. Observe our emotions and identify which external factors are making us to react that way is a fundamental step to different life experiences.
This involves trying to be present in the moment, not allowing concerns over the past or future to cloud the simple pleasures of living. This is especially important for working women, who are believed to spend considerably more time worrying than their male counterparts. After all, what is life but a series of moments that flow together?
Happiness is a topic that is discussed more than it is understood. Many people still equate happiness with material acquisitions, which is an unhelpful way of assessing contentment. One of Jürgen Müller’s mottos is, “make sure the people around you are rich” – but he is referring to spreading happiness and contentment here, not financial wealth. Jürgen subscribes to the theory, “be a giver, not a taker.” I don’t know about you, but that is certainly a message that I can get behind.
Something that comes to mind when I consider this is the art of the workplace social event. You could be forgiven for forgetting what these actually are in the age of COVID, when a communal Zoom call counts as a get-together. All the same, in the past, many businesses would equate staff happiness with social occasions after hours. Place a company credit card behind the bar, leave people to talk among themselves, stand back and admire the happiness that is spreading throughout your team as a result of such generosity.
Enforcing interaction beyond contracted working hours can spread joy and happiness for some people but not for others and can have the opposite impact, despite the positive objective. This is true for people finding happiness in moments of calm, peace and freedom. Some prefer a family evening or being with close friends over being forced to socialise with colleagues, especially those with small children at home. This can cause avoidable frustration.
Jürgen has also observed a changing dynamic in the next generation of employees. Where graduates would formerly enter the corporate world with a glint in their eye and a determination to change the world, for a long time they could become quickly be absorbed by the corporate life and then falling into this, “workplace zombie” trap and living for their next salary increase, bonus or promotion. Jürgen observes a trend to increasing awareness that there is more to life than material things only.
Many studies show that as of a certain income level an additional increase doesn’t positively impact your happiness level anymore. More money and more responsibility can easily eat into the time that you have freely available at hand for the life that you want to live. So, we could conclude that it remains critical that we all run our lives, instead our lives running us. Keep time in your hand to do more of the things that make YOU happy!
It’s these little things that make all the difference. Too many of us associate happiness with one large-scale event, rather than a series of small moments. A long summer vacation in the sun is great, but is it worth sacrificing balance and shorter holidays throughout the remainder of your year to ensure you have the time for such a break?
This all suggests that we could be better off re-aligning our baseline for contentment to maintain happiness. Regular, small positive experiences make this likelier than pinning all our hopes on one major event. This prevents us from forever exhausting ourselves on the hedonic treadmill.
Finally, Jürgen touched upon the importance of gratitude. As humans, we are hardwired to constantly wonder, “what if” – and that’s a rapid path to worry. Instead, we should focus on what we are grateful for and celebrate our victories, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential. Balance the constant assessment of what’s next with what has been done. We all need to be reminded of how much effort we’re putting in.
Of course, it remains important to be realistic in our expectations. Constant, unrelenting happiness is an impossible dream, and not one that workplaces should be attempting to push on employees. After all, without the possible lows, we’ll never truly appreciate the highs. By acknowledging what does make us happy, however, and showing gratitude for it, we are likelier to return to that well more often.
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