Can Your Job Make You Happier?

A recent New York Times article addressed this question – Can your job make you more happy? – summarizing social science research findings into two responses.

(1) More money doesn’t guarantee more happiness. Increased income that provides people more creature comforts (e.g., bigger homes, nicer cars, more gadgets) does not create measurable increases in a person’s happiness. But when increased income is used to enhance certain qualities of life, it can increase reported well-being. Examples include using money to increase time with family, allow for more exercise, shrink work commutes, or increase leisure time.

(2) Non-salary factors can make people happier. Certain jobs offer more pleasant work environments than others, such as allowing more opportunities for personal development or creating better workplace safety for employees. Also, workers with higher moral satisfaction about their job and company’s mission feel more satisfied. Most people would rather do accounting for an art museum than a large petrochemical company. The downside of these two workplace upsides? Proven lower salaries.

So either money doesn’t buy happiness or happiness doesn’t make money.

The social scientist who penned the NYT article, Robert Frank, offers a potential way forward from this tension. I’d like to suggest a second.

Frank’s suggestion is for people commit to expertise in their craft. Despite the debunking of Malcom Gladwell’s “10,ooo Hour Rule,” high competence obviously requires significant time investment. Frank notes, “Becoming an expert is so challenging that you are unlikely to expend the necessary effort unless the task is one that you love for its own sake.” He further notes that greater competence creates market advantage which may lead to greater pay and/or working in those places with better non-salary perks.

In essence, bake excellently – you may be able to have your cake and happily eat it too.

There is much to commend in Frank’s answers to the opening question. But I think both his question and its answers are too limited for a Christian vision of personhood and work.

Positive psychology – a field related to Frank’s cited research – believes “that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.”1 Happiness centers upon the individual within this secular humanist framework, even when the self is fulfilled through service to others.

In a different column, Miya Tokumitsu offers a helpful (though socialist?) critique of the “do what you love” vision for work. But in a culture where truth is relative, one can simply shrug her off and claim self-definition through personal preference. And after all, we’re supposed to “clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.”

Instead, here’s my proposal: Biblical personhood centers upon a divine, relational reality. All people are made in the image of God – we reflect his likeness as creative stewards at work in his world. As creator, he defines human well-being and makes it known through wisdom and revelation. The Fall was the hope to invent some sort of happiness apart from God. Christians, then, are reunited with Christ such that their story is caught up into Christ’s redemption of all things – including their work and their well-being.

Christian calling means that our new identity radiates into our whole lives – being God’s beloved who live to love God and others. This frames life and work within a broader “happiness” than the self alone. But as Elton Trueblood noted, “though the principle of vocation teaches men to choose their work on the basis of concern rather than upon that of the personal happiness of the worker, the normal result of such choice is happiness in a high degree.”

Take Frank seriously as he reminds us that salary can’t buy happiness. But take your Christian vocation more seriously so that well-being moves from merely personal to the eternal, communal, and missional.

Bake excellently – as worship of God – and you may be able to share your cake and happily eat it too.




Featured photo by CafeCredit, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.