Meaningful work as a key to happiness

Amy Wrzesniewski organizational psychologist, professor at Yale was awarded the Herbert Simon Prize of 2018 by the Rajk College of Advanced Studies. After the award ceremony, she held a formal lecture in the Assembly Hall of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in which she talked about the relationship between job, career and calling as well as the importance of how we interpret work. How does meaningful work lead to happiness? How do career decisions shape us and how can we shape our own work? These are some of the questions she attempted to answer on the basis of her previous research.

Amy Wrzesniewski is professor at the Yale School of Management. In recent years she achieved major results in the areas of how people perceive work, and how they shape their work identity. She studied how people experience their work amidst various challenging circumstances, like in the case of stigmatized occupations and virtual work. What makes her research findings even more valuable is that they can be applied to running an organization or to one’s own work. Her research gives us guidance on how we could shape our working conditions in order to feel better and to be more productive or what we can do to that effect as managers.

The Herbert Simon Prize that was founded in 2004 is awarded by the students of the Rajk College of Advanced Studies to academics who made an outstanding contribution to resolving business issues or have an exceptional impact on the thinking and professional development of the College members. Owing to the annually granted award, recognized researchers and professors of foreign business schools have visited Hungary. Last year Sinan Aral professor at MIT, before him Jeffrey Pfeffer and Eric Brynjolfsson were awarded.

This year the members of the College of Advanced Studies compiled a volume of studies entitled “The Path to Happiness: Amy Wrzesniewski’s work in a Hungarian mirror” that summarizes the most essential thoughts of the awardee. The aim was to make available the outstanding research findings to a broader readership in Hungarian. The first essay in the volume summarizes Professor Wrzesniewski’s work, with further papers presenting selected pieces of practical research. During their own analyses, the college members examined the key concepts and models conceived by the awardee in the context of Hungarian organizations.

In her lecture, Amy Wrzesniewski drew attention to the fact that work occupied a very important position in most people’s life and psyche. It is therefore reasonable to begin searching for happiness by examining our relationship with work. Her research enables us to distinguish between three types of individuals: while some people look upon their work as job, others consider it as career, still others view it as calling. In this context job refers to the function of work ensuring a living; career highlights its function supporting development, promotion; calling grasps the intrinsic value of work, the opportunity it offers for personal fulfilment.

In the professor’s view cultivating positive meaning in work, that is finding meaning in work is usually linked to four factors. Our experience of work is influenced by our self-image, our values, beliefs and motivations. Others, our co-workers, leaders also affect us, just as the organizational context, the organizational culture and the narratives and interpretations offered by the broader social environment. Last but not least, there is the spiritual factor. Objectives, truths and values transcending us also contribute to find calling at work.

Each of the three attitudes to work affect our behaviour, aims and performance in a different way, which in turn have an impact on how successful we are. Research conducted by Professor Wrzesniewski also revealed that older age, higher income and a higher level of education positively correlate with coming to see our work as calling. In her lecture she also stressed that we ourselves could help achieve this through job crafting. Job crafting means that workers themselves are able to adjust and frame their job. They are able to redesign their tasks by performing tasks that are not included in their duties. In a video a patient transporter of a US hospital talked about why he started singing to patients. It was in order to lift their spirits.

Job crafting is also possible through altering interactions with others to get more embedded in the organizational social network. Reframing the concept of work is also an option, which involves changing the cognitive perception of what work is about, what is its purpose, social benefit and significance. While the outcome of job crafting is bound to have a positive impact on the worker, it is not unambiguously good or bad for organizations. Redefined tasks should remain in line with the objectives and operational procedures of the organization.

The significance of Professor Wrzesniewski’s findings is that they direct workers’ and leaders’ attention to their responsibility in how they experience work and to the fact that they can actively engage to improve this experience. Job crafting is teachable and research shows that the performance, commitment and satisfaction of employees who have taken part in such trainings increases both in the short and in the long run. Therefore finding calling in our work – and thereby the key to happiness – is in our hands.

Corvinus Kiosk attended the Press Breakfast arranged on the occasion to Amy Wrzesniewski’s visit. During this event, the Professor from Yale University replied to questions from participants in a more informal way.

How do you think the fact that today freelance, less constrained work attracts many people may affect workers?
Recently I have been thinking a lot about that. If we take, for instance, journalists and we compare the employees and freelancers of the same media outlet, analyses show that those with the editorial office to back them could cope better when they had a bad day. For freelancers, if things don’t work out, they tend to blame themselves in the absence of the psychological protection of the institution. At the same time, personalized work is crucial, the degree of which shows different patterns for the two types of work.

And what happens if the very place of the work becomes virtual? How do workers and companies handle opportunities offered by home office?
We examined the effect of shared offices, home office or the mix of the two (e.g. coffee shop) with colleagues a few years ago. Companies are usually afraid that if workers are not under their eyes, they will walk the dog and watch TV, that is do everything but work. It really depends on how responsible the worker is. Our research found that individuals who are allowed to do remote work are especially grateful to their employers, which is also demonstrated in the quality of their work. Persons working from home often spend more time working and choose to handle the delicate boundary separating work from private life. There is no-one to take over if their working hours expire. They still have to send an e-mail or respond to one when they are already with their family. For them, these are the real challenges.



Máté Baksa