Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume XXIX Number 2
Spring 2007

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Janet Near
Janet Near
Photo © 2007 Tyagan Miller

Can't Get No Satisfaction? Don't Blame Your Job

by Jeremy Shere

Janet Near spends a lot of time thinking about work. And not just her own. As holder of the Dale Coleman Chair of management and a professor of organizational theory at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business in Bloomington, Near studies work generally, and what satisfaction on the job has to do with overall happiness. What she's found may seem surprising, or even just plain wrong.

"For Americans, job satisfaction does not have nearly as much influence on overall happiness as we tend to assume it does," says Near, an energetic woman in her mid-50s who has published widely on work-life balance. "Compared to everything else that affects how satisfied we feel about our lives, like family, relationships, health and so on, work turns out to play a pretty small part--maybe 3 percent of the whole."

America is, according to a recent study, a veritable nation of workaholics; we spend around 50 percent more time on the job than most Europeans. So how is it possible that the thing we spend the most time doing doesn't have the largest influence on how satisfied we feel?

"It's not that being happy at work doesn't matter," Near says. "The fact is, the majority of Americans consider themselves to be pretty happy in general and expect that their jobs will basically satisfy their needs and expectations."

So job satisfaction is a part of the happiness equation, Near explains, just not in the way we often think it is. Instead of the actual particulars of the job determining satisfaction, we tend to come with a presumption that the job will satisfy, and so, more often than not, it does.

The Spillover Myth

The biggest assumption about work-life balance is that there is considerable "spillover" from our working lives to our nonworking lives. Researchers and work-life experts have long imagined the work "domain" as a sort of blunt-force instrument able to intrude at will into the nonwork arena and throw its weight around. A lousy day at work, the thinking goes, can ruin your entire day. So being consistently unhappy at work should color every other part of your life with shades of gloom.

The Internet is rife with Web sites hawking work-life balance books and CDs. Many corporations offer programs for employees to help achieve a healthy balance of life and work. The Web sites, books, and programs are all based on the idea that work-life imbalance--when too much or too intense work disrupts your life--is harmful. The Wall Street Journal's take is telling. Online work columnist Barbara Moses advises, "Be bold. Assert your right to feel good about your work. The price you pay for ignoring this right--low self-esteem, depression, and weakened health, not to mention a devastating impact on important relationships--is too high."

Feeling good about work is a right. Failing to achieve happiness at work will ruin your personal life and your well-being. Most of us can probably recall moments or long stretches of jobs gone wrong that did indeed spill over in a big way, flooding every corner of existence. Getting chewed out by the boss, being passed over for a long-sought promotion, being downsized … how could these not ruin your day, your week, entire years at a time?

They can, Near acknowledges, and they do. But not for most of us, most of the time. In a recent paper ("Spillover Between Work Attitudes and Overall Life Attitudes: Myth or Reality?"), Near and co-author Joseph C. Rode--now a professor at Miami University of Ohio--analyzed two large datasets measuring work and life satisfaction among U.S. workers. Near argues that while spillover isn't exactly a myth, researchers have overestimated its reach. In fact, Near writes, "job attitudes and life attitudes are weakly related, whether measured concurrently or over time."

An Inexact Science

So why does the idea persist that being satisfied with what we do to earn a living plays such a central role in our overall sense of well-being, when the statistical evidence doesn't support it?

"It might be because those who perpetuate the idea--academics and self-help gurus and the like--are people who invest more of themselves in what they do than the average American worker," Near speculates. "I studied Indiana University professors, for example, and the percentage that work matters in their overall satisfaction is about double that of the average American. Same goes for small-business owners and other people whose professions exist within a culture that promotes the idea that your job defines you."

Near is the first to admit that her study, indeed all studies that purport to figure the work-life-happiness calculus, are inherently flawed. For one thing, they assume the existence of that mythical being, the "average American worker." Macro-level studies, Near concedes, produce only a rough estimate of what a statistically significant number of American workers were willing to claim on a survey. When you tunnel down to the level of the individual worker, the picture becomes at once more precise and less cohesive. Within a given workplace, there will always be a wide range of attitudes and expectations about how work and life mesh. You might seethe well into the night about the incompetence of your colleagues and act badly toward your children as a result, while your neighbor in the next cubicle seems able to wall off what happens at work from the rest of life without a thought. (Although it's impossible for you, or for researchers, to know this with certainty.)

Plus, Near says, an individual's attitude toward work can change over time. "When I started in grad school, I couldn't fathom why job satisfaction wasn't more important to people, probably because I did not yet have kids," she says. "But as I aged, I understood better why health is one of the major predictors of life satisfaction."

For the most part, researchers have to make do with broad, general surveys when it comes to studying topics such as the work-happiness equation. And, to be sure, such studies do reveal something about a moment in cultural time. While it's true that general surveys don't reveal much about what's going on inside the head of the guy at work who rides the elevator with you every day but never speaks, it's also true that you and that guy and everyone else in your office and in offices and workplaces across the United States share attitudes about work and happiness that are shaped by cultural trends, trends that can differ in interesting ways from country to country.

"Americans tend to be a pretty happy, optimistic bunch. According to the research, around 80 percent of us will give 4.5 on a 5 point scale for job satisfaction," Near says. "But Japanese workers, for example, typically register a full point lower on the scale, even though for the Japanese, work attitudes tend to play a larger role in life satisfaction. This could be because Japanese culture is less happy-go-lucky than American culture. Americans are more likely than not to believe that their lives and jobs are basically fine. In Japan, talking about one's job in such a positive light is considered a form of bragging."

In some ways, Near says, job satisfaction is a matter of expectations. "If you go into a job with fairly low expectations or even fairly realistic expectations about how fulfilling it will be, you're bound to be more or less satisfied with your work life and learn to derive personal fulfillment from other things," she says. "If you have high expectations for job fulfillment, then most people figure out a way to make that a reality, too. whether you're happy or not, overall, is another matter."

Born Happy

If job satisfaction isn't the key to happiness, what is? Health and personal relationships matter, according to most studies. What about intelligence? Near has studied the relationship of happiness and IQ and what psychologists call "emotional intelligence."

"There is virtually no relationship," she says. "My hypothesis was that the higher your IQ, the lower your job and life satisfaction would be because you'd have grander expectations about work. But that's not the case. We know that IQ does predict success on the job, but it's more of a matching issue. People tend to pick jobs that fit their IQ, so job satisfaction becomes a moot point. Most people will be happy most of the time at work."

As for what accounts for happiness generally, the only certain answer is that there is no answer--no sure-fire, magic formula for achieving a widespread, long-lasting sense of satisfaction. Some psychologists, Near explains, argue that life depends largely on your personality. Around 50 percent of personality is shaped by outside forces such as your family, where you live, how much education you have, and so on, while the other 50 percent is a matter of brain circuitry, DNA, and other things and processes that we're not yet aware of or don't understand. Following this line of thought, then, due to a virtually countless number of known and unknown variables, it's likely that someone who is satisfied as a baby is going to be satisfied at 50. Some people, in other words, are simply born happy.

"You can argue that one common denominator when it comes to happiness is self-knowledge, having insight into what kind of person you are, your strengths and weaknesses, and making life choices that fit your personality," Near says. "Then again, you could also argue that lacking self-knowledge is more conducive to happiness because you make choices based on instinct."

All of which leaves CEOs, vice presidents, and other managerial types in the dark when it comes to trying to maximize productivity by increasing worker satisfaction.

"Many companies tend to think in terms of what they can do to make their employees feel good about what they do and where they're doing it," Near says. "And things like day-care facilities, benefits packages, or free soda in the break room may foster positive attitudes, but this doesn't necessarily translate into greater productivity."

Sometimes, Near says, fear is more conducive to productivity than positive feelings. Once you begin looking at employees as individuals, there's really no telling what motivates one person but not another. Some employees thrive under stress, some wilt.

"The most important idea for any CEO is that every employee is going to be different in terms of work-life needs, so flexibility is the key," she says. "A variety of benefits plans to choose from, support for employees as they have kids and as they age, and understanding that no one approach will work for everyone. That's the best they can do."

Jeremy Shere is a freelance writer based in Bloomington, Ind.