Avery Bang stands in the middle of nowhere, in one of the world’s poorest countries. Sweaty and disheveled, with holes torn in her jeans and dirt smeared on her T-shirt, she’s bone-weary from hauling heavy wooden beams and buckets of mud. Yet, a triumphant expression gleams in her eyes and a satisfied smile stretches across her face.
In this rural part of Ethiopia, Bang, 07BA, 07BSE, has just helped construct a sturdy bridge over a river chasm that separates villagers from a myriad of life-enhancing and life-saving opportunities. As executive director of the nonprofit Bridges to Prosperity, 28-year-old Bang has traveled to about 30 countries and built 100 vital connections to education, commerce, and health care.
It’s not easy work—physical and technical challenges abound, let alone the dangers and hardships of visiting remote areas in developing countries. Recently honored as one of America’s up-and-coming young civil engineers, Bang could easily find a cushier and more lucrative job in a traditional engineering firm in the U.S. She’s not interested, explaining: "I do what I love and love what I do."
Bang is the perfect poster child for a University of Iowa course that aims to help students carve their own path in the modern career world, bridging the gap between the sometimes conflicting desires of their heads and their hearts. Today’s students graduate with more debt than ever before; they enter a stagnant job market with scant opportunities; and, with retirement an increasingly expensive option, they’re likely to spend more years at work than previous generations. Yet, they’re venturing out into an uncertain world where, as starkly highlighted by the recent global financial crises, many of the old systems like "work to consume" seem bankrupt and unsustainable. As a result, many people are trying to redefine life and work in the 21st century.
Newsweek dubbed these 18-35-year-olds "Generation Screwed"—and it’s no wonder that many feel pressured to take the safe route and seek a stable, well-paying job. Instead, UI lecturer David Gould, 92MA, encourages them to pursue their passions. "Find what makes you happy," he says. "Find a deeper way of living— a good life."
In his Life Design course, Gould tells students that there’s nothing wrong with practical majors like business or engineering—as long as that’s what they really want to do, and they’re not swayed by the prospect of a safe job with a big dollar sign. Money isn’t everything, he tells them, citing research showing that— after basic needs have been met—economic success adds little depth to life.
"I encourage students to carefully consider what they invest their time and care in," he says. "We live in a state of ambiguity with no idea where the next twist or turn of the river of life will take us. That can either scare you into staying in a safe place, or it can inspire you to look at life as an adventure."
This basic premise applies to everyone, not just UI students. No matter your age or position on the career ladder, the emotional and physical benefits of being happy in your job make good sense. Centuries ago, philosopher Aristotle defined happiness as eudaimonia or "human flourishing"—a far deeper concept than simple or fleeting pleasure. Gould’s Life Design course shares similar theories by modern researchers in areas like positive psychology, the slow movement, and the economics of happiness.
Students read books by best-selling authors such as Juliet Schor, cofounder of the Center for a New American Dream, which "envisions a society that pursues not just ‘more,’ but more of what matters—and less of what doesn’t." Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, tells them about "the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world," while positive psychology guru Martin Seligman recommends they identify their signature strengths and work for a cause greater than self.
Putting passion to work
At the heart of all these notions lies the concept that people work better when they are intrinsically motivated by finding meaning or purpose in their efforts. Bang first identified her signature strengths while a young girl; instead of dressing up Barbie dolls for imaginary tea parties, she emulated her engineer father by building bridges out of Lego. Now, working in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, she’s seen the real suffering that arises when people lack access to the basic amenities that most Americans take for granted. Describing such access as a fundamental human right, she admits that she’s passionate about a cause so close to her heart.
"When you hold a child from one of these areas in your arms, it suddenly becomes real," she says. "If I weren’t working to [help solve these problems], I couldn’t have an optimistic outlook on life. I’m lucky to be part of something that’s bigger than me."
Despite Bang’s inspirational story and "crazy, exciting" career, it’s easy to dismiss "follow-your-heart" advice as naive and impractical. Gould insists that happiness isn’t a shield against adversity—and pursuing a dream isn’t easy. People who take the road less-traveled run into the same everyday setbacks and challenges as everyone else, but they overcome obstacles with the help of their commitment and perseverance.
Although there are no guarantees of happy endings, Gould insists that dreams justify the risk. He’s certainly suffered his share of lousy jobs, including the stint as a hotel worker where he took room service to a former high-school sweetheart on her honeymoon. But, when he trusted his instincts and stayed the course, doors began to open and mentors appeared.
Now a lecturer in the UI Leisure Studies Program, Gould has won an outstanding teaching award and has twice been named by graduating seniors as one of the top faculty and staff members to have a positive effect on their lives. He’s also associate director for student development in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences—and a successful documentary filmmaker, whose projects have taken him around the globe and to meet the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu.
The bottom-line on happiness
Today, even traditional career paths hold out the prospect of personal growth and well-being for employees, thanks to an increasing number of progressive companies that have built unconventional yet extremely successful corporate cultures. Earlier this year, the Harvard Business Review devoted an issue to the concept of happiness in the workplace. Under the cover line "The Value of Happiness: How Employee Well-Being Drives Profits," a bright yellow smiley-face graphic brandished dollar signs at each end of the grinning mouth.
In that issue, leading researcher Shawn Achor shared the secrets of the wildly popular "happiness course" he taught for years at Harvard and has since adapted for numerous Fortune 500 companies. Refuting the long-held belief that success precedes happiness, Achor shows how the principles of positive psychology can retrain mental habits and outlook, thus creating the conditions for flourishing in any job.
Citing a 2010 poll revealing unhappiness among 45 percent of workers, the lowest in 22 years of polling, Achor maintains that happiness is a work ethic that can be learned and practiced every day. "[C]ultivating positive brains makes us more motivated, efficient, resilient, creative, and productive," he tells readers of his bestselling book, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. "Happiness is not about lying to ourselves, or turning a blind eye to the negative, but about adjusting our brains so that we see the ways to rise above our circumstances."
Thanks to the work of researchers like Achor, more organizations now realize that happy employees create happy customers, perform better, take fewer sick days, tend not to quit, and resist burnout. That’s why Google—the recipient of numerous "best companies to work for" awards—offers staffers free meals in a gourmet cafeteria, provides on-site doctors, gyms, and bowling alleys, and allows employees to bring their pets to work. The company even stresses that "being yourself is a job requirement."
Similarly, Internet retail giant Zappos is no ordinary cubicle farm where phone operators slog away in 24/7 shifts, reciting customer service scripts into their headsets. Here, balloons and streamers dangle from the office ceiling; personal mementos and wacky decorations, like the fake grave signs in the night-shift area, infuse a fun, casual vibe. One cubicle belongs to Tony Hsieh, CEO of the billion-dollar enterprise that he describes in a book called Delivering Happiness. Instead of working from a luxurious corner office, Hsieh—a guest speaker at the UI Life Design course—rubs shoulders with other team members.
In fact, Zappos claims its team is more of a family, one that embraces core values such as being passionate, humble, adventurous, and open to change. Core value No. 3—"Create fun and a little weirdness"—works because employees are more engaged in the work they do, and the company as a whole becomes more innovative. As the Zappos website explains, "When you combine a little weirdness with making sure everyone is also having fun at work, it ends up being a win-win for everyone."
How well positive psychology approaches succeed depends a great deal on the employees and their work, cautions Amy Colbert, 04PhD, associate professor of management and organizations at the UI Tippie College of Business. Organizations where workers have less autonomy—like on a production line where they’re told exactly how to perform a task—won’t reap as many benefits, she says, but "businesses that want their employees to be proactive, creative, take ownership, and come up with new ideas will see productivity gains. However, even on a production line, employees may feel more committed and be less likely to leave when organizations treat them well."
Fortunately, those kinds of proactive jobs are growing in today’s economy, where manufacturing gives way to customer service positions and "knowledge workers" (people like scientists, software engineers, and writers who "think for a living").
Change your perspective
What if you aren’t yet following your dream job? Or you’re working in what Colbert calls "motivational wastelands"? Or perhaps your personal happiness takes second place behind providing for your family. The good news is that research suggests we’re responsible for about 40 percent of our happiness; only 10 percent is determined by life circumstances like a crummy job. (The other 50 percent is thought to be derived genetically, although research indicates that even this baseline can be modified upwards.)
Four basic motivational principles affect our sense of happiness at work: competency (how well we do our jobs); autonomy (how much say we have in our work); a sense of purpose (beyond a paycheck); and a feeling of connectedness (to the overall organization or people within it). Even small improvements in any of these areas can help make uninspiring work more bearable. Achor notes that even routine tasks "can be meaningful if you find a good reason to be invested. You feel productive at the end of the day. You showed people you were smart or efficient. You made life easier for a client or customer. You improved your skill set."
To help her business students see the possibilities, Colbert asks them to name their worst job ever. Typically, they mention corn-detasseling. Even the best detasselers reach a limit in their "mastery" of the basic task, and there’s not much autonomy in a cornfield where even bathroom breaks are scheduled. A truly motivational leader reframes the sense of purpose—"we’re helping feed the world!"— but such inspiration only goes so far on a 100-degree, humid Iowa day.
The principle that remains—and perhaps the easiest for people in any job to adapt—is a sense of connectedness. Colbert’s students often realized that they were able to cope with the brutal, boring job of detasseling because they worked alongside friends. Even if you hate your work, you can love your co-workers.
In other words, if you can’t change your job, change your perspective. California-based psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky also recommends conscious choices and activities like exercising compassion, staying connected to a strong social network, ignoring negative thoughts, and finding activities outside work that provide engagement and personal growth.
It’s also possible to redefine your lifestyle. According to leading positive psychology researcher Ed "Dr. Happiness" Diener, "Over the past 50 years, income has climbed steadily in the United States, with the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita tripling, and yet life satisfaction has been virtually flat." Purchases like a new car, a boat, or a bigger house only provide a temporary mood boost; that’s why experts recommend spending money on experiences—like a vacation or a meal with friends and family—rather than material possessions.
While numbers are difficult to track, it appears that an increasing number of Americans are choosing to "downshift" or adopt a simpler, slower life—one with less stuff and more substance. They’ve cut their work hours to spend more time with their families, offsetting their reduced income with fewer purchases of consumer goods or services.
Even the federal government seems to think it might be time to reassess priorities. In a speech this past August to the International Association for Research in Income and Wealth, Ben Bernanke, chair of the Federal Reserve, spoke about the importance of happiness beyond material wealth. Stating the need for "better and more-direct measurements of economic wellbeing," he pointed to the example of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan’s Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH) index.
The desire to figure out a better way to keep score of success isn’t exactly new. David Gould shares with his students a speech that Robert Kennedy gave in 1968. "We will find neither national purpose nor personal satisfaction in a mere continuation of economic progress, in an endless amassing of worldly goods…," said Kennedy. "Gross National Product measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."